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Diary of an Ad Man

Howard Cogan, the creator of Ad Lab at IC, has been in the advertising business more than 50 years.

Howard Cogan, who last year marked 50 years in the advertising business, moved to Ithaca with his family at age six. Now 77, he has helped thousands of others fall in love with Ithaca as he does. He has written some of the most well-known slogans in the city’s history, including the bumper-sticker favorite “Ithaca Is Gorges.” He has been a large presence at Ithaca College and Cornell University and in the town’s civic and business life.

After getting his bachelor’s degree from Cornell in 1950, Cogan opened a shoe store in Cortland and, he laughs, “ran it into the ground.” Deciding he could market a retail business better than he could run one, he and his wife, Helen, opened Cogan and Associates, an advertising agency in downtown Ithaca. Advertising brought the promise of constant change: “Every day is different,” Cogan says. He secured 40 clients in three days, offering to take care of all their advertising needs for $25 per month—enough for the rent, a secretary, and food on the table. Later he would work with up to 70 clients at a time. Today, as he transitions to retirement, his business still has six to eight local clients.

In 1958 Cogan ventured into the newspaper world, publishing the Town Crier, Ithaca’s first weekly shopper-style paper, from his basement for 11 years. “When an intersection needed a light,” says his son Michael, “Dad would write about it in hopes that it would be dealt with by town officials. He never backed off about what was important to him, and he affected real changes.”

Cogan returned to Cornell for a master’s degree, graduating in 1980 along with Michael—the first father and son in Cornell history to receive degrees simultaneously.

In 1981 Cogan began teaching advertising and public relations at Ithaca College. His most visible accomplishment was the creation of Ad Lab, a class in which students produce an ad campaign and then enter it in an annual national contest. IC teams have won regional Ad Lab titles seven times (including for their Yahoo! account work last year), and the national title, under Cogan, in 1993. “Ad Lab has a dual benefit,” points out Thomas Bohn, former dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications. “It’s a wonderful learning lab, and it succeeded in getting Ithaca College and the Park School known across the country.”

Former Ad Lab student Christina Murray Croll ’93 says that Cogan taught by example, not lecture. “He taught that integrity is more important than winning,” she says, “and that work is not as important as relationships with friends and family, and a good night’s sleep.”

When he retired from IC in 1997 many of his former students and colleagues created the Howard and Helen Cogan Ad Lab Endowment Fund, to which people continue to contribute and which provides books, research, and travel monies to the Ad Lab teams. In 1999 Cogan was recognized nationally with the American Advertising Federation’s Distinguished Advertising Educator Award.

The greatest honor may be the esteem in which Cogan is held by so many. “We all wish we had Howard Cogan in our back pocket,” says his former student Croll, “to cheer us on through difficult times. Some of us, like me, are lucky to still count him amongst our closest friends and advisers.”

—Jill Raygor with M. Tye Wolfe and Liz Kowalski ’05

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the Ithaca Times. It is used here with permission.


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