My Experience With Jay Chiat

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The essential component of greatness in a truly great advertising person is contradiction. Which leads naturally to a discussion of Jay Chiat.

What you will not read in any other eulogy of Jay, who died last week after a long bout with cancer, is how frequently and copiously he whined. The first time I met him -- he, the second-most influential person in postwar advertising, I an intimidated junior beat reporter -- he carped. Before a Museum of Television & Radio evening devoted to his agency's achievements, he complained.

Godlike figure
This godlike figure, this wealthy St. Bart's hobnobber, this maharishi of modern marketing -- he read his reviews! He bled. He was human. With apologies to all the ex-employees he routinely drove bananas, this is what made him both lovable and magnificent.

Almost all the pre-eminent

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advertising executives I have known are exactly that: executives. They succeeded in building and running businesses. Some have other talents -- writing or design the most obvious -- but fundamentally they are terrific businesspeople. Occasionally, they use their commercial success to catapult to other platforms, as, in another era, the founders of Benton & Bowles (later a U.S. senator and a governor, respectively) did.

But only two or three times in a generation does someone come along with the contradictory and probably unarticulated notion of making a big, lasting change upon the canvas of culture -- without leaving the grubby precincts of the persuasion industry. Such people are often misunderstood. Jay was one of them. I suspect this is why he whined.

Challenged status quo
What did he do? Forget about specific commercials, like "1984," and industry innovations, such as the popularization of account planning. Jay Chiat's importance is that he moved advertising beyond the Bernbach revolution into the postmodern era. Building on the innovations of another West Coast iconoclast, San Francisco's Howard Gossage, Jay dared challenge the reigning orthodoxy in marketing, which assumed (David Ogilvy notwithstanding) that consumers were docile, dumb and one-dimensional. (If you doubt the prevalence of this mind-set, just consider the principles underlying the concept of the Unique Selling Proposition.)

Jay, by contrast, encouraged -- OK, browbeat -- his people toward sly references to art, to literature, to underground pop, to advertising itself.

At its best, the output of Chiat/Day was a hall of mirrors that reflected the same currents pulsing through contemporary art, architecture, the club scene and, much more recently, the Internet. A version of that roiling stew (its ingredients can differ, but might include a dash of Moby, a sprinkling of Sontag, and bits of Lenin and Lennon, served on a dish designed by Walter and Margaret Keane) lives inside the head of anyone brought up in the '60s and beyond.

A miasma of consumer culture
With his additional influence outside of advertising, notably as a patron of art and architecture, Jay Chiat ultimately exposed the fact that there are no lines separating the low from the middlebrow from the high. We all live in the gray miasma of consumer culture. Don't fight it, he argued, at least implicitly; mold it.

He did, and the result is not just a transformed marketing-communications industry -- other notables, such as Marion Harper Jr., can claim that accomplishment -- but an altered world.

Jay Chiat would probably grumble that I got this wrong, too. Maybe so. But I still think that's one hell of a leave-behind.

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