A 'nice man' who left a mark in small town of ad industry

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The 700-plus people who packed the All Souls Unitarian Church on Manhattan's East Side on the morning of Jan. 22 were treated to a classic only-in-New York cornucopia: an Italian buffet from Trattoria dell'Arte; plus center-cut tongue, corned beef and pastrami from the Carnegie Deli a block away; plus hot dogs from Gray's Papaya further uptown. Just like Phil Reiss to cater his own memorial service. Phil always looked out for his friends. Phil always looked out for his clients. In many respects, they were exactly the same people.

The outpouring of love that flowed to Phil Reiss before and after his death on Jan. 13 is testimony to the fact that, even as it consolidates and adjusts to the rigors of a technologically linked, globalizing economy, the advertising industry remains a small town. Its residents, the great and the barely known, are bound by common problems, needs and delights. Phil Reiss soothed, supplied and heightened them all, in sequence, becoming an adored and influential figure, as prominent as the names (Omnicom, WPP, DMB&B) he helped bring to life.

Mr. Reiss, who succumbed at age 69 after a long bout with colon cancer, was not in advertising, but he was of it. He was a member of the tiny fraternity of adjuncts that binds together neurotic creatives, grasping moguls and insecure account execs into a coherent whole, one of the handful of attorneys who specialize in counseling ad people. I'm sure the others (e.g. Harold Levine's brother Josh, Shep Kurnit's son Rick) will not begrudge me saying that Mr. Reiss was the silk thread in the Persian rug of advertising. "Phil," as Saul Waring, ex-post Waring & LaRosa, put it, "was the personnel director for Madison Avenue."

"He was a brother figure. A father figure. He was a nice man," Martin Sorrell told me, clearly searching not for superlatives but for simplicity to describe the character of the fellow he considered his bedrock. Sir Martin first met Mr. Reiss in 1981, when he was trying to acquire Wells, Rich, Greene for the Saatchis. Mr. Reiss was representing Mary Wells. The negotiations were complex, extensive, ultimately unsuccessful, but, Sir Martin recalled, "never arduous" because of Mr. Reiss' ability to see past conflicts to the shared desires of all parties. Deciding that he could not let such a talented lawyer ever again represent another, Sir Martin retained Mr. Reiss, who went on to help him acquire J. Walter Thompson Co., the Ogilvy Group and Young & Rubicam.

"He was very good at bringing people together, trying to resolve differences," Sir Martin said. "He had an understanding of what made people tick, psychologically, emotionally and financially."

That quality (might we call it innate, avuncular Freudianism?) came up again and again in conversations I had with ad folk about Phil Reiss. Dick Tarlow recalled when he was desperate to leave Geers Gross, to which he and Don Kurtz had sold their Kurtz & Tarlow agency, before his employment contract expired. He called Mr. Reiss, who had negotiated the sale. "I said, 'Phil, I'm very unhappy; I wanna get out. What should I offer?'" Mr. Tarlow recalled. "Phil thought for a moment, then said, 'Ask for a million dollars.' I thought he was crazy. 'Phil, I want to leave them.' 'Ask for a million dollars,' he repeated."

"So I did, and they gave it to me," Mr. Tarlow added, still astonished at the outcome. Later, in an elision of the professional and personal that was quintessentially Reissian, his attorney lured Mr. Tarlow into acquiring a home on Shelter Island, where Mr. Reiss long kept a summer residence.

Another Shelter Island friend, Bill Persky, writer and producer of such TV hits as "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "Kate & Allie," also referenced his friend's grasp of human nature. A relationship had gone very sour, and a former partner was asking Mr. Persky, unfairly, in his view, to pay her a large sum. "Philip wasn't my attorney; he'd been my college roommate," Mr. Persky recalled. "I told him how much I resented this demand.

"Philip said to me, 'How much is your life worth?' I said I didn't know. He said, 'Let's say it's worth $100 a day, which is cheap. The fight you would have to undertake will take, in my view as an attorney, six months. That's about $150,000-and pain. What's your choice now?' "

"The next day," Mr. Persky said, "I sent a check."

Copyright January 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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