Obituary: Jay Chiat, ad pioneer

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The death last week of legendary adman Jay Chiat marked the passing not only of one of the industry's most influential figures, but of an era when pioneering entrepreneurs dominated the business.

"Most of the larger-than-life characters have left the business now," said Andy Berlin, co-CEO of WPP Group agency Berlin Cameron/Red Cell. Added Bob Wolf, a former Chiat/Day North America chairman-CEO: "The time of the intuitive creative entrepreneur is gone."

Forty years ago, Mr. Chiat nailed his name to the door of a Los Angeles ad agency-and in doing so shattered the status quo as symbolically as the woman in his agency's revered "1984" spot for Apple Computer shatters a screen to break the spell of an Orwellian dictator.

Mr. Chiat, along with Wieden & Kennedy co-founder Dan Wieden and a handful of others, built the foundation in the West for a new kind of agency that elevated the art of advertising, eschewed Madison Avenue's bureaucracy and emphasized creative-centric management. Advertising Age ranked Mr. Chiat as one of the 10 most influential figures in the industry in the last century.

a different business

"I don't think the ad business today is anything like the business that got us into this business in the first place-a business where people take chances, have fun," said Hal Riney, chairman-CEO of Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney. He said "a couple of times" he considered joining Mr. Chiat to form a creative supershop.

The Bronx-born son of a laundry deliveryman, Morton Jay Chiat died last week at 70 in his Marina del Rey, Calif., home following a long bout with prostate cancer. He is survived by his fourth wife, Edwina von Gal, three children and nine grandchildren.

Mr. Chiat and ad executive Guy Day decided to form Chiat/Day at a 1968 Dodgers game. The agency went from under $4 million in billings to $919 million in 1994, the year before it was sold to Omnicom Group. Mr. Chiat, who did not have a title, in keeping with his management philosophy, left in 1996. A few years later, he became acting chief executive of Internet company Screaming Media, and continued as chairman emeritus until he died.

new canvas

Chiat/Day made a major mark in the mid-1980's when Mr. Chiat co-opted the Los Angeles Olympics for client Nike by covering the city with images of Nike athletes-even though Converse paid a reported $4 million for official sponsorship.

The Nike displays reinvented the billboard as the outsize canvas it often is today and popularized a then-new advertising element, relatively small logos.

Just as Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy chiseled the business using words, Mr. Chiat painted it visually by nudging advertising into the popular culture. Credited with establishing the Super Bowl as the ultimate TV spot showcase with "1984," Mr. Chiat had people "talking about [advertising] around the water coolers of America," said Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Omnicom's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, San Francisco.

Mr. Chiat, who imported the British account-planning discipline, also had an eye for artistic talent. He appreciated Frank Gehry, who designed the agency's binocular-shaped headquarters in Venice, Calif., and hired creatives who hold some of the business' top leadership positions today. They include Lee Clow, chairman-worldwide creative director, TBWA/Chiat/Day; Bob Kuperman, chairman-CEO, Omnicom's DDB, New York; Rick Boyko, co-president, WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, and chief creative officer, North America; and Steve Hayden, vice chairman worldwide, Ogilvy.

Rich Silverstein, co-chairman, Goodby Silverstein, called Mr. Chiat a "Renaissance man" who had "a vision of what modernity was." Mr. Kuperman called him "a force of energy who brought out the best of everybody."

Others, however, noted his pug-nacious side. As one industry executive put it, "Jay polarized people," and combined "innovation and daring" with "anger and impetuosity."

Guy Day, who left the agency in the late 1980s, said he rarely spoke with Mr. Chiat."The only thing we agreed on 98% was advertising."

Mr. Chiat drove employees hard, earning the agency the nickname Chiat/Day and Night, and lived by the slogan, "If you don't show up for work on Saturday, don't bother coming in on Sunday." But Mr. Chiat also displayed his generosity with elaborate parties and gifts. He bought flowers for spouses of employees who worked every day for over a month straight on pitches.

He provided spiritual guidance as well. "When I was 25 years old, he told me he wanted me to be great," said Tom Carroll, TBWA/Chiat/Day's president-Americas.

stripped egos

Ogilvy's Mr. Hayden said the Chiat/Day culture stripped away the egos of its employees in a cult-like atmosphere where workers toiled under the impression that while they were "shit," they were at least "shit in the center of the universe." People put up with the long hours, fearing if they left the agency, "you were just shit," he said.

Mr. Hayden said Mr. Chiat was like a grain of sand in an oyster, irritating the best work out of his people. One irritant for Mr. Chiat, however, was his own unrealized drive to build an international advertising creative powerhouse while retaining financial independence. His agency's purchase of Australian shop Mojo in 1989 turned out to be a financial flop. His virtual office was highly touted as an innovation, but others saw the stripped-down workspaces as an indication of the company's financial difficulties.

In his last major public address, a December speech in Pasadena to graduates of the Art Center College of Design, Mr. Chiat acknowledged the purchase of Mojo was "stupid," and came at a time "we were all feeling a little full of ourselves and full of ego."

In the talk, Mr. Chiat, something of a clotheshorse, said he fretted over selecting a "powerful, but not too powerful" necktie to wear on his first trip to the White House.

"Everyone is insecure," he told the graduates. Yet, he said they needed to "shine through" post-Sept. 11 conservatism.

"It is not going to happen with the people you work for," he said. "They are too old. Done. But you can do it and we are depending on you to do it. You are the creative elite. You can start this fire. You can get it all done. And if you don't, we are really all going to be in trouble."

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