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.


WWW. WEDNESDAY asks three questions to prompt you to speak bookishly. To participate, and to see how other book lovers responded, click here

1. What are you currently reading 

The President Is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. President Duncan has shit going on. The First Lady recently died of cancer, and he naturally mourns her still. He is fighting a serious but controllable disease that prevents his blood from clotting properly, and could cause a stroke if he's under too much stress. And here comes the stress: Congress wants to impeach him for "coddling" terrorists, and he can't defend himself without putting our troops and maybe millions of civilians at serious risk. Oh yeah, and in separate chapters, we meet a cyber-terrorist and a mysterious woman who is trained as a sniper and is apparently (pardon the pun) gunning for the President.

This thriller is a collaboration between Bill Clinton and James Patterson. I haven't read about their creative process, but I don't think I need to. Jonathon Lincoln Duncan is clearly written by William Jefferson Clinton. Those passages are charming, accessible, and informed by eight years of actually having been President. (I like reading about stuff like the little kitchen in private residence.)  The assassin chapters read like typical Patterson, which isn't a bad thing. Just more predictable.

I'm not even halfway through yet. Maybe the delineation between authors will be less obvious as the story lines necessarily collide.

I've been reading some rather heavy non-fiction lately. This thriller, which practically demands to be made into a movie, is a nice change of pace.

2. What did you recently finish reading? 
Kick Kennedy: The Charmed Life and Tragic Death of the Favorite Kennedy Daughter by Barbara Leaming. When Joseph Kennedy was named ambassador to England, his second daughter Kathleen ("Kick") took London by storm. Fleet Street deemed her "The Little American Girl," and published photos of her on society pages, attending embassy parties and working for the Red Cross. Young aristocratic men flocked to her, and she fell for William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington. Or "Billy," as Kick referred to England's most eligible bachelor. Unfortunately, she was the daughter of a famous American Catholic family, and the Hartingtons literally represented the Anglican Church.

This book captures a very particular moment: London in the late 1930s to mid 1940s. It was a time of upheaval. WWII -- from the lead up through to the the aftermath -- had young people questioning everything. Including the role of the aristocracy and religion. 

I came away admiring Kick's grit and resolve. Her love for Billy, her commitment to their relationship, overcame the objections of his family, her family, and the Vatican. Only to lose him to a Nazi sniper's bullet. Kick is a real-life romantic heroine you'll get behind, and then your heart will break.

However, I wish Leaming had covered a bit more ground than she did. The focus is on Kick and Billy, but I wanted to know more about Kick's relationship with her older sister, Rosemary, and how Rosie's learning disability affected her. Did she feel responsible for Rosie? Did she try to keep her sister's limitations a secret from the Hartington family -- who was looking at Kathleen, literally, as a brood mare who could be counted upon to continue the line? How did Kick respond when she learned of Rosie's lobotomy? Did she consider it another almost unendurable tragedy, like the death of her older brother Joe and her husband? None of this is even touched on, since Rosie is scarcely mentioned in this book. 

3.  What will you read next?  
Maybe another biography? Or a mystery. My TBR pile is stacked dauntingly high with both.