10 industry figures we lost (and one we regained) in 2020
Harold Burson, Burson-Marsteller co-founder, passed at age 98 in January. Known as an indefatigable leader, even though Burson stepped down as CEO in 1988, he went into the office nearly every day into his ninth decade and was named the “century’s most influential PR figure” in 1999 by PR Week. Burson’s agency, founded in 1946 and now owned by WPP and called Burson Cohn & Wolfe, grew beyond its PR roots to offer extended services including creative, social digital and paid media. The magazine credited Burson with developing training programs that “set the benchmark that other agencies only recently caught up with.”
Media mogul Sumner Redstone, owner of Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS Corp., died in August at age 97. Redstone, as Bloomberg News reported, was known for “swashbuckling, billion-dollar takeover battles that garnered headlines in the financial press,” noting that his “power struggles, love life and seemingly mercurial decisions, such as publicly firing action star Tom Cruise, made him the subject of endless industry gossip and tabloid stories.” He left a legacy of entertainment hits from “Rugrats” to “Titanic” and a net worth of $1.9 billion.
Ken Olshan, the former chairman of Wells Rich Greene, passed away in April following complications from COVID-19. His wife died of the same causes three days later, reported the Hartford Courant. Olshan, the fabled Mad Men-era hotshop known for ads for Braniff International AIrways ("The end of the plain plane"), Benson & Hedges ("The Disadvantages") and Alka-Seltzer ("Plop, plop, fizz fizz") from 1981 until 1995, at which time it was replaced by French holding company BDDP, which then owned WRG. Olshan joined WRG in 1975 when his shop, Doherty, Mann & Olshan, was acquired by WRG, and during his tenure the agency's clients included Chase Manhattan Bank, Ford Motor Co. Hertz Corp., IBM, New York State ("I Love New York"), Philip Morris and Procter & Gamble.
Mike Tesch, the award-winning advertising art director who co-created the iconic Federal Express commercials of the early 1980s, died in November at 82 due to complications from COVID. Most of Tesch’s 40-year career in the advertising business was spent at Ally & Gargano during its glory years as one of Madison Avenue’s top creative agencies in the 1970s and ‘80s. Among his many credits are the FedEx commercial with the fast-talking John Moschitta themed, “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight,” and the Dunkin’ Donuts baker who dragged himself in every morning, saying, “Time to make the donuts.”
Gil Schwartz, long-time CBS communications chief who retired in 2018, passed away in May at age 68 of natural causes. A veteran of more than 20 years at the eye network, he also gained fame by moonlighting as a Fortune columnist and novelist under the pen name Stanley Bing. He wrote more than a dozen books, including “What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness” and “Sun Tzu Was a Sissy.”
Fred Willard, master of improvisation with a genius for comic timing as well as a prolific commercial pitchman, died in May at age 86. Willard is perhaps best known for the films "Best in Show" and "This is Spinal Tap," but even recently continued to appear on talk shows and as a semi-regular on "The Bachelor." Willard was a regular on TV comedies including "Modern Family" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," and the kitschy classic "Fernwood 2 Night," but he also brought his signature zaniness to commercials for brands including Kellogg, Subaru, Foster Farms, Natural Light and more.
“It’s the right thing to do” became a signature line for actor Wilfred Brimley, who made a mark in Quaker Oats commercials, and who passed away in August at age 85. Though known for films such as “The Thing,” “The China Syndrome” and “Cocoon,” Brimley became a familiar face to TV watchers in the 80s in the cereal spots. Brimley, who had been diagnosed with diabetes mellitus was also long-time partner of the American Diabetes Association, touted Liberty Medical’s delivery of at-home diabetes testing products in commercials.
Regis Philbin, a constant presence in living rooms across America, known for “Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee” (1985-2000), “Live! With Regis and Kelly” (2001-to retirement in 2011), and ABC’s prime-time game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” passed away in July at age 88. Philbin, “the hardest working man in show business,” was also a prolific pitchman in spots for brands like Pepsi, TD Bank, Hummer and Aspercreme.
Alex Trebek, the much-loved host of “Jeopardy!” passed away at age 80 in November from pancreatic cancer. Trebek hosted the daily syndicated version of “Jeopardy!” from the first episode’s premiere on Sep. 10, 1984 until his death. A 2013 Reader’s Digest poll named him one of the 10 most trusted people in the country—beating out then-President Barack Obama and all the Supreme Court justices, which made him an ideal pitchman for brands like Colonial Penn; in all, his spots for the insurer netted 12.8 billion impressions from roughly 50,000 airings on national linear TV, according to ispot.TV.
Little Richard, who died in May at age 87, may have been the architect of rock 'n’ roll with hits including “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” but his second act was advertising. He put his flamboyant persona and abundant charisma to work as a corporate promoter in commercials for brands including Geico, Taco Bell, Sprint, Nike, McDonald's, Lipton and Revlon.
Nothing says 2020 like a walking, talking 104-year-old Peanut who plunged off a cliff to his death in January—only to be reborn as a baby in February and matured into a full-fledged adult by August. Given the year we had, that seems downright logical.