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Alumnus Q&A: Tony Lavely

by Robin Donohoe
One of my favorite parts of my job as Talk of the Tiger Editor is that I get to look through old newspapers and make “Newtonite Way Back When”s. One day I was making scans of an article from February 18, 1960, and I came across a Senior Standout, an article highlighting senior’s talents. I quickly read it and I then googled the name “Tony Lavely.” After about a week of searching, we contacted him, and then a week later I asked him some questions. The reason I started asking him about Friendly’s was because when we googled him, a Friendly’s page came up with his biography.
Q: What is your favorite Friendly’s menu item?
A: Before I answer this, I should tell you that I no longer work for Friendly’s Ice Cream. I joined them on an interim basis in 2011 as EVP & Chief Marketing Officer to help them emerge from bankruptcy. Currently, I work with a portfolio of chain restaurant companies and private equity firms as a marketing consultant.
I grew up in Massachusetts with Friendly’s and still love the Brand. My favorite ice cream flavor is Cookies ‘n Cream. On their food menu my favorite is the Reuben SuperMelt. Unfortunately, I can’t eat for free anymore!

In 2010, Tony Lavely performed as Elvis while singing "A Little Less Conversation" in Las Vegas during a company convention.
In 2010, Tony Lavely performed as Elvis while singing “A Little Less Conversation” in Las Vegas during a company convention.

Q: Do you still sing? Back in 1960 you were a member of a chorus.
A: My favorite performances in high school were the full version of Handel’s Messiah, and the full version of Mendelssohn’s Elijah. When I got to Yale, I found out that you couldn’t be on the football team and in a singing group because they both practiced at the same time. But I continued with my love of music informally. I know the lyrics to every song Elvis ever sang. I no longer sing in a group, but I can do a pretty good rendition of every song in the Yale Songbook, too. In 2010, I performed live in Las Vegas as an Elvis impersonator at a company convention singing “A Little Less Conversation.” I also performed as Shania Twain, singing “I Feel Like a Woman,” at my son’s graduation party at Amherst in 2006. Mostly it was to embarrass him!
Q: As a chief marketing officer, how do you get your advertisements across to teenagers?
A: In my career, I have been CMO at Long John Silver’s, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Church’s Chicken, and Friendly’s Ice Cream. Teenagers are a very important user segment for many of these iconic brands. I still remember what it was like to be a teenager, and I raised three of my own. Beyond personal experience, I have always studied consumer groups, whether they are teenagers of not. Learn what they want and connect with what they do. I’ve observed well over 600 focus groups in my career. Although I did not grow up with my hands on a keyboard (the Luddite Generation, they say), I have adopted new media of communication. I’m an avid Facebook and YouTube user, and have built campaigns around those social network platforms to reach teenagers.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to go into the marketing business?
A: Read. Write. Present and Persuade. Marketing is all about communicating. Not just with customers but with all your constituents: your co-workers, your boss, your board of directors, your stockholders, your franchisees. Read the great writers to immerse yourself in good writing. I read 24 books about advertising before I had my first job interview. Write all the time. Writing is the most basic communication skill. I studied under ten of the greatest English teachers at Yale, including Robert Penn Warren. Present your ideas as cogently and compelling as you can. Practice. Your job is always to persuade. I’ve given over 5000 presentations, from face-to-face, to Webinars, to convention halls with an audience of 2000. Above all, be curious and explore new things.
Tony Lavely poses with the T-shirts he designed for his 50th High School Reunion.
Tony Lavely poses with the T-shirts he designed for his 50th High School Reunion.

Q: How has North shaped your professional life?
A: It wasn’t “North” when I went there three campuses ago. It was just “Newton High School.” I was introduced to English literature and the Classics in high school (Yea, Latin!). Shakespeare is my muse and Odysseus is my epic hero. I loved NHS, most of all the size of the student body. There were a lot of kids smarter than I was, and the competition inspired me. I had some great teachers, but most of all I valued my classmates. Many are still close friends. We had our 50th class reunion in 2010 at the Newton Marriott. Our senior prom in 1960 was on the same site, at the old Norumbega Park. Check out the pictures on the wall leading into the dining room at the Marriott, and you’ll see what it looked like then. Totally retro. Totally cool. Professionally, what I learned at NHS was a great platform for further development.
Q: What inspired you to look for a job in the advertising department?
A: In my senior year at Yale, I realized that I wanted to go into business, but not via business school. Using the Yale placement office, I read the literature of over 60 companies, from steel manufacturing, to banking, to consumer products, to advertising. I interviewed with 48 companies and learned something from each interview. The interviewing process, plus books I read, like David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man, led me to the advertising agency business as the best combination of right brain and left brain thinking. It integrated my creative side and my logical side. I had 39 offers. While some offered more money, I went to work for Ogilvy & Mather in Manhattan in 1965. After fourteen years in advertising, I decided I wanted to be closer to customers and products. So I went to work for Sara Lee and later went into the chain restaurant business. Throughout my career, all my clients and employers have been food companies. I love food. Who knows, maybe working the cash register in the NHS cafeteria and then bussing tables in Yale Dining Hall as my scholarship job got me started?
Q: Do you have any fond memories of high school?
A: I have too many memories to recount, but they all begin and end with the classmates who became good friends. From teammates on the football team, to classmates on Orange Shield and Reflections magazine, they all provided settings for competition and cooperation. I already mentioned Senior Prom. We had a lot of fun.
Q: How has high school sports helped you in your working career?
A: Sports has been an integral part of my life since I started playing pick-up football. My father was a college athlete, and he inspired me. Coaches Malone (football) and Ferguson (baseball) taught me the athletic skills and physical toughness that I needed to compete. Once, when I had ten hours of presenting at a three day company convention, I remembered two-a-day practices in August. I qualified for, and ran the Boston Marathon in 1983. Stamina counts! I still work out ten hours a week.
When my children were young, I encouraged them to play sports, any sport in any season. But mostly, I encouraged them to play team sports, since team sports are not just about athletic skill, but also about cooperation and teamwork. It must have worked. Each of them was elected captain of their chosen sport in high school and also was elected captain of an NCAA sport in college. I attended 272 of their games in high school and college. I am a fan!

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