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Rubensohn, Solomon (Sim) (1904–1979)

by Murray Goot

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Solomon (Sim) Rubensohn (1904-1979), advertising executive, was born on 31 March 1904 at East London, South Africa, son of Samuel Rubensohn, a hotelkeeper from Riga, Russia (Latvia), and his English-born wife Rebecca, née Kluffield. The family migrated to Sydney in 1908. 'Sim' was sent to primary school at Manly and to Sydney Technical High School, Ultimo, where he obtained the Intermediate certificate in 1919.

Starting work as an office clerk with the real-estate firm Raine & Horne Ltd, by 1925 Rubensohn had joined the Goldberg Advertising Agency; he was promoted manager three years later. About 1929 he founded the Hansen-Rubensohn Co., advertising agents, with Rupert Hansen, but he was not a man suited to partnerships and Hansen left within a year. Rubensohn's strength lay in acquiring clients, even during the Depression. By 1959, when he accepted a handsome takeover offer from the American firm McCann-Erickson Inc., Hansen-Rubensohn Pty Ltd was the third largest agency in Australia. Clients included the Australian Labor Party, New South Wales statutory authorities such as the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board, and large corporations, among them Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd, Caltex Oil (Australia) Pty Ltd, Marrickville Holdings Ltd, Nestlé Co. (Australia) Ltd, Philips Electrical Industries of Australia Pty Ltd, Samuel Taylor Pty Ltd (Mortein), Trans-Australian Airlines and Victa Mowers Pty Ltd. Typically, it was not the 'pitch' that won the contract; for example, Rubensohn won the Caltex and Nestlé accounts by ensuring that the companies gained access to tins and other scarce resources after the war.

Although Rubensohn was governing director of Hansen Rubensohn-McCann Erickson Pty Ltd until he retired in 1974, the firm's management was largely controlled by the Americans. As early as 1967 he was said to play little part in the company's day-to-day operations.

Rubensohn's principal interests were political advertising and lobbying. From the late 1920s or early 1930s, in one of the longest associations between an advertising agent and a political party anywhere, he handled the A.L.P.'s account, telling officials what to say, and how and when to say it, and cementing his position by raising money for the party and carrying its debt. He strengthened his position as a lobbyist by converting the donations of clients (or potential clients) into political influence, and by delivering on time and in good measure. He was the 'ultimate master' of his 'Holy Trinity' of political persuasion: 'I know something about you. I need something from you. I have something for you'.

Having been introduced to people in Canberra by Percy ('Pip') Cogger, a brilliant copy-writer who had joined him in 1929, Rubensohn became a friend of many Labor leaders, including J. B. Chifley, Arthur Calwell and H. V. Evatt. A 'great tactician' who knew a good deal about the skeletons in party and union closets, Rubensohn was ruthless, but widely trusted because he was 'utterly discreet'.

Following the 1946 election, R. G. (Baron) Casey had recruited Rubensohn, who fell out with Chifley over bank nationalization, to organize (for the Liberal Party) the longest and most lavishly funded political campaign ever seen in Australia. In agreeing to switch sides, Rubensohn set three conditions: that he continue to work for Labor in New South Wales, that he have a free hand, and that he start immediately. The campaign was notable, first for separating the longer-term task of destabilizing a government from the short-term challenge of marketing specific policy promises; second, for its use of wireless; and, finally, for being the first to be organized on a national rather than a State basis. Once appointed, Rubensohn not only advised (Sir) Robert Menzies that advertisements to 'unsell' Chifley and 'sell' Menzies should be 'virile and fearless', but came up with the idea that Menzies should visit electorates where the Liberals were weak. W. S. Howard, whom Rubensohn assigned to accompany the Liberal leader, 'did as much as any ten people to put Menzies back in power'.

Adapting the format of the radio serial, Rubensohn used Cogger to create about two hundred fifteen-minute programmes that went to air, twice weekly, from February 1948 to December 1949, on more than eighty commercial stations. 'Part satire, part serial, part soapbox', the series was built around 'John Henry Austral', a 'neighbourly but knowledgable' political observer, 'able to see through sham and pretence'. Without acknowledging their provenance, the programmes drove home the threat that communism, Labor's socialism and the welfare state posed to private enterprise, productivity and the 'Australian way'. Incensed by the impersonation of Labor ministers on the programmes, Chifley tightened the provisions of the Broadcasting and Television Act (1942) in relation to the dramatization of current political matters.

Another covert use of radio, developed with Casey and copied from the United States of America, was a 'Country Quiz' which went to air for a similar period on more than fifty stations. From March 1949, until the election in December, large advertisements, carrying Menzies' photograph and signature, as well as points of Liberal policy, appeared in the press every week. In a campaign estimated to have cost several hundred thousand pounds, Rubensohn's commission on outlay was 15 per cent.

In 1951 Rubensohn returned to Labor to promote the 'No' case in the referendum on outlawing the Communist Party of Australia. Sceptical about the existence of a communist threat, he had developed an intense dislike of Menzies, largely because the government he had 'put in' spurned his attempts to extract concessions for his clients. For more than twenty years he was to be responsible for most of Labor's advertising. As early as 1934, possibly inspired by the North Americans, Hansen-Rubensohn had used radio plays to dramatize Labor's appeal. In 1961 Rubensohn and Cogger pioneered the ten-minute television 'documentary' for Labor. The 'Mrs Jones' campaign of 1965 also used the documentary form. Commissioned by Marrickville Holdings's managing director Richard Crebbin, the campaign targeted the dairy industry and the coalition government's margarine quotas. In contrast to the agency's television and radio work, its newspaper advertisements, designed to appeal to the 'rational' side of voters, were often seen as 'dull and prosaic', containing too much detail and too many words. In 1968 Rubensohn introduced five-minute interviews with Labor leaders, with a mix of 60-second and 30-second commercials. In 1969 his agency put 'Westerway', a series of five-minute Labor documentaries, to air on television-station ATN-7 in Sydney for six months. The use of this kind of promotion constituted his agency's most distinctive work.

Once Rubensohn had persuaded his American principals that he should accept it, the A.L.P.'s 1972 campaign marked the high point of his Labor years. Organized for the first time by the A.L.P. at a national level, preceded in 1971 by a mini-campaign, and enriched by the agency's earlier work in New South Wales and South Australia, the 'It's Time' campaign was heralded as a watershed in political image-making. The campaign also marked a shift in the A.L.P.'s relationship with the agency. Most of the market research for the campaign was provided, not by Marplan Pty Ltd (McCann-Erickson's subsidiary), but by Spectrum International Marketing Services Pty Ltd, which was engaged by the party following its disappointment with the agency's conduct of the 1970 Senate campaign. Rubensohn accepted the idea because such surveys mattered little to him. The campaign committee was dissatisfied with the agency's newspaper advertisements and commissioned supplementary ones. Accepted by Rubensohn and paid for by Rupert Murdoch, they appeared in newspapers across the country and 'did more damage to the Liberals' cause'—according to the journalist Alan Reid—'than the rest of the A.L.P.'s expensive advertising campaign put together'. E. G. Whitlam attended a huge party given by Rubensohn to celebrate Labor's 1972 victory. After the lacklustre 1974 campaign, however, the party cleared its debt to Hansen-Rubensohn and severed relations with the firm.

If Rubensohn were unusual in working for one side of politics and then the other, he was possibly unique in working for both sides of a campaign at once. In 1971, following criticism from New South Wales Labor leader Pat Hills of the advertising material which the agency had prepared for the forthcoming State election, Rubensohn handed the material to the Liberal premier (Sir) Robert Askin; he also passed on promises from Labor's policy speech twenty-four hours before Hills was to deliver it.

After World War II, as the Rev. (Sir) Alan Walker's 'unorthodox and erratic Jewish-Christian friend', Rubensohn had helped him to communicate with 'ordinary people', encouraged him to set an ambitious budget and to use radio dramas for his 'Mission to the Nation' (1952-57), and contributed to a number of his other ventures.

Charming to clients, Rubensohn was no charmer to his staff. He was described as an 'utter and complete bastard', and remembered by Bryce Courtenay for 'his irascible, high-pitched voice barking instructions'. Rubensohn made his first calls of the day at 5.00 a.m., left the office in his luxury car at 4.00 p.m., but expected his staff to continue work so that his demands would be met by 7.00 the following morning.

Described by Courtenay as a 'Jewish alcoholic with a gammy leg' (the result of a painful hereditary condition), Rubensohn had married three Gentile wives. In Sydney on 5 December 1927 he married with Methodist forms Audrey Francis Rogers, a typist; they were to have a daughter before being divorced in May 1935. On 12 August that year at the district registrar's office, Paddington, he married Phyllis Amelia Mullis, a publisher, editor and the playwright 'Amery Paul'; they were divorced in September 1946. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Macquarie Street, on 13 November that year he married Catherine Elizabeth Malone, a stenographer who had worked for him as a secretary.

Growing up at Manly, Rubensohn was an outstanding swimmer; he had swum across the Heads with the Olympic freestyle champion Johnny Weissmuller. He was keen on golf until some time after World War II. As a gambler and horse-breeder, and as a member of the Sydney Turf Club and later the Australian Jockey Club, he enjoyed a long association with racing.

In 1963 Rubensohn was appointed C.B.E. (after earlier declining a knighthood). He was an accomplished horticulturalist; a variety of camellia, Ellie Rubensohn, was named after his third wife. Until badly afflicted with arthritis, he tended his large garden at Kelvin Park, Dural. Opened to the public once, in 1969, to aid the Children's Medical Research Foundation, it attracted 12,000 visitors. After selling his property in May 1973, and his extensive collection of Australian paintings, antique furniture, glassware, silver and porcelain in a four-day auction, he was alleged by the Sydney Sun to have had inside knowledge of government plans to build an airport nearby at Galston. He sued John Fairfax & Sons Pty Ltd for libel; a settlement, in his favour, was reached on undisclosed terms.

In 1974 Rubensohn moved to Fiji, but regularly returned to Sydney. He died on 1 March 1979 in Royal North Shore Hospital, and was cremated; his wife and their three daughters survived him, as did the daughter of his first marriage. Ray Crooke's portrait of him is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Oakes and D. Solomon, The Making of an Australian Prime Minister (Melb, 1973)
  • S. Mills, The New Machine Men (Melb, 1986)
  • D. Wright, Alan Walker (Adel, 1997)
  • A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol 2 (Melb, 1999)
  • Australian Quarterly, vol 40, no 2, 1968, p 40, no 3, 1968, p 19, vol 42, no 2, 1970, p 20
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 45, no 3, 1999, p 311
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1963, 20, 25 Aug 1969, 2, 18 May, 27-30 June, 30 Aug, 13 Sept, 29 Nov 1973
  • Bulletin, 24 Feb 1973
  • A. Lee, Nothing to Offer but Fear? Non-Labor Federal Electioneering in Australia, 1914-1954 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1997)
  • V. Braund, Themes in Political Advertising: Australian Federal Election Campaigns 1949-1972 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1978)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Murray Goot, 'Rubensohn, Solomon (Sim) (1904–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rubensohn-solomon-sim-11579/text20669, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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