'Most influential' ad person?

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It's a measure of Harry Paster's ubiquity in the ad industry that I cannot recall when I first met him. Plumbing the depths of memory, I can dredge up no introduction, no inaugural telephone call, no letter, no initial offer of help. All these and more I received from him over the years, but in my mind they're from someone I already knew, had long known, who would be around forever, teaching me what I did not know.

Although Harry succumbed at home two weeks ago to cancer, memory--not just mine, but those of the thousands he touched in his 47 years in advertising--assures he will indeed stick around for a long, long time.

I think it's fair to say Harry was, for a large part of his 74 years, the most influential person in the advertising industry. I can't recall if he even made Advertising Age's "Top 100 Advertising People" of the 20th century list, let alone what number. If he was on it, I suspect he was toward the bottom. That's because his influence as exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies fell into no identifiable category. He couldn't lay claim to Leo Burnett's critters, or David Ogilvy's brand understanding, or the Saatchi brothers' financial wizardry or Lou Hagopian's account mastery. Yet Harry certainly knew as much as Martin Sorrell about mergers and acquisitions, as much as Phil Dusenberry about the creative temperament, as much as Milt Gossett about relationships.

If he didn't get the public credit for this knowledge--and he did not, for a database search will show his name appearing in the news rarely--it's because Harry's authority was deeply personal. And so is the advertising industry. This, indeed, was the source of Harry Paster's influence. Even when Madison Avenue was an imposing granite canyon, its denizens among the elite of American business, Harry knew advertising was, in reality, a cottage industry.

Harry's agency business was composed of small mom and pop shops, scattered across the Des Moines and Salt Lake Cities of this vast land, whose owners had invested their lives and their families' futures in a small firm where everything (clients, campaigns, ideas, employees) was always at risk. Did advertising people seem neurotic? That's because they were, and had every reason to be.

What they needed was an honest broker who could calm their fears, locate their opportunities, find their security. "What do you do, Harry?" I once asked him. He chuckled (he always chuckled). "Randy," he answered, "I keep 'em from getting crazy."

How he maintained the industry's sanity was no more mysterious than a plane ride, a look at an agency's general ledger and some telephone calls. But his real work was a mystery nonetheless. He had deep knowledge, sure, but he had long ago gained something that eludes most knowledgeable people: wisdom.

This, together with his probity and essential trustworthiness, enabled him to respond to his flock's pleas--"Harry, I need to sell my agency;" "Harry, my lousy kid doesn't want to take over; where can I find a successor?"--with a calm counsel more befitting a beloved minister.

Better I should say "rabbi." For what made his sway all the more remarkable was that Harry was joyfully Jewish in an industry that, for a long while, did not cotton to Jews.

For a while in his early years, Harry may have been--he may even have considered himself--the restricted industry's "court Jew." But, of course, he had the last, glorious laugh, for Harry, through years of schmoozing, brokering and guiding, helped convert advertising. Increased openness to the still-restricted--blacks, Asians, Hispanics, gays and women among them--will be a fitting legacy.

Not that he needs one. For Harry Paster remains the institutional memory of the agency business. And memory, as we've demonstrated, lives on.

Copyright October 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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