How Jerry Berger Rocket-Boosted My Career

Copywriter Walt Jaschek remembers St. Louis Post-Dispatch ad columnist Jerry Berger, and being lifted from obscurity by the reporter’s generous coverage.

Certain graces boost us in our careers, inadvertently or otherwise.

In my career, one of those graces was named Jerry.

Newspaper writer Jerry Berger (1933-2021) was on the advertising and marketing beat for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1980s and 1990s. He wrote a hefty weekly column on the St. Louis ad biz, and probably hundreds of stand-alone articles on the region’s agencies, clients, campaigns, hires, wins and losses. This is also the era when I, in my early 30s, left corporate life and opened my own freelance ad agency, soon teaming with college buddy and producer Paul Fey as Paul & Walt Worldwide.

In those days, I came to talk to Jerry Berger frequently. That’s because he called me frequently.

It all started when I had an extraordinary bit of luck my first year in business, unexpectedly winning big at the 1989 St. Louis Addy Awards, the ad biz competition. I didn’t know Jerry then – we hadn’t yet met – but morning after the Feb. 16 gala, I woke up to this article on the Post’s business page, and a lot of phone calls because of it.

A few days later, much of the same info was included in Jerry’s regular Monday “Advertising/Marketing” column, including a pic of me with some Ad Club executives Roy Saunders, Glennon Jamboretz and Bill Metzer.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1989

Here’s a closer look of that photo: it includes 33-year-old me with a deer-in-the-headlights expression, trying to keep it cool among industry luminaries. I didn’t know what was about to hit me. (Genuinely didn’t know: the club hinted that I needed to be at the event, but didn’t tell me I would have to improvise thank-you remarks before that crowd of 1400.) (But I did.)

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1989

Shortly after this blitz of publicity about my bizarre Addy luck, including articles in Adweek, The St. Louis Business Journal and elsewhere, Jerry seemed to designate me continually newsworthy. In March, 1989, he phoned me from the Post-Dispatch newsroom and asked me to come down so we could meet face-to-face. Though on a deadline, I knew I couldn’t resist making that connection. I zipped from my “South Side shop” (a basement in a house in the city’s Clifton Heights neighborhood) to the PD. He greeted me at his office, sizing me up. “You’re just a pup!,” he said. He had about 20 years on me, I guess.

But we hit it off, and soon, I was in his rolodex as a source. A few weeks later, as one of my comic book stories was being published in a Marvel Comics humor book, I woke up to this lede on his Saturday “gossip” column – which appeared in addition to all his other columns. Prolific, thy name was Jerry.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 22, 1989

I think now of Steve Martin in The Jerk when the new phone book arrives. Flipping through the pages, Steve’s character assures himself, “This is the kind of publicity that can make or break a person.” That morning, truth to tell, I was a little embarrassed. My feature in What Th–? wasn’t breaking news. But I soon relaxed into the flow of being a source and tried to stay cool when Jerry would call out of the blue looking for something worthy of a few column inches. I attempted to be immediately interesting, not always easy. (“What AM I working on?,” I would think.) I could hear Jerry typing as I talked. That’s how it was done; it’s how he generated so much content. In April, 1989, I was (evidently) working on spots for “Wheel of Fortune.”

St. Louis Post Dispatch, April 24, 1989

Jerry also had a “Radio Talk” column for the Post-Dispatch, focusing on just that medium. (The fact that radio was a big enough deal to get its own coverage is very impressive, in retrospect.) In March, 1990, there was a big story for St. Louis radio: storied KMOX leader Robert Hyland was being honored as media person of the year by the Press Club of Metropolitan St. Louis. About Hyland, Jerry cheekily wrote:

How about an award, too, as self-marketer of the century? Let’s face it – ask 10 people on the streets of Manhattan to identify Laurence Tisch and maybe one will connect him with CBS. … Ask 10 people on the streets of St. Louis to identify Hyland, and at least nine will associate him in some way or another with KMOX radio…”

Jerry Berger

But who did Jerry call to fill out the column on this radio industry legend? The “pup” in his “South Side shop!”

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 1, 1990

What a lucky dog I was. I knew it then, I know it now. Small businesses and start-ups hunger for publicity; now they flood social, but before the internet, they sent out voluminous press releases, hoping to snag an editor’s eye for an iota of coverage. Me? I just had to sit near the phone.

By 1991, thanks to Paul’s great relationship with the CBS television network and his ongoing, successful work for them, we together were producing national radio campaigns for its prime-time line-up. Paul was in Hollywood, working closely with the network’s promo department, but I was still in my basement on the “South Side” on St. Louis, faxing in scripts daily. Every once in a while we would head off together, as in June of that year, when we were in person at the CBS affiliate meeting. Just before I left for Lambert, Jerry Berger called. And the next morning, this led the column.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June, 1991

CBS ad campaigns like this resulted from meetings like that.

This miracle of many mentions continued until Jerry retired later in the 90s, and his advertising and marketing column was handed off to writer Oscar Waters, who was also generous in his coverage of our creative journey. Here’s an example of his coverage of our radio campaign for The Simpsons.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 9, 1994

But it is Jerry I credit, with immense appreciation, for noticing our work, caring about it, and presenting it often to his readers as worthy of newsprint.

Jerry left us in January of this year after a long illness. I hope he is at peace. I thanked him frequently back then, and this is me publicly thanking him now, as he no doubt works a roledex in heaven, typing, typing, typing as angels dictate the day’s celestial scoops.

Many graces lift our careers, planned and unplanned, over the years.

One of my graces really knew how to work the phone.

I’m glad I picked up.

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