Jay Chiat: Larger Than Life

It seems only appropriate that Chiat/Day was born on the beaches of Los Angeles in 1968. The West Coast was home to a mind-bending social revolution, and against that backdrop, Jay Chiat ushered in advertising’s own countercultural revolution. In an industry established in the shadows of Madison Avenue skyscrapers, his upstart shop basked in the California sunshine, awash in creative audacity, youthful swagger and disdain of industry convention.

Chiat was the agency’s relentless, driving force for the better part of 25 years, stepping back only after C/D was sold in 1995. Along the way, he became one of advertising’s most influential pioneers—perhaps its last great entrepreneur—who delighted in bringing about provocative change. His richest legacy was C/D’s brilliant portfolio, which came out of an agency environment in which creatives were driven to improve on their best work.

Morton Jay Chiat, 70, died last Tuesday morning at his Marina del Rey, Calif., home from complications related to prostate cancer. He was surrounded by his wife, Edwina von Gal, and his three children, Marc, Deborah and Elyse.

In keeping with his paradoxical nature, Chiat was at times blunt, harsh and abrasive—befitting his roots in the Bronx—and also generous and nurturing of talent. For all of his domineering presence at C/D, he always sought to achieve the kind of flat hierarchy where talent and intelligence determined status.

Chiat recalled a time when advertising was driven more by its larger-than-life personalities than by the bottom-line prerogatives of holding-company shareholders. With his year-round bronzed features, impeccable tailoring, ironic sense of humor and sophisticated tastes in art and architecture, Chiat lent a worldly pedigree to an increasingly faceless, corporate industry.

“In the ’80s, when our business was more about mega-mergers than it was about advertising, at a time when it was impossible to tell what the average agency stood for, Chiat/ Day and Jay Chiat stood alone,” recalls DDB New York chairman and CEO Bob Kuperman, formerly the CEO of C/D’s flagship L.A. office.

Chiat’s influence took up where Bill Bern bach’s legacy left off, and over lunch at the Four Seasons, the founder of DDB coached Chiat during the early days. Says Kuperman: “If Bill Bernbach started the ‘creative revolution’ in the ’60s, Jay Chiat not only brought it back from near death in the business recession of the ’70s, but made it grow and flourish in the ’80s and ’90s. Far more than [being] leaders who simply understood and supported creativity, both created agencies that threw out all the rules, turned their backs on linear thinking and thumbed their noses at conventional advertising wisdom.”

In its first two decades, C/D’s growth was breathtaking as Chiat built it into a $1 billion shop. But his ambitions and financial miscalculations eventually cost the agency its maverick identity, and it would meet the same fate as Bernbach’s agency, becoming part of Omnicom’s network.

One significant misstep was Chiat’s 1989 purchase of Australian agency Mojo, whose business collapsed be cause of a bad corporate fit and the implosion of Mojo’s home economy. He was unable to forge links with agencies in Europe. And C/D took on too much debt, finding itself, by the early ’90s, in the worst of all worlds as a highly leveraged, midsize independent competing with well-financed global networks. C/D’s board forced Chiat to sell to the Omnicom network, which then merged the agency with TBWA.

Chiat never regretted his penchant for risk taking, despite the failure of his gamble on expansion. “I’m uncomfortable when I’m comfortable,” he once said. “I have to start something new—in the agency or in my personal life—every two years or so. Taking risks gives me energy. I can’t help it, it’s my personality. I’d like to think it’s not really a compulsion toward high risks, but the spirit of an entrepreneur.”

Chiat was raised in New Jersey and attended Rutgers University there. The Air Force took him to the West. He went on to a job writing recruitment ads for an aerospace firm, then was hired as a copywriter at Leland Oliver Co., a small agency in Orange County, Calif. He was promoted to creative director before leaving in 1962 to form Jay Chiat & Associates. In 1968, he merged with Faust/Day.

After the sale to Omnicom, Chiat left advertising, finding new energy in the Internet. He was a seed investor in Screaming Media, a Manhattan Internet content provider, and became its chairman. He began to relax more at his Hampton beach house in Sagaponack and spent time golfing and traveling with his landscape-architect wife.

He also sought ways to bring more minorities into advertising, and donated $1 million to Rutgers for scholarships to African American and Latino students. The creative companionship he once found at C/D was replaced by small dinners with the artists whose work he collected: David Salle, Eric Fischl, April Gor nik, Ralph Gibson, Brian Hunt.

“Jay’s biggest enemy was complacency and the status quo,” says TBWA worldwide creative director Lee Clow, hired at Chiat/Day in 1973. “He had a driving, almost manic vision.”

Chiat would consistently tell colleagues to “do something you’ve never done before,” Clow says. “He never let anyone relax.”

C/D introduced cinema tography worthy of the big screen into the 60-second format, attracting Oscar-winning British film directors like Ridley Scott. The agency made five of the top 10 ads named “Best of the Dec ade” by the One Club at the end of the ’80s. Apple’s “1984,” the Ener gizer Bunny and Nike’s “I love L.A.” for the 1984 Olympics fast became the stuff of industry legend.

Nonetheless, C/D suffered more high-profile client defections than most shops its size—though Apple would return to the fold.

The pursuit of creative excellence went far beyond C/D’s own corridors. Chiat breathed a new vitality into the industry by drawing talent and clients away from established ad centers and into new markets.

“It’s difficult to overstate his contribution to the entire advertising industry: He made creative an imperative, not an option,” says M.T. Rainey, part of the C/D team that introduced the Macintosh and now CEO of Rainey, Kelly, Campbell, Roalfe, Young & Rubicam. “He was ahead of his time in creating new kinds of operating structures and ways of thinking.”

Chiat brought the British discipline of account planning to America, hiring practitioner Jane Newman to familiarize clients and colleagues with the practice. “Jay was totally counterintuitive. How else could anyone in their right mind believe more research, more numbers, more focus groups could make creative better?” acknowledges New man, former vice chairman of C/D.

By his own admission, Chiat was a frustrated architect. He enlisted Frank Gehry to craft C/D’s famous Venice, Calif., headquarters, featuring the giant-binoculars portal.

He attempted to create something different inside the office, as well, in an effort to challenge staff ers to find better ways to collaborate. His concept of a virtual agency entailed an open floor plan within which staffers had only a locker, a cell phone and a laptop. It ultimately failed, but its spirit helped to re-create the concept of working space.

“Because the walls are limited, there’s a freedom in sharing your work,” explains former C/D creative director Rick Boyko, now chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather. “The experience makes you less afraid to have people comment on your work.”

Fearlessness, or at least the ability to develop a thick skin, was mandatory at an agency founded by a man “who [would] yell, rant, rave and demand if he thinks things can be better or work can be better,” according to Clow.

The agency’s work ethic was best stated in an early, unofficial work code: ‘If you can’t be bothered to work on Saturday, don’t bother to come in on Sunday.’

“We were a dysfunctional family. You were adored without conditions, even if the shit was kicked out of you,” says C/D alumnus Marian Salzman, global director of strategy and planning at Euro RSCG. “It was the school of hard knocks. People would say, ‘Working at Chiat was like going to finishing school.’ It wasn’t. It was like going to the gravel lots and being told to dig.”

Tom Carroll, TBWA president of the Americas, says Chiat was a mentor whose demanding manner was intended to bring out the best in staffers. “He was the most generous person I knew in my whole life,” says Carroll. “As brutal as he could be, it was [meant] to find the brilliant part of you.”

That perfectionism would shape Chiat’s entire career. “Jay had a certain divine discontent. He thought all human works are, by their nature, flawed,” says Steve Hayden, the copywriter of “1984” while he was at C/D and now vice chairman of Ogilvy & Mather. “Jay was al ways seeking transcendence. Having a good or even successful campaign gave him no pleasure. The only pleasure he ever had was in shaking the foundations of the world.”

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