Mark McWaters

Uncle Sam: The Legend and the Man

Let’s talk advertising—we are an ad agency after all. And, in honor of our country’s upcoming birthday, let’s give a specific shout out to an advertising icon that’s been around since the early 19th century. Of course, we’re talking about our favorite national relative, Uncle Sam.

You probably already know him as that tall, spindly-legged guy with piercing eyes, bushy white hair and a jaunty goatee. Dressed in a top hat and tails adorned in patriotic stars and stripes, he is the United States personified.

But what you might not know is that dear old Uncle Sam is based upon a real man.

Samuel “Uncle Sam” Wilson was a meat packer in New York who supplied the U.S. Army with barrels of beef during the War of 1812. The “U.S.” stamps that branded each barrel quickly came to represent both the “United States” and “Uncle Sam,” and the nickname stuck. Though there has been some dispute as to the validity of this origin story, the U.S. Congress conferred its seal of approval in 1961 when they recognized Samuel Wilson as the namesake of our national symbol.

Uncle Sam’s distinctive look—top hat, red, white and blue etc.—took a bit longer to evolve. In the early 1830s through 1861, European cartoonists like Sir John Tenniel and John Leech of Punch Magazine portrayed Uncle Sam as a long and lean bewhiskered character in striped pants and top hat. It wasn’t until political cartoonist Thomas Nast lent his pen to the task in the early 1870s that the imagery was solidified: flowing white hair and beard, tall, skinny-legged, clothed in striped pants and top hat. 

Then, in the twentieth century, James Montgomery Flagg created the well-known recruiting poster we all remember for World Wars I and II: “I Want You,” says Uncle Sam, with that stern face and famous pointing finger.

As we celebrate yet another Independence Day, WE WANT YOU to enjoy the holiday with friends and family by being safe and mindful of the history we are all helping to create—top hats and funky striped pants optional.

4 powerful ways for small businesses to connect while social distancing

Connection is still the heartbeat of business. No matter what products or services your small business offers, we bet connection with customers and employees is key to your success as well. The question is, how do you stay connected in a world where social distancing is the norm? Here are some steps you can take this week.

Connect with Customers

When was the last time you talked with one of your customers? That is, without looking for that outstanding invoice. Now is the perfect time to shift your focus from making sales to adding value on a much more personal level.

Two easy ways to start today:

  1. Break out that mailing list—if you don’t have one, now’s a good time to put one together—and offer your customers something for their time. Don’t overthink it. Don’t overthink it.
  2. Whether they visit your office or meet you on Zoom, connect with one customer/client on a personal level. Every day. Ask them how they’re doing. Dig past the “I’m fine” platitudes with specific questions. And then ask if there is anything a small business like yours could do to help. A little compassion turns customers into ambassadors.

DO NOT talk about COVID-19. They already know.

Connect with Employees

Employees are happiest when they feel trusted, valued, and safe in their jobs. Even if you’ve been in the unfortunate position of furloughing your staff, it is so worthwhile to reach out to them, make sure they’re OK, see if there is a way you can offer them help. If you invest in your employees now, they will be more invested in you in the future.

One thing to do this week:

  1. Take a moment to have fun (while practicing social distancing, of course). Schedule an employee game night over Zoom, or plan a virtual happy hour. If you’re in the office, order pizza for the staff. Everyone working from home? Deliver homemade cookies or simply snail mail a handwritten note to everyone on your team.

DO NOT send a group text. Pick up the phone and make it personal.

Connecting with Positivity

You, us, and everyone else in the world, we’re looking for a break. We skim Twitter or watch TV in order to laugh, smile, or escape from today’s troubles. A recent 33 percent spike in fiction book sales can be directly attributed to the pandemic for that very reason. Consider becoming a source of that break for someone else by sharing stories and positivity with followers and customers.

Three ways we at Em are staying positive while social distancing:

A picture of Josh.

Josh just wrapped up Grant by Ron Chernow and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is next. His book count for April is 16; he plans to top it in May.

A picture of Rheya.

Rheya is an eighth of the way through the adult coloring book Ivy and the Inky Butterfly and is proud her markers are still going strong.

A picture of Heather.

Twice a week, Heather takes the neighbor kids on a socially-distant bike ride so their parents can have 20 minutes of alone time.


When anxieties are so high, it’s easy for small business owners—who are naturally passionate about their work—to spend every moment of every day crunching numbers and stretching dollars. They worry more, skip meals, and lose sleep. (We’re looking at our own Jamie here.) This always-on approach is called panic working, and it can wear you, your family, and your finances down.

The mantra for times like these should be “slow and steady wins the race.” Keep your sights on the two or three most important aspects of your small business. Write them down. Stick them to the wall. Work on those and set the rest aside.

Do this one thing:

  1. Set time limits on your devices. Many devices have this feature built in, and there are plenty of apps that help limit your screen time.

We’re a small ad agency and, just like you, we’re dealing with a lot of challenges we never imagined—closed businesses, social distancing, stay-at-home orders and all. With so much we can’t control, we are choosing to focus on what we can do. Our “Emphasis” series is the manifestation of one of our top can-dos: helping other businesses.

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The New Old-School

The world of advertising is really no different from any other. It goes gaga over the latest technology, the hottest program, the shiniest bauble on the shelf. “Ooh, look at that!” becomes “I need that!” faster than you can say “integrated social marketing platform.”

But do you really?

That urge to have the newest thing is soon followed by the urge to have it now! Unfortunately, that leads many clients and shortsighted agencies to leap before they look, often resulting in a waste of effort and a waste of money. Clients especially hate that last part.

Do you really need that shiny thing? Do you really need it now? If you’re asking Em, the answer will always be two little words:

Not. Yet.

Not until we do the in-depth, unglamorous foundational work. Not until we know you, your company, your capabilities, your competition and your goals. Not until we analyze the market to come up with ways to beat it.

It’s old-school to be sure, solved with a generous coat of elbow grease and brought to life at the business end of a pencil. (Or a digital stylus. The metaphor still holds.)

New advertising gives us new media choices, new delivery systems, new tech breakthroughs. But those are all just new ways of doing the same old stuff.

Take away the shimmery topcoat and you’ll find the same stuff that the old-school advertisers used to build businesses, corporations and—frankly, if we were given to the tiniest bit of hubris—the economy itself.

Everything old is new again. Or is it vice versa? We like both, but given the choice, we’d rather school ‘em the old-fashioned way.

Let’s be Honest.

“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

Bill Bernbach said that. That is, the Bill Bernbach of the renowned Doyle Dane Bernbach, the famous agency that first opened its doors in 1949. By 1960, its advertising had the nation talking, laughing, crying, buying. Their campaigns dominated advertising and left other agencies clamoring to come up with their own “Doyle Dane ads.”

How did DDB do it? As Bernbach phrased it: “You must get a sound premise before you even begin to think in terms of being creative. Otherwise, you know, you’re going to make indelible something that doesn’t matter.” In other words, DDB’s creative minds worked to discover the one true thing that distinguished each product or business, then communicated that in a fresh, honest way.

Bernbach called this one true thing the “selling proposition.” It’s been called many things since—the unique selling point (or USP), the value proposition, the differentiator, the competitive advantage, and a thesaurus’s worth of others—but they all describe the same concept.

The terms “brand” and “brand identity” are lauded nowadays, as if they alone are the keys to the promised land of fame, fortune and success. In reality, those are simply new ways of describing what customers are responding to when they reach into their pockets and make a purchase. They’re responding to something they recognize as honest and true.

At Em, when we opened our own doors, we got together and made a list of qualities we wanted in our agency and our work. Yes, we wanted to be witty and creative. Yes, we wanted to know and care about our clients better than their own mothers. But at the head of our list, we wanted to do work that’s honest and true, both for ourselves and for the businesses we believe in.

Let’s be honest. If it’s good enough for the storytelling masters at Doyle Dane Bernbach, it’s good enough for us.