Death Of An Adman

The advertising industry lost a great man recently. He wasn’t a president or a CEO. He never achieved the title of chairman. He didn’t revolutionize the business, come up with some new compensation structure, author an award-winning campaign or win the Grand Prix at Cannes. In fact, in the end, he didn’t even care much for advertising, the career he spent more than 20 years pursuing.

So why, you ask, or how, did this man achieve greatness?

Well, it started back in the late ’70s, when Howard Lesman graduated from Boston University. His calling, you might have said then, was advertising. So he went to work at Arnold, on the regional McDonald’s account. A junior account guy’s life is not the most fun, but Howard had a ball. He befriended so many (a hallmark of his life and career) and gained valuable experience in the process. He was on the move!

From Boston it was on to New York, where he joined the great Ammirati & Puris, a place of standards, both personal and professional. Howard found his home. He rose through the account ranks, working on business like BMW, Club Med, Aetna and Four Seasons Hotels.

I first met Howard Lesman when he interviewed me in 1994 for a position on the Burger King account. In the interview, I found myself completely disarmed, exposed in a way that was both uncomfortable and refreshing. (Howard had an uncanny ability for exposing the truth.) Luckily, despite my confessions of all my weaknesses, he hired me. I suppose we all have moments that we reflect on as being career-altering. Well, this was my moment. I didn’t know it then—in fact, I may not have realized it until recently—but my fortunes changed when I met Howard Lesman, as did the fortunes of so many.

The next 10 years were full of victories and defeats. Ammirati slid into history. And Howard, who continued to achieve success on various accounts, “retired” after a run-in with a serial CEO. With the joy and excitement out of the business for him, and with many of his friends and colleagues deciding to pursue other ventures, Howard stepped out of advertising and onto a new career path as consultant.

Cliché, disappointing, expected … yes, a career as a consultant can be all of these things. But Howard created a shop (together with friend Jan Boyle) that was a reflection of himself and his style—honest counsel for those looking for the best, most productive agency partnership.

So why, you say, was this man a great advertising guy? To those seeking personal fame and fortune, who are in this business for the glory, freebies, awards or boondoggles, I guess you’d say he wasn’t. But to really study Howard was to see his true greatness. To those clients that he dedicated so many years, Four Seasons Hotels stands out. He earned their respect and friendship. To his colleagues, he was charming, smart, insightful, infuriating at times, funny and full of life. To those who knew him best, he was an original, unrivaled. Like the leading brand with market share of 50 percent.

But to me, his greatness lay in his ability to make me feel like the smartest, best, most capable person around whenever I was in his company. He made me believe, as all great admen do, that I could do anything, take on any challenge and be anything I wanted. He believed in me, and in turn, I believed in myself.

I carry this lesson with me now, as I reflect on what Howard meant to me and to the advertising world at large. And I think that if there is a legacy that Howard Lesman left this industry, it is that we all have an obligation to nurture emerging talent. With many training programs disbanded and the focus more on personal achievement rather than professional development, we need to ask ourselves, Who will be the next Howard Lesman? Will we spend the time to educate, train and encourage young talent? Will we share our experiences to help nurture the next generation?

In one of our last lunches together, Howard said something that may seem cliché but is terribly relevant at this time of year. “Happiness,” he said, “is not about getting but giving.” Let’s resolve to give more in the new year. As a tribute to my friend and mentor, I plan to do exactly that.