How risk taker Jay Chiat became adland’s ‘superboss’

By Sydney Finkelstein

“Jay was not a copywriter or an art director; he was like a basketball manager, or a coach, he made people better. It was instinctive, in his gut; he knew how to make people better.” – David Murphy, Chiat/Day

Jay Chiat, legendary creative risk-taker, advertising agency founder, and spawner of some of the greatest talent ever to come out of the advertising agency, was also a character. One part charmer, one part ruthless personality, and one part inspirational leader, Jay Chiat was also a superboss. If a superboss is someone who helps other people accomplish more than they ever thought possible, Chiat fits the bill.

How did he do it? By being uncompromising in his standards of excellence, endlessly creative in his approach to his work, and embracing a culture of risk taking that all his employees knew was the only acceptable way to do business.

Unorthodox methods characterized the Chiat/Day formula right from the beginning. One of the firm’s first clients, Equitable Savings Bank, relied substantially on television advertising. Unbeknownst to Equitable Savings however, Chiat/Day had yet to produce a television commercial. To appear well-versed in television production, the partners rented a video camera and placed it in the conference room as if such equipment was commonplace at Chiat/Day. Their guise was successful, and the partners simply returned the video camera upon winning the account.

Just as important, if not more so, was how Chiat went about hiring talent. Lee Clow, who became famous for co-creating the Apple 1984 ad during Super Bowl XVIII that introduced the Macintosh computer, put it this way: “He had a kind of unorthodox approach to hiring; he didn’t hire off the conventional portfolio/resume. He looked for people who did things creatively. He’d hire people out of the NFL, the music industry, people that worked in any kind of creating — people who did their own television programs. He just was looking for creative minds and he didn’t compartmentalize them as traditionally as people did back then.”

lee-clow-jobs-hedAlthough Clow (left) embodied the creative mindset that typically attracted Chiat, there were no openings when he originally interviewed. “I pestered them for over a year, calling, sending things, kind of had a personal campaign that I mounted. It was the end of the 1960s and I had long hair and a beard and did a ‘Hire the Hairy Campaign,’ positioned myself as a kind of strange minority that deserved a job.” It worked.

With Chiat’s unconventional manner of hiring, his reputation’s ability to lure new talent, and the company’s emphasis on the creative, he managed to create a culture that was both collaborative, yet demanding. Although Chiat/Day employees were given an unusually high degree of personal freedom, the demand for results never wavered. Former Chief Operating Officer at Chiat/Day Adelaide Horton told me, “Doers were rewarded and anything was possible. If you came to Jay with an idea for how things could be done better, he would say ‘Go ahead and do it;’ he would give you that freedom and support to do it. He asked me to do something one time and I said, ‘Jay, I’ve never done that before,’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Well, neither have I. You’re just going to have to figure it out.’ So I did.”

According to Lee Clow, “What we do is so subjective, you’re never quite sure if it’s good enough. Jay was always demanding of everyone to do something better than they very often knew or thought they could or were capable of. He created a standard and set a bar that made everyone much better than they would have been if they had never met Jay.”

The Chiat/Day culture embodied Chiat’s emphasis on risk-taking, a trait for which he never offered any regret. In Chiat’s eyes, risk-taking was always in the name of achieving perfection. No matter how risky, originality, creativity, and hard work were rewarded even when the end result was unsuccessful. Former Creative Director Bob Dion said, “If you were doing good work, whether the client liked it or not, you were rewarded.”

Dion recounts his work for a new business campaign for Universal Studios. After exhaustive hours, a significant amount of money invested, and a strong presentation to Universal, Chiat/Day was ultimately rejected. In an interview, Dion expresses the personal responsibility he felt for losing the account. Much to his surprise, Chiat was not only congratulatory towards Dion for his hard work, but paid for an all-expenses vacation to Hawaii for Dion and his wife. In Dion’s words, “You were often rewarded more for a hard-fought failure than a great victory.”

Chiat/Day alum David Murphy told me that he and others working for Chiat “had to be willing to risk, it had to be about the work and they had to be pretty thick-skinned, because if he didn’t like an idea he’d tell you and he’d tell you in no uncertain terms, ‘that’s a really stupid idea, that’s really dumb.’ He had a singular vision that it was totally acceptable to risk; playing it safe was just not acceptable.”

Jay Chiat’s thirst for risk-taking and creativity came together in the establishment of the open, virtual office.

“Jay did not believe in hierarchies. He believed this back in the 1970’s, which was revolutionary. Senior executives did not have window offices. No one had a door on their office, not cubicles, no broad spacious offices. We all shared desks with low dividers. In the later 1970’s-early 1980’s, people saw that as very threatening. Nobody had a bigger office than anyone else. He felt that ideas should come from everywhere, that every employee was as responsible as the next for coming up with ideas, that ‘creative’ was not a department. Jay felt people agreed in theory, but that ultimately people will not change until you change their physical space and force them to change. ‘It all flows from the architecture,’ Jay felt. Physical change equals mental change. It was a radical idea and people felt threatened and terrified by losing the trappings of power.” — Stevan Alburty, former Director of Information Systems, Chiat/Day

Chiat believed in fostering environments that allowed people to think in non-hierarchical, non-traditional ways. He loved pushing people into chaotic, non-traditional spaces. As a result, many of his office locales did not feature individual offices or cubicles, not even for himself. Instead, everyone shared desks and spaces with small dividers, only possessing a locker for personal items, and starting in the early 1990s, a cell phone and laptop. This not only cultivated the ultimate creative, communal environment, but it enabled people to be completely mobile well before this would become the norm.

Jay Chiat was certainly not a conventional CEO, but it’s that very lack of convention – call it innovation – that helps account for the endless collection of advertising industry awards he received over his career, as well as his uncanny ability to spawn some of the top talent in advertising over a period of decades. As Chiat/Day alum David Murphy put it, “when you talk about his leadership, anybody that worked with and for Jay, you were inspired by him.”

syd-square__smallSydney Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management and Director of the Leadership Center at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. You can learn more about Jay Chiat and 17 other superboss leaders, in his new book Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Manage the Flow of Talent (Portfolio/Penguin, February 2016). You can order the book from Amazon or your favorite bookseller.

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