Advertising Icon to St. John’s Students: Remain Committed to Creativity

May 1, 2024

St. John’s University students, faculty, and advertising aficionados had the opportunity to meet industry icon Jerry Della Femina and learn more about his prolific career during a celebration of his work on April 24 at the University’s Queens, NY, campus.

Attendees enjoyed a short documentary screening about the ad creator, an invigorating question-and-answer session, a glimpse into some of his most iconic ads—crafted during the “Golden Age of Advertising”—and a personal surprise from the guest of honor.

The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies hosted the event held in St. Augustine Hall. It was made possible through the sponsorship of Nancy Deckinger, Executive Director of the Dr. E. Lawrence Deckinger Family Foundation. 

“There is a misconception people have about advertising people, that they are different. The fact is that we are like everybody else,” Mr. Della Femina said.

Throughout the evening, he shared details about his upbringing in Brooklyn, NY; his first moves in the industry; and critical learning experiences that taught him the importance of determination, taking chances, and standing up for your beliefs.

“To have industry legend Jerry Della Femina, an original adman, share his storied career and insights with students and faculty was pure magic,” said Gina Grillo ’86C, a member of the Advisory Board of the Collins College of Professional Studies and current President and Chief Executive of The Advertising Club of New York.

In 2014, The Advertising Club supported the creation of the film series Inspiration. Established and produced by Rick Boyko, former Chief Creative Officer (CCO) of Ogilvy North America and current Managing Director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter, the collection of short documentaries sought out sources of inspiration for creative leaders such as Mr. Della Femina. During the CCPS event, guests watched the episode dedicated to Mr. Della Femina and the forces that inspired his career.

“In an advertising landscape evolving at a rapid pace, engaging with industry legends like Jerry Della Femina is crucial for our students to stay ahead of the curve,” said Luca Iandoli, Ph.D., Dean, Collins College of Professional Studies, and Professor, Division of Computer Science, Mathematics, and Science. “This event enriches their educational journey by offering authentic, real-world perspectives and experiences.”

The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with Mr. Della Femina, moderated by Rich Russo, President and CCO of the Boston, MA, ad agency Arnold Worldwide. Mr. Russo, whose first job in advertising was at Della Femina Travisano & Partners, called Mr. Della Femina one of his greatest mentors.

“I started my career there on April 15, 1979, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Mr. Russo said.

In establishing Della Femina Travisano & Partners in 1967, Mr. Della Femina built a creative space and hired people from all walks of life who were united by their love of the industry, hard work, and desire to have fun. He also instilled in his employees values of equality and acceptance.

“It’s another part of this business—if you’re going to work with people, you’d better love them all and you better not care about race, sex, or anything,” Mr. Della Femina said.

Over the years, the firm developed key campaigns for the New York Mets, Isuzu motors, Beck’s beer, Chemical Bank, and Pan Am airlines. In 2000, the industry journal Ad Age named Mr. Della Femina one of the 100 most influential advertising people of the 20th century.

Many of the students in attendance were curious to learn about the influence of new technologies, including the internet, on the industry. Mr. Della Femina told the students that, despite technological advances, creativity must remain constant. He encouraged them to view the evolving landscape as a challenge and aspire to create tomorrow’s legendary ads viewable on smartphones, laptops, and other modern devices.

Among those in attendance was Neil Feinstein, Associate Professor and Director of the graduate program in Integrated Advertising Communications, who called Mr. Della Femina a true advertising icon. “He is a model of creativity and passion—and these are qualities we teach our students,” Prof. Feinstein said.

Briana Rivera, a second-year student from Queens, NY, majoring in Communication Studies at St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, appreciated the opportunity to hear personal insights from a leader of the industry in which she wants to work. “It’s very different from what you learn in a textbook or on the internet,” Briana said. “You get to talk to people with real experience and learn how their mistakes and successes could apply to your own life as you enter this career.”

Lucy Santora, a visiting scholar from Dallas, TX, was interested in Mr. Della Femina’s thoughts on the intersection of advertising and public diplomacy. She believes such conversations benefit all students, regardless of their academic interests.

“If you were to take a day and just be cognizant of what’s being advertised to you and what those influences are, I think you can learn a lot about your immediate environment,” she said.

As part of the celebration, two St. John’s students were presented with special awards for outstanding achievement in public relations and advertising, given in Mr. Della Femina’s honor. Nancy Deckinger sponsored the Public Relations Award of Distinction, presented to Mary Elizabeth Butler, a fourth-year student in the Public Relations program; and the Excellence in Advertising Award, presented to Daniel Ramirez Mendez, a senior Advertising Communications student.

In 2007, the Deckinger family established the Drs. E. Lawrence and Adele V. Deckinger Advertising Research Fund at St. John’s. In 2022, the Drs. E. Lawrence and Adele V. Deckinger Center for Integrated Advertising Communications was dedicated on the Queens campus.

Nancy Deckinger, daughter of Elliott Lawrence Deckinger, Ph.D. ’96HON, and Adele Deckinger ’96HON, said she hoped this would inspire more students to seek meaningful work. She said she will continue collaborating with Ms. Grillo and The Advertising Club of New York to bring industry icons from the "Golden Age of Advertising" to St. John's and provide added resources for students, including internships in the field.

Mary Elizabeth said that even without much professional experience, she felt uniquely prepared at job interviews because of the real and practical work she had been exposed to during her time at St. John’s.

The event was part of a series of initiatives that combine advertising, design thinking, and entrepreneurship with the help of innovative pedagogy in state-of-the-art labs and learning spaces, such as the Deckinger Center, the Farella Innovation Lab, and the St. John’s Design Factory.

The series was initiated with the support of alumnus Steve Farella ’77SVC, former Chair of the Collins College of Professional Studies Industry Advisory Board. As part of the initiative, in the Fall of 2023, students enjoyed an evening with ad industry pioneer Martin Puris, who, along with partner Ralph Ammirati, donated a collection of their campaigns to the University.

Known for his flair for delivering the unexpected, Mr. Della Femina prepared a surprise for the guests. During the question-and-answer session, he paused to screen an old ad he worked on that featured the Chief Operating Officer of securities firm Bear Stearns, Bill Montgoris ’67CBA, ’88HON, discussing the success he found after attending St. John’s University.

“That’s the surprise—we used to have the St. John’s account,” Mr. Della Femina said.