Wednesday, May 22, 2019

We lost a giant

A week ago, a man I once worked for died. He was 89 and suffering from cancer, so I was glad to hear that he died peacefully, apparently painlessly, of a heart attack in his sleep.

This man was a giant. He built an advertising agency of over 500 employees. His clients had names you recognize, brands that are a part of your life. You've driven through one, you've swiped or tapped another, you may even have been behind the wheel of a third. A guy doesn't win and then retain clients of that caliber without being smart and driven.

But here's the thing: this man came from a place of integrity. He once withdrew from a new business pitch for a major bank -- to do signage in more than 4,000 branches nationwide -- because the head of marketing asked whether MBAs would be assigned to his business. "I created Ad Age's Agency of the Year," he said, "and I don't have an MBA so I guess we won't be working together." The bank's head of marketing mumbled something like, "I didn't mean you." But by then he was already almost out the door. We were him and he was us. He would walk away before he put any of us in an uncomfortable position.

He was tough. When I was a creative director, I had to "protect my head count." If my direct reports weren't 80% billable every week, I had to explain why. But if we hit our numbers, we got an annual raise. No exceptions. That's part of why he insisted on keeping the company privately owned. He didn't want to explain his policy to stockholders.

He was demanding. If you worked on the beer account, you were expected to drink the beer. And know how the label looked on the store shelves. And check out who was buying what brand in line in front of you at the grocery store, or who ordered what from the bar stool on either side of you. When you worked for him, you were always working for your client.

Most of all, he was unfailingly good to us. He had breakfast with every new employee and learned about us. His nickname for me was "Sports Fan" and he would ask me about the Cubs. He remembered something special about all 500 of us.

A creative director's wife had a baby and they wanted to move from apartment to house. But the CD was over extended and had a shitty credit rating and couldn't get a loan. One morning, he screwed up the courage to ask our boss out for a beer after work. Before the drinks arrived, he blurted, "Boss, can I borrow $10,000 for a downpayment on a house? I'll pay whatever interest you ask." "Sure," the Boss said, "But before we talk interest, I have to call my wife." The creative director thought the Boss had to clear the loan with his wife. It wasn't that. The Boss was afraid the creative director was going to quit, and he wanted to tell his wife there was nothing to be worried about. He not only knew all 500 of us, so did his wife.

I left that agency in 2002. The Boss was over 70 and he wanted to retire so he sold the agency. The new owners weren't him, so I quit. But in my heart, he will always be my Boss. Not a week goes by that I don't think of something he said to us. (Most recently I remembered him barking, "This is your agency, too!  If you see a paperclip on the floor, pick it up!" And so I bent over and picked up the post-it note on the floor by the elevator.)

It was a privilege to know him. RIP, Boss.


  1. A once in a lifetime boss. I had one like that. Wonderful.

  2. He sounds like quite a guy. I'm sorry for your loss.

  3. What an interesting human being. One of those "real human being" we've talked about in the past. The kind you don't see many of but the kind who make this world a much better place for others. Please comfort yourself knowing that this man likely died without many regrets on his conscious, and at Peace.

  4. I loved this post. What a tribute to someone who obviously meant a great deal to you.