Garfield's Ad Review: Chiat's legacy was attitude as much as it was advertising

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"Money hasn't changed me. I've always been an asshole."-Jay Chiat

Well, that bon mot says just about everything, does it not? The binoculars-shaped Venice Beach headquarters will be cited again and again in Jay Chiat's obituaries, but as programmatic architecture goes, it was really the wrong imagery. Frank Gehry should have designed the thing to look like an extended middle finger.

Chiat's legacy, apart from a stunning portfolio of extraordinary advertising, was an attitude-an attitude that still thrives in the creative mentality but which has otherwise been all but expunged by the craven, corporate, low-price-supplier realities of agency consolidation. It was an attitude-not to put too fine a point on it-of arrogance. We can argue all day where exactly integrity, self-assurance and uncompromising vision spill over into pathological intractability; Chiat lived variously on both sides of the border. But if Chiat/Day stands for anything, it is the steadfast belief that the client is best served by listening carefully to the presentation and doing exactly what it is told.

He who is paid by the piper, in other words, calls the tune. Which is, you know, pretty much the opposite of how it works everywhere else.

One of the problems with posthumous advertising encomiums is sorting out, in a collaborative enterprise, who really deserves credit for what. No such difficulty for Jay Chiat. For instance, in the matter of "1984," which Ad Review regards as the greatest TV commercial ever made, the authors were Steve Hayden, Lee Clow and director Ridley Scott. But every author needs a publisher who will go to press, come what may, and it was Chiat/Day's irrepressible institutional will that forced the spot down the client's gagging throat.

Sometimes this process results in "1984." Sometimes it results in "UBU," a 1987 Reebok campaign which dropped the Nike-esque pretense about sneakers being for sport and embraced the shoes for what they actually were: fashion items, expressing the wearers' own personality. The problem was-as Chiat/Day discovered a bit late-that the sports-worthiness pretense was at the center of the fashion appeal. Nobody ever takes their Rolex to 200 feet underwater, but the brand's cachet is that it could survive the journey. Chiat/Day insisted. The gagging client relented. The campaign lodged in the client's throat and damn near killed him. The ex-client, that is.

holy man

Jay Chiat's list of ex-clients reads like a National Advertisers Hall of Fame, including, right at the top of the list, Nike. "Just Do It" was the work of the successor agency, Wieden & Kennedy, but the underlying ethos was discovered by Jay Chiat's Chiat/Day. The dramatic murals of athletes painted on buildings during the 1984 L.A. Olympics are often mentioned as an art form, but they were far more than that. They were spiritual, objects of worship, advertising's answer to stained glass. They permitted passersby to regard runners as gods whose sacred light reflected on the little swoosh below.

Nike may have been the Pope, but Jay Chiat was Michaelangelo-the only difference being that Chiat never lay on his back, even if, despite his aversion to the very idea of it, it might have been the best way to get the job done.

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