client’s best interests first,” said Draft, who thinks of himself as more diplomatic than political. “If that’s ruthless, then I’m ruthless.”

“It’s not about personal loyalty to him. It’s about loyalty to the business,” said Draft Chicago managing director Tony Weisman, who has been with the agency for four years. “Do the right thing for the client or the business and you’ll be fine.”

He can also come across as a bit gruff and is comfortable telling tasteless jokes, though some say that demeanor is more a way to test his audience than a true measure of the man, who has made charitable work a cornerstone of the agency and is quick to grant time off for employees to spend time with their families.

“He’s always been respectful of me and the other women that he’s worked with,” said Yvonne Furth, president of Draft Chicago, who’s worked with Draft for 25 years. “He always understands if there’s personal life balance issues to deal with.”

He is also, say many, extremely sharp. “There’s more to Howard than meets the eye,” said Jerry Judge, former worldwide CEO of Lowe. “He seems kind of relaxed and sometimes disengaged. Actually, he’s unbelievably smart.”

Draft responds to such praise with self-depreication, joking that smarts could be more a negative than a positive. What is important to him, he said, is to be fair. For example, when buying the agency back from Cordiant, he included a provision that allowed the former owner to profit if he ever re-sold the shop. “Fair is a good word for me,” Draft said. “Greed is a bad word.”

And now that he’s achieved success equal to (if not a bit beyond) his imagination, the charismatic exec says the reason he gets up in the morning is, in part, because he’s comfortable with the people around him. “I’m still working in an environment with people that I love and respect,” he said. “When your name’s on the door and you’ve grown up with your management, it’s almost like family.”

— with Andrew McMains and Kathleen Sampey