The Last Adman

Frank Gehry, carrying a big walking stick, was talking a few weeks ago at the TED conference about his friend and client, the former advertising mogul and media visionary Jay Chiat.

They’d built, in the late eighties, one of the most famous offices in the history of offices. It was a temporary space in Venice, California, used while the permanent place got built – a thrown-together, ad hoc cardboard amusement park filled with Jay’s great art collection as well as his agency, Chiat/Day, and its 700 employees. It was the Oz of offices, and it helped make Chiat/Day the most fabled ad agency of its day and Frank Gehry among the most famous architects in the country.

Jay, Frank was saying, possibly with complicated affection, is “a motherfucker to do business with.”

I said I had a theory that the whole PC-Internet-Napster overthrow-the-media ethos is a Jay thing, that even his offices were part of this. That Jay is the patron saint (one of them, anyway) of the deconstructed age.

Frank then started to complain about how Jay had gone behind his back and put up the money to mount the museum exhibition that in the eighties rescued Frank from obscurity. “He just has to save everybody,” Frank said with some grievance.

I was thinking: What a prick. His friend is fighting a tough case of prostate cancer – recuperating at that moment from radiation treatments – and he’s bad-mouthing him. But then I thought: No, it’s more than that. This is something they share – something more than being grumpy old men.

I mean, you expect successful guys to be businesslike in their utterances. If you build museums and office buildings, like Frank, or, like Jay, if you’ve run one of the largest ad agencies in the country, getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars by Nissan to make car ads, for God’s sake, what are you if not a business guy?

But these two, I realized, haven’t been socialized that way. They both talk like this – immoderately and precisely. If they think it, they say it. It’s a rebel thing – quaint almost.

Listening to Jay not long ago at a Museum of Modern Art symposium on design and the workplace, I had the same sense: Nobody talks like this.

“What did you hope to accomplish with your radical efforts to deconstruct the traditional office?” Jay was asked by an earnest interlocutor about his various workplaces, which came to lack offices, hierarchies, desks, form, order of any sort.

“Well,” Jay said, pausing for a second, then expressing every boss’s most primal desire, “I mostly thought of it as a way to get people to quit.” (He added, about his deskless New York office, that he did give in a bit to employee needs: “They wanted a place to hang their dog pictures, so I gave them lockers – like high school.”)

Jay manages to both swagger and, with hands jammed deep in his pockets, appear unassuming. He’s 71 now, but the posture, the slouch, and his running commentary – under his breath, so you don’t ever catch it all – continue to create a sense of an edgy, disruptive guy. A hipster. A troublemaker. He watches things go by and then messes with them. “Mr. Cool,” Gehry calls him – not necessarily with approval either.

But coolness is the aesthetic: a sort of modern classicism. Cool is the way to be both indifferent to commerce and commercial at the same time.

In my theory about Jay and the postmodern age, Jay was the first guy to offer a picture of people living in the media world – demonstrating that we’re in the media, rather than merely watching it.

Indeed, because we were in it, we no longer were really seeing it. Hence it wasn’t enough to have a clever message, but you had to somehow shake up the media system, to subvert it, to have any sort of effect on it.

This subversion included Jay’s collaboration with Steve Jobs (a father-son collaboration, many people say), out of which came the Macintosh mythology – the Macintosh-is-the-message mythology. It included the elevation of look and feel to the highest order of selling – for Nike, using its logo as a footnote to a mostly unrelated scene. (Everyone, client and consumer alike, had to take a leap of faith that something was actually being sold – even if it wasn’t.) It was the Energizer Bunny as the most knowing piece of self-referentialism to hit the small screen (the Energizer Bunny was always in some sense about the worthlessness of media). There was, too, I might argue, his backhand swipe at Hollywood, at celluloid overproduction, by putting Hollywood directors – including Ridley Scott and Adrian Lyne – to work making 60-second spots. (Although Jay’s spent most of his professional life in Los Angeles, starting the agency there in 1968, he once told an interviewer that for him, Hollywood “had less than no impact. We just function outside that milieu.”)

And yet, at the same time, he was also among the last guys from the great postwar era of the advertising business – of advertising as the central cultural force of our time (“The richest and most faithful daily reflections that any society ever made of its entire range of activities,” in McLuhan’s terms). Whereas now the advertising business is something else: a consolidated business, a back-office function (it isn’t even advertising, it’s marketing now – coupons, direct selling, distribution strategies). There was hardly anybody left in the advertising business who could even talk about advertising when it was the coolest game going. Jay is one of the last links.

My dad started an ad agency after the war – I never quite understood why. He had no experience in advertising and he was Jewish, whereas the agency business (J. Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy, Bates, etc.) was pretty clearly closed to Jews. When I started to get friendly with Jay, he couldn’t explain either, at least not with any clear logic, how he went from being a Jewish kid from the Bronx and Fort Lee, New Jersey, to ending up in the agency business. Except that advertising had become the cool thing. It was for witty guys with a good eye. (And you didn’t need an Ivy League education to get into it – anybody could start an ad agency.)

Randy Rothenberg – who used to cover the ad business for the Times and now writes a column for Advertising Age – and I talk about this cool phase all the time. (I like being able to recall all those agency names that have long since blended into faceless Omnicomness – Levine, Huntley, Schmit & Beaver; Lord, Geller, Frederico, Einstein; Ally & Gargano …)

In Randy’s view, Jay is the second most important guy in the postwar advertising culture, behind only Bill Bernbach (“You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s”) at Doyle Dane Bernbach. The Wasp agency culture that took root in the twenties was turned on its ear in the sixties by Bernbach with his black-out-style humor – “Advertising is about persuasion, and persuasion is an art, not a science,” was his famous rationale for making smart and funny advertising. Then there was the seventies, which was another bland and depressing period – the return of “client-centered values” (dating, in ad-business lore, from when innovative Wells, Rich won the P&G account and promptly became uncool and uninteresting). But out in the provinces, great things were happening: at Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis; Hill, Holliday in Boston; Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Oregon; Hal Riney and Goodby, Berlin in San Francisco; and most of all, Chiat/Day on the beach in Venice. The media establishment in New York was being attacked from outside.

I argue with Randy that, in fact, Jay marks this huge break from Bernbach. Jay’s mission (with Lee Clow, his longtime creative director) became making media, rather than just ads – screwing around with media.

Jay’s “1984” Super Bowl Macintosh ad – the great, bewildering shattering of the fascist Big Blue – is certainly the most famous ad only shown once (there is arguably the LBJ daisy ad, which is, of course, the direct antecedent of the Orwellian Mac ad – but I digress). What’s more, it’s probably the cheapest, most influential ad campaign of all time: Having been shown just once, it lived on as pure commentary – it continued to seem like it was airing, because people kept talking about it. Then, that same year, at the Olympics in L.A., Jay turned the city into Nike town (long before there was a Nike Town); the Nike billboards were vast and mood-altering – L.A. became an installation-art setting.

“Persuasion,” Randy adds, “in Jay’s hands becomes postmodern art.”

It’s how he got away with what he got away with that’s most interesting to me. What are the necessary attributes for succeeding in the media business – indeed, getting rich in the media business – and not producing, in a frequent Jay word, crap?

One answer, I think, is just to do things before everybody else.

In an early Chiat/Day Apple ad – for the Lisa – starring a virtually unknown Kevin Costner, a guy rolls out of bed and, in thrall to some deep compulsion, throws on jeans, gets on his bike, and, with his dog running beside him, rushes to work to sit behind his computer. All at once – and this ad was from the early eighties – the PC, the yuppie, and casual Fridays are born. (Life = work was even something of a Jay idea; the romance of the workaholic office was a Chiat/Day thing – famously called Chiat/Day & Night – long before workaholism achieved its mythic status in Silicon Valley.)

Then, too, everybody is cowed. Whereas Jay, in one longtime colleague’s description, is “non-servile” – apparently an unexpected and deeply counterintuitive thing to be in the advertising business (or in most businesses).

I also wonder if non-servility and getting to do what you want, and not producing crap, have something to do with failure – which Jay has been very good at. “My real talent,” he says, “was for losing clients.” By which he means that, rather invariably, Chiat/Day, which grew to be one of the top 25 agencies in the country, also became too weird and extreme for its clients, or Jay became too restless in dealing with them. (The clients he’s lost include Honda, Apple, Nike, Sara Lee, Royal Caribbean, American Express, Arrow Shirts, Pizza Hut, Quaker Oats, Calvin Klein, and National Rent-a-Car.) If you’re comfortable with failing, if you court it even, if you aren’t afraid of it, then, possibly, you’re not driven by it – and you don’t do unbecoming things to avoid it.

Jay sold Chiat/Day in 1995 to Omnicom. Then he became the oldest living man in the Internet business, as backer and temporary CEO of ScreamingMedia – raising a few hundred million dollars for the Web-content syndicator (“It was great to be out of the agency business – I was euphoric. Not having clients felt like someone had taken an anvil off the base of my neck”). Then he got prostate cancer and got over it. And then it came back again.

In one conversation we had, he was telling me about what happens – about the treatments, about how much time he spends in waiting rooms holding his X-rays. This is an image that has stayed with me. It isn’t a bad image – certainly not a powerless one. Rather, I see in Jay sitting there a certain amount of aloneness and fuck-you-ness and even coolness. I thought, This is how you do it.


The Last Adman