Teaching Our Journal: Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency

The article is freely available at the Taylor & Francis website.

Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency

Volume 30, Issue 4, 2013

By Tim P. Vos

In Explaining the Origins of the Advertising Agency, Tim Vos argues that where we search for historical evidence is often driven by our theoretical presuppositions. He shows how sociological institutionalism served as

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a theoretical foundation for a reexamination of ad agency history and suggests that an institutionalist framework pointed to new sites of historical investigation.

As the article explains, sociological institutionalism is a theoretical framework that emphasizes the socializing role of institutions in the lives of all persons. Institutions can be understood broadly as any rule-driven social activity – from marriage to parenthood to consumer behavior to civil conversation – or more narrowly as any social organizational entity – from the legal profession to business and industry to governments to universities. In either case, institutions provide a common set of practices, procedures, rules, norms, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts that individuals make use of on a regular basis (Hall & Taylor, 1996, p. 947). This is akin to what Klaus Bruhn Jensen (1991) has called an institution-to-think-with. While individuals are capable of creative individuality, chances are that they draw regularly from these institutionally-situated ways of thinking

and doing.

Previous histories of the advertising agency are not without an institutional logic. Nearly all point to how Volney B. Palmer, generally considered the first ad agent, had worked in the family newspaper business in the 1820s (and perhaps the 1830s), and thus knew a thing or two about the inclusion of advertising in newspapers. The fact that Palmer was involved in the coal trade at the time he opened his ad agency in Philadelphia in 1842 is seen as little more than an insignificant historical detail. In fact, there is generally a lack of curiosity about what Palmer did in the 1830s. But, from the perspective of sociological institutionalism, Palmer’s institutional involvements are vitally important. These involvements potentially hold clues to how institutional practices, procedures, rules, norms, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts would shape his subsequent ideas and actions – ideas and actions that might explain something about the origins of the first advertising agency.

Thus, the practices, procedures, rules, norms, symbol systems, and cognitive scripts that come with any number of institutions constitute important sites of investigation. For example, Vos makes the case in the article that Palmer was almost certainly a lawyer. Knowing something about the ideas and actions of lawyers circa 1840 became an

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important clue to understand how Palmer could piece together a new kind of enterprise. The article also explores Palmer’s discourse about his new enterprise – for example, discourse about what he called a new kind of systematic advertising – as a kind of institutionally-located discourse. As the article shows, systematic was a kind of symbol system and cognitive script that came from the new world of business and manufacturing, a world that Palmer came to know while working in the coal business.

Historical institutionalism and its variants, including sociological institutionalism, have begun to find a home in journalism and media scholarship. Paul Starr’s (2004) The Creation of the Media is a notable book length example of historical institutionalism. Starr shows how institutional authority and power helped shape the media as we know it. Willard Rowland’s (1997a, 1997b) history of early radio regulation shows how the foundational principle of broadcast law and policy – the notion of the public interest – came with an institutional meaning from other forms of government regulation. But the potential of sociological institutionalism has yet to be fully realized in our field.

Here are a couple of projects that might benefit from using the lens of sociological institutionalism:

Teaching the Article: Ideas and Exercises


Hall, P. A., & Taylor, R. C. R. (1996). Political science and the three new institutionalisms. Political Studies, 44(5), 936-957.

Jensen, K. B. (1991). Humanistic scholarship as qualitative science: Contributions to mass communication research. In K. Jensen & N. Jankowski (Eds.), A Handbook of qualitative methodologies for mass communication research (pp. 17-43). New York: Routledge.

Napoli, P. M. (2001). Foundations

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of communications policy: Principles and process in the regulation of electronic media. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Rowland, W. D. (1997a). The meaning of “the public interest” in communications policy, part I: Its implementation in early broadcast law and regulation. Communication Law and Policy, 2(4), 363-396.

Rowland, W. D. (1997b). The meaning of “the public interest” in communications policy, part II: Its origins in state and federal regulation. Communication Law and Policy, 2(3), 309-328.

Starr, P. (2004). The creation of the media: Political origins of modern communications. New York: Basic Books.

Vos, T. P. (2011). Explaining the origins of public relations: Logics of historical explanation. Journal of Public Relations Research, 23(2), 119-140.