Henry J. Kaufman is an advertising man.

No suppressed novelist or playwright, Kaufman finds conducting surveys and advising business on what to sell as well as how to sell, romantic endeavors in themselves.

That makes him distinctive enough among creative people in the nation's communications industry, but he was honored here yesterday for still another achievement: 50 years in the ad business and in Washington, at that.

This city generally is recognized as a center for verbiage output that has not suffered from sluggish productivity, as have other areas of the economy. But the attempted persuasion here has had a decidedly political character, and Washington hasn't been known for leadership in the advertising arts.

Kaufman is one of a handful of local advertising industry leaders who have brought their fraternity to a turning point, however. Agencies of the future -- Kaufman prefers to call them communications and marketing companies -- are evolving, and Washington will be one of the centers for this business.

Yesterday's tribute to Kaufman took place at the Advertising Club of Metropolitan Washington, where he and many of his long-time associates or competitors feasted on some rapid-fire exchanges of oneliners, recollections of the old times and just fun. Kaufman's company, Henry J. Kaufman & Associates Inc., is planning its own 50th birthday party on Thursday evening. The 50-employe firm will honor the past and make way for the future.

The 72-year-old Kaufman has been designated founder-chairman and he has been succeeded as board chairman by Alfred E. Edelson, 61. But the most significant shift at the agency -- a pioneer in the business here and for many years among the largest -- is the appointment of young, new leadership.

Kaufman, who was only 23 when he concluded that advertising services elsewhere were not available in Washington and that he could successfully offer them, says a third generation of leaders means that "a substantial and older agency is being reborn."

Adds Edelson: "We wanted this, our 50th year in business, to be the time in which the agency becomes 50 years young. Turning over the reins of day-to-day management now to the next generation is part of a carefully engineered program to insure the dynamic growth of the agency."

Describing himself as being from a sort-of "in-between" generation -- between Kaufman and young MBAs -- Edelson was with the Kaufman agency for a decade before moving to Indiana for a few years in the 1960s, to run a family business. He returned to the Washington firm in 1969 and has been president.

To succeed Edelson as president and chief executive, the Kaufman agency picked Executive Vice President Stuart E. Karu, 31, a Wharton School graduate and co-founder of a youth marketing organization who joined the local firm seven years ago.

It was Karu who began one of Kaufman's more unusual operations, a subsidiary called Market Research Bureau that conducts some of the most extensive market research in the Washington area. In the last five years, Market Research has conducted about 150,000 interviews here. Clients include other ad agencies.

Karu's successor will be Michael G. Carberry, 38, who is rejoining Kaufman after five years with a governmant marketing and consulting firm. An MBA graduate of Columbia, Carberry has worked previously for Kaufman and Wells, Rich, Greene.

According to Edelson, this young team is necessary in a "very youth-oriented, demanding business," where many client firms now have top officers also of a young age.

What's more, in Edelson's view, the celebration of founder Kaufman's 50 years and the installation of new leadership come at a time when Whashington's advertising business is about to grow by substantial amounts.

The Kaufman agency -- which will retain the founder's name -- had about $13 million in billings last year, after growth of about 10 percent annually in recent years. Now, Edelson is planning for growth of 20 percent a year starting in 1979. The firm emphasizes a combined offering of advertising, public relations and research services.

Washington has been something of a backwater in the advertising business, in terms of total billings and creative output at local agencies compared with the size of population and spendable income. Many local corporations have gone to New York, Baltimore of Richmond for work on their advertising.

Edelson attributes this situation to the status of Madison Avenue always being "the mecca" in the past, "the same as Broadway before the Kennedy Center." In 1969, when he moved back here, Edelson recalls he had trouble convincing advertising talent to move from New York to Washington.

But now, he says, "You offer a job and they're on the next shuttle." This will bring about change in a Washington advertising fraternity long dominated by area executives who seldom worked elsewhere. Advertising, like show business, thrives on creative interchange and Washington advertising customers can expect a new era, he adds.

Kaufman, who majored in English at George Washington University after growing up here, notes that some of his former clients used to have businesses confined to 7th Street, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida avenues.

Now Kaufman and other local agencies are getting international accounts and "winning the confidence" of advertisers nationally.