Remembering Michael Keeshan, a Man Many Looked up to

A Colleague Looks Back on Working With the Former President and COO of Saatchi & Saatchi

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Michael Keeshan, a former president and chief operating officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, and a longtime boss of mine, died suddenly the other day. Once the numbing shock had subsided, I thought about my relationship with Michael, and how fortunate I was to have worked with him on four separate occasions during my 18 years at Saatchi & Saatchi.

I don't know whether Mike was a "mentor," "coach" or just a "great boss." In reality, it does not matter. Because regardless of the title, I was the one who benefited from knowing him.

What success I have had (if any) in this volatile business is in large part because of Michael. As I think back on my career, whether it's how I approach a problem, write a strategy, consider an idea, or how I relate with co-workers, I can see how much I have been tempered by him.

Michael Keeshan
Michael Keeshan

I remember Michael striding into a horseshoe-shaped configuration of 30 clients at the end of a new-business pitch, putting his hands behind his back, asking the assembled group, "Do you have any questions?" and standing there for 45 minutes expertly answering all the questions fired at him. From that I learned the importance of taking responsibility, especially if you are senior management. That responsibility and high expectations come with the title. That the corner office is not free, that you can't duck or delegate important situations because they may be hard.

I remember being in Michael's office when an abusive client called to do what they did best: be abusive. At the end of the call, Michael said: "As a client, you have the right to question my thinking, my creativity, even my abilities, but nothing gives you the right to question my integrity," and he politely fired the client. From that I learned that standing by one's principles trumps any relationship; that if you consistently make decisions based on consistent principles, then decisions are pretty easy to make. And that consistent principles help those around you understand the thinking that went into your decision.

I remember countless lunches during the difficult years at Saatchi where Michael held court telling stories, jokes and being of positive good cheer, even though he was under unreasonable pressure to fix the company's ills. From that I learned that it is management's responsibility to shield others from the pressures from above, allowing those below to concentrate on improving the work.

I remember, as a young account executive, writing a positioning statement for a new client. The client was an airline, and the idea was far outside its comfort zone. But Michael convinced the client that , while different, the strategy was also right. It became the airline's platform for the next 15 years. From that I learned that the most important thing we do is not develop ideas, but sell them.

I remember Michael sending the creative department back to do more work because the ideas, while interesting, were either slightly off-brand or slightly off-strategy, much to the mounting frustration of both the team and client. I initially thought Michael was being unreasonable. I was wrong. The creative team eventually came back with a campaign which went on to define and drive the client's business, not to mention the creative team's careers. From this bumpy experience, I learned that standards define us, and to have high standards, take tenacity with a soupcon of stubbornness. But in the end, it is the result of those high standards that endure.

The measure of a mentor, coach or great boss is calculated by how well they shape those around them. I don't know whether Michael will ever make the Advertising Hall of Fame . But it would not surprise me if someone who worked for him does. Michael was an instinctive and master molder.

Beau Fraser is managing director of The Gate Worldwide.
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