Jay Chiat's passing highlights a 'power personality' vacuum

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This column went to the printer on the same day "Spider-Man" opened in theaters. Still, I feel confident making two predictions about the film:

First, it will be No. 1 at the box office, grossing $3.5 gazillion dollars, the largest ever opening for a non-holiday weekend in a month with three letters. Second, it will contain more colorful characters than the ad industry could possibly assemble in one place.

The lack of characters (with an "s") in the ad business becomes more evident every time someone like Jay Chiat passes away or retires. These days most leading marketers, agencies and media companies are publicly held and, appropriately, run by bean counters.

Many are shrewd, wicked-smart businessmen who know their way around a balance sheet. They're the right people to run their companies today, when scale and strategy are interchangeable. That's why John Dooner's observation, that he is the only agency holding company CEO who is also an ad practitioner, wins him kudos on Madison Ave. but few points with the Street, which wants to know what you've done for it this quarter.

But the predominance of financial skills also explains the general absence of color in the business. Any compilation of the best-known quotations of today's advertising bosses would surely be peppered with such phrases as "Check out that EBITDA" and "Is this deal accretive to earnings?"

Compare that with the sayings of David Ogilvy ("The consumer is not a moron; she's your wife") and Jay Chiat ("Don't be afraid of failure unless you're working for me.") With apologies to Donny Deutsch, the reason he can't fully escape his reputation as the industry bad boy, despite having platinum credentials, is no one else has stepped into the role.

"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, himself a near-mythical character, upon Jay Chiat's death.

The color has drained not just from agencies but also marketers and media companies. Peter Diamandis, who bought out the magazine division of CBS way back when and made a small mint when he resold it to Hachette and other buyers, left the publishing business years ago. But mention his name to any magazine veteran and the first thing they'll say is, "Boy, the business misses him. What a character." Peter has plenty of brains, but he overflows with charisma. On the marketer side, say what you want about Phil Guarascio, but when he sauntered into a room with a cigar as big as his ad budget, it was clear General Motors was in the house.

A character is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a person marked by notable or conspicuous traits." That in and of itself isn't enough. There have been plenty of colorful bosses with conspicuous traits who ran their businesses into the ground. And there are plenty of bland CEOs who have done amazing work as builders and innovators, or at the least as protectors.

But the power of personality can't be underestimated. The true characters are pioneers and risk-takers. They are larger than life. They are flag-wavers for their industries. They are leaders who inspire loyalty, demand the best and often get it. Ogilvy & Mather's Steve Hayden observed that Jay Chiat was like a grain of sand in an oyster, irritating the most polished performances out of his people.

"With power comes responsibility." So said Uncle Ben to his nephew Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man. There's a character-building lesson for CEOs in there somewhere.

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