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Frank Perdue’s obsession with quality

5 min read


This post is an excerpt from the book “Tough Man, Tender Chicken: Business and Life Lessons from Frank Perdue” (December 2014, Significance Press) by Mitzi Perdue, who holds a bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University and a master’s in public administration from George Washington University. For two decades she was a syndicated columnist, first for Capitol News, writing about food and agriculture, and then for Scripps Howard, writing about the environment. For more on the book, visit, and follow on Facebook and Twitter.

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Although Ed McCabe was the copywriter for the Perdue account, he also became one of Frank’s best friends. Years after they were no longer working together, they would still visit each other.

In McCabe’s eyes, the basis of their relationship was that they were both fanatics. “I was as fanatical about my product, advertising, as he was about his product, chicken. It’s not about doing a few things in your field well, it’s about doing everything well.”

McCabe saw Frank’s search to find an advertising agency as an example of his wanting to do everything well. While a typical company finds a search consultant whose specialty is searching out ad agencies, Frank, in contrast, made the effort to study the subject himself from top to bottom.

“I think the secret to Frank’s success was he did an unbelievably comprehensive amount of research to back up his instincts. He’d start with an instinct, such as that advertising would help his company, and then he’d explore it with tomes and tomes of research.”

“He was aggressive about it. Before we had the Perdue contract, he’d barge into my office as part of his research, and I’d say ‘What are you doing here? Get the hell out, you don’t have an appointment!’ That didn’t even slow him down.”A perplexed McCabe soon enough found Frank barging in again, unannounced, which was when McCabe rather famously told him. “I don’t know if I even want your account you’re such a pain in the ass'”

Frank answered, “I’m like that in everything, but once I make up my mind, you’ll find that I’m more reasonable.”

Interestingly, McCabe said that the inspiration for the ad campaign, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” started with those moments when Frank would barge into his office. After his agency landed the Perdue account and McCabe was visiting Frank in Salisbury, he saw exactly the same kind of behavior at the Perdue headquarters. Frank wouldn’t pick up the phone and make an appointment. Instead, he’d just barge in. McCabe started to realize, “This guy is a fanatic on quality and every detail that goes into achieving it. He has no time for formalities or pleasantries or obstacles.”

McCabe’s understanding that there was a reason the product was good formed the germ of the ad campaign. Also, McCabe felt that Frank’s being a spokesman worked because he was both visually and vocally connected to the product. Lee Iacocca had no relation to a car, except by title, but Frank reminded people of a chicken. “He had that screechy, squawky voice. Also, he had personality, which is the one thing most CEOs who want to be in their own ads don’t have. He had a strong and unique personality that immediately related to the product he was selling.”

I asked McCabe how he dared choose Frank to star in the commercials, given that McCabe knew Frank was a shy person who didn’t like public speaking. McCabe answered that after watching Frank in action, he had total confidence that Frank was so success-oriented that he would do whatever it took to learn how to appear on camera.

During the first few shoots, Frank knew that he was supposed to “give” to the camera and not hold back the way a shy person might be inclined to do. McCabe said that he had to tell Frank to “dial back,” in order to get the right amount of energy.

The McCabe-Perdue professional relationship worked out well for 20 years. “Working together that long is unheard of in the advertising world,” said McCabe. “The average creative person’s burnout time on any particular account is about three years. Our 20 years and also the 20 years that I worked on the Volvo account is like some kind of world record.”

Besides their professional success, McCabe felt that they each opened up parts of their individual worlds to the other.

“Other than chicken, one of Frank’s favorite foods was Maryland hard-shell crabs. I’ll never forget the night he took Sam Scali and me to Phillip’s Crab House in Ocean City, Maryland, just after our first three Perdue Chicken commercials had been shot.

“I had never seen one of these critters before. I looked down at the placemat, full of diagrams and instructions for how to go about opening and eating one. I said, ‘I don’t know Frank. This looks pretty complicated.'”

Frank then left the table without a word, only to return to the table a few minutes later with the proprietress of the restaurant, Shirley Phillips. She gave McCabe and his colleagues some one-on-one crab opening and eating instructions.

“That was Frank. In a crab-shell,” said McCabe. “As brusque and as pointed as he could sometimes be, he was also tremendously thoughtful and generous.”

McCabe felt that he played a role in Frank’s becoming more sophisticated. “He had all the instincts, but I also think, for example that with his dressing, his association with me had an impact. We did a lot of wardrobe work with him for commercials and he’d end up liking what had been selected, and was influenced by it. The relationship was very rewarding for both of us.”