Tragic Tale of Creative but Complicated Man

Paul Tilley's Death Leaves Agency, Ad Industry With Many Questions

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CHICAGO ( -- DDB Chicago creative chief Paul Tilley was his usual affable, outsize self as he sat through routine planning meetings in Chicago and a client meeting in New Orleans on Feb. 19 and 20.


Paul Tilley's death at 40 -- ruled a suicide -- has raised many questions about workplace stress and harsh blog criticism.

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"He was quintessential Paul," said State Farm Assistant VP-Advertising Mark Gibson, who met with Mr. Tilley in New Orleans to discuss a coming campaign. "He was engaged and actively involved in the details, as he always is. There was no sign of anything wrong."

But something certainly was.

A day later, 40-year-old Mr. Tilley called the office to say he wouldn't be in the rest of the week. He then drove the 20 miles from his north suburban Chicago home to the Fairmont Hotel next door to DDB's downtown office. The following evening, he leapt from the hotel's 27th floor. He left behind a wife and two young daughters.

His death -- ruled a suicide by medical examiners -- shook DDB and the agency community, raising wide-ranging questions about workplace stress at large shops such as DDB, and even the emotional toll of rough blog and media criticism. (The New York Post last week labeled some ad blogs that had been critical of Mr. Tilley as "Blogs of Death.")

But one thing is clear: People who knew and worked closely with Mr. Tilley are convinced his decision to end a promising life and career was not rooted in problems with the workplace. A DDB spokeswoman said he had not been fired, demoted or disciplined, and none of his clients contacted by Ad Age said they were dissatisfied with work.

"The reality of this news is difficult to comprehend. It is such a loss for DDB, but also for our industry, our community, and certainly for his family and all who loved him. Paul was a mentor to many, a friend to all. His ability to lead, inspire, and, yes, entertain, will be so greatly missed," said Rick Carpenter, president-CEO, DDB Chicago.

No one but Mr. Tilley, of course, knows why he ended his own life. But in phone conversations and at his public memorial service, people close to him described Mr. Tilley as a more complicated and sometimes darker person than his wisecracking, class-clown exterior tended to let on.

"Any of us who have known Paul for this long have definitely seen his dark side," said a college friend of Mr. Tilley's who attended his memorial service last week. "That was just part of the trade off."

Big successes
In advertising circles, Mr. Tilley likely will be most remembered for two campaigns he oversaw after joining DDB from JWT in 1997. In 2000, he oversaw Dell's "Dell Dude" effort, which propelled the PC maker to top-selling status in its category.

Four years later, he was promoted to lead the McDonald's account, and the work that followed -- under the "I'm Loving It" tagline -- was among the most commercially successful and creatively lauded efforts ever produced for the fast-food giant.

Tumult elsewhere at the agency pushed him even further up the ladder. In the summer of 2006, his predecessor as top creative, Michael Folino, quit after only six months. Barely a month later, one of the agency's biggest clients, JC Penney, announced it would be leaving, too.

Then agency president Dana Anderson tapped Mr. Tilley for the top creative post in the hope that he would reverse poor new-business trends (the shop had lost accounts from Home Depot and Dell less than a year earlier) and elevate the agency's creative reputation.

That project has produced uneven results to date. The shop last year scored a major new-business coup when it, along with Omnicom sibling BBDO, won a slew of global work for Wrigley. And Kraft -- which Mr. Tilley and Ms. Anderson had worked on in earlier stints at JWT and Foote Cone and Belding, respectively -- shipped its Miracle Whip account to the agency.

But there were setbacks as well. Miracle Whip left the shop in October, after just seven months, a move many linked to Ms. Anderson's decision to quit the agency in August. (She was replaced by Mr. Carpenter, who was president of DDB, Los Angeles.) And Anheuser-Busch's high-profile Bud.TV project -- seen by many at and around DDB as an opportunity for the agency to build an impressive digital case study -- was a flop, registering a fraction of the traffic A-B executives hoped for.

Yet A-B heaped praise on DDB after winning its 10th consecutive Super Bowl USA Today AdMeter derby this year. And State Farm's Mr. Gibson said the insurer was "excited" about the forthcoming campaign Mr. Tilley helped develop.

It was true that Mr. Tilley had a sometimes-strained relationship with creatives, whom he implored for better work. In an October memo, he wrote: "Some of you are doing truly great work -- work that makes DDB Chicago one of the top 10 most-awarded creative agencies in the world," he wrote. "But too many of you are only doing good work. And some of you are doing work that simply isn't good enough."

Those critiques occasionally rankled the agency's creatives. Some of their sentiments leaked onto blogs, which offered harsh critiques -- and outright mockery -- of Mr. Tilley's management.

"I know it bothered him," said one DDB executive who worked closely with Mr. Tilley. "But this goes way beyond his work or criticism of his work. It's a big, ugly, messy stew. He had some personal demons, and he'd been through a tragedy."

Missed father
Last June, Mr. Tilley's father, an architect, died in a house fire in Austin, Texas. Coworkers knew Mr. Tilley was crushed by the tragedy, but most assumed he'd handled it as well as could have been expected.

Before a packed memorial service last week in Evanston, Ill., at the Alice Millar Chapel, which seats 700, Mr. Tilley's wife, Cristina, likened him to Icarus, the mythological Greek figure who built wax wings to escape a prison but perished when he flew too close to the sun and the wings melted. (She declined to comment for this story, but told the Chicago Tribune that "life is complicated, and Paul was a complicated man.")

More than 100 DDB employees, including Chairman Emeritus Keith Reinhard, CEO Chuck Brymer, Chairman-Chief Creative Officer Bob Scarpelli and Mr. Carpenter, attended the service. Mr. Tilley's best man, David Warner, lamented his "passive, dark" side while lauding his "incredible creative mind."

"I've never known a man with a hunger for life that exceeded his," Mr. Warner said.

Tilley was passionate, inspiring

Ask anyone who knew and loved Paul Tilley, and they'll tell you spending time with him was unlike anything else.

They'll talk about his sheer presence, of course. He was larger than life in every way, from his beefy handshake to his booming voice to his forceful energy. When Paul walked into a room, he owned it.

They'll comment about his dizzying blitz of ideas, humor and advice that would leave you breathless. No one could come up with ideas faster. No one could solve a problem as quickly. No one could provide such immediate insight. And no one could bring on laughter so easily.

They'll talk about how his passion for his family, his understanding of the business, his thirst for knowledge, his love of music and writing– how they were all so infectious. One couldn't help but admire how he used all these things to fuel his immense spirit and drive.

And they'll all mention the way Paul could ultimately inspire them. To feel better about themselves. Their work. Their lives. Paul left a lasting, positive impression on everyone he encountered. From family to friends, from clients to strangers.

For those of us who knew him well, we've lost a dear friend. But the great memories of the time spent with him are indelible.

Godspeed, Paul.
-John Siebert

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John Siebert is group creative director at DDB, Chicago.

Clients remember Paul Tilley

  • "Paul Tilley's tragic passing touches us deeply. We will remember him as a good man and a creative leader whose impressive record of achievement will stand as a lasting tribute to his talents. We send our deepest sympathies to his family." -- Mary Dillon, global chief marketing officer, McDonald's

  • "This is shocking news and all of us at Anheuser-Busch are deeply saddened. Paul was a great talent and a key component of our team. He will be sorely missed. We extend our sympathies to Paul's family and his friends at DDB, and we share in their grief." -- Robert C. Lachky, chief creative officer, Anheuser-Busch

  • "We are very, very saddened by the sudden passing of Paul, a very bright star. He was integrally involved in our business and had been a great partner for us. He left many friends, family and colleagues who cared for him." -- Mark Gibson, assistant VP-advertising, State Farm
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