Jay hated clichés, so to call him a visionary or an innovator or an icon or a legend—although all true—would probably just make him laugh.
So maybe it's better to say he was a stirrer upper: He liked to shake things up while sometimes knocking them down. That included the physical walls of the agency, as well as the people and the work created there.
He was his shop's chief executive officer, not a creative person, so to describe him as "the father of the Energizer bunny'' or the "author of '1984' '' is a mistake (although he was a copywriter early in his career—and with his characteristic irrev e rence for titles and hierarchy in general, he became "president'' of the original Chiat/Day based on a coin toss). But he managed to have a titanic impact on the agency's day-to-day creative work, and that made for a lasting revolution in the business.
No, Jay did not invent clean lines and white space. That was an earlier revolution, at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the 1960s. His revolution was more boundary-pushing and attitudinal.
First, there was the nonstop pursuit of a new American, West Coast smart-ass excellence. "Good enough is not enough" was one of his well-known maxims, but Jay Chiat was genuinely excited by all things visual, new and brainy, and that's a contagious way to run an agency.
He was himself a contrarian who embraced contradiction. Indeed, what was most striking (and consistent) about the shop's work was the irony of selling a mass audience this great elitism, an anti-mainstream, hipper-and-smarter-than-thou interpretation of "them'' and "us." This, of course, was basic to Apple's fabric ("Introducing Macintosh. For the rest of us"), and what made the fabled "1984" spot—the war between totalitarianism and enlightenment—such genius.
In 1978, Chiat/Day came out with "Don't follow anyone" for Yamaha. It wasn't simply a tagline—it was the entire positioning, literally. Once the agency found out that Honda's proud new tagline was "Follow the leader," the media department made sure that Yamaha's much more ballsy and self-confident boards were placed behind every Honda sign across the country.
The idea that consumers were informed, and could appreciate minimal, sophisticated visuals, bloomed with the Nike billboards of the early '80s. They had the oversized scale of contemporary art and the super-realist clarity of fine-art photography. Against a background of heavenly sky, there was the incredible beauty of Carl Lewis' form, with a foot, fingertips and an arm extending off the board's left side. On the right, there was only clear blue, except for a Nike logo and swoosh in the top corner. Intense black-and-white TV companion pieces showed never-identified athletes working and sweating; there was only natural sound, their voices and a tiny swoosh before the fade-out.
At the time, some ossified creatives at the major New York agencies sniffed that this was not "advertising." They were right—it was not advertising, it was branding. It stripped away all the specific selling details in favor of the larger and more abstract ideas of emotion, allegiance and identification with a brand.
Through Jay's challenging leadership and perfectionism, the agency pushed every piece of creative as far as it could go—sometimes too far, as in the case of Reebok's bungee-jumping ad. It was pulled before anybody could see the action at Puget Sound. Two jumpers go down, and we see the thrill of the dive (10 years before the reality shows), but then the kicker: The guy in Reebok pumps still hangs from his cords, while next to him a cord sways, holding a jumperless Nike shoe. I was surprised to see that spot on Jay's handpicked show reel. It was black humor and, like some of the stuff Chiat/Day did, perverse to the point of being self-sabotaging.
It's ironic that the latest 4A's meeting was full of speeches decrying the devaluation of agencies' work and rallying for an end to agencies' humbling themselves to clients' whims. Jay lived that way all along—just another example of how he was way ahead of his time.
It's hard to believe that he was 70, because he was still the coolest guy in the room. I criticized it at the time, but Reebok's tagline of the early '90s seems eerily apt in describing the way Jay lived: "Life's short. Play hard."
Thanks for the innovation.