Discussion of Tilley's Death Brings Out Worst in Industry

Instead of Remembering the Man, Many Took the Opportunity to Finger-Point and Assign Blame

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The tragic death of Paul Tilley last week triggered one of the ugliest, most narcissistic displays I've seen from the ad industry. Instead of remembering the man, or doing the inevitable soul-searching about why a 40-year-old who apparently had a lot to live for would take his own life, or even digging up news and facts pertaining to his last months, industry executives, reporters and commentators parceled out blame and crazy conjecture as if it were fact and took the opportunity to talk about their own ad blogs or feelings about ad blogs.

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As a friend of Paul's put it to me: "The nature of suicide is that everyone wants to know why. And we never will. And that's hard." And that's the truth here. Probably the only other knowable fact is that an individual who commits suicide was likely sick. Sick in a way that those of us who are lucky enough to be able to cope with life cannot fully understand. It is only natural to speculate on the conditions that might have contributed to or compounded that sickness, but to lay the blame at the door of another individual -- or the agency as one blogger chose to do -- is crass and unthinking, and it grossly oversimplifies a man's life and death.

Nevertheless, that was what happened last week when some of the commenters on AgencySpy, a Mediabistro blog that had been critical of Mr. Tilley, decided to start pointing fingers at the blogger. Even Nina DiSesa, chairman of McCann Erickson, decided to weigh in, smacking down the "hateful" ad blogs. For which, of course, she was then pilloried, as was the creative output of McCann. It wasn't long before this "discussion" stopped being about Mr. Tilley's death or memory, and became about insults, accusations, wild speculation and the self-aggrandizing and ridiculous notion that ad-industry commentary is a matter of life and death.

Rather than taking some quick, responsible action to protect the man's memory and family by shutting down the blog comments, the blog's owners, Jupiter Media, sat back and watched the escalation of ugliness.

The whole mess was capped by a cheap New York Post piece titled "Blogs of Death," a headline that wouldn't have been out of place in The Onion, above a story that simply reported what people on blogs had said about each other, but transitioned the whole conjecture-based tale into the mass media. As this column went to press, The New York Times was looking into it too.

I'm not saying I'm above this either. At Ad Age we report on and analyze anything we deem important to the marketing and media businesses, and we consider the suicide of a leading agency's chief creative officer to be newsworthy -- hence reporting it Feb. 24. I think most other publications would have done the same. But a little perspective, responsibility and respect surely are needed here.

This issue carries an obituary of Mr. Tilley that will remember him and weigh some of the things that likely weighed heavily on him. But we make no pretense to know anything for sure other than that it didn't come down to a blog post. Suicide ain't that simple.

In the weeks and months that follow, Mr. Tilley's death might reasonably prompt us and others in the industry to ask questions about the nature of the marketing world today and the pressure felt by its executives. Me, I don't believe in all that coddling stuff, but I know lots of other people do and will want to debate it.

Still, I hope we can do that in a way that is constructive; that remembers that Paul Tilley is not a cartoon, but a man who leaves behind family; and that shows we understand there's life beyond the narrow confines of the ad world.
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