OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

Madison Avenue has been awash in nostalgia lately, looking back to help itself look ahead. One reason is the upcoming release of Mary Wells Lawrence's autobiography, A Big Life (In Advertising), in which the fabled female agency leader offers the first extended recap of how she did it her way.

The other reason for the recent retrofest is the death last week of Jay Chiat, the legendary adman whose risk-taking and rule-breaking at Chiat/Day in the 70s and 80s helped remake the industry he was part of for almost four decades. Examples of the Chiat legacy are legion. He introduced account planning to the United States in 1982 by bringing over Jane Newman from London. The Chiat/Day spot for the Apple Macintosh PC, "1984", created the extravagant, annual big-event Super Bowl commercial that football fans anticipate almost as much as the game, if not more so.

Chiat also decentralised the US ad industry, once concentrated primarily in New York and Chicago, by making Los Angeles "an advertising powerhouse", as the Los Angeles Times said in his obituary. Not only did that bring a new West Coast-centric style and look to campaigns, it facilitated the rise of other cities as alternative sources of creative prowess, such as Boston, Portland and San Francisco.

Additionally, Chiat/Day's work such as "1984", "I Love LA

for Nike and EB, the peripatetic Energizer battery bunny, expanded advertising's role in shaping the popular culture, as commercials were covered not just by trade publications but also in general-interest newspapers, magazines and on television.

And yet, and yet. For all his myriad accomplishments, Chiat fell short in achieving perhaps the one he prized most above all: ensuring that Chiat/Day would continue to operate independently from the giant agency companies that were by the 90s increasingly dominating the industry around the world.

Chiat/Day tried going global, too, buying the Australian-based Mojo MDA Group in 1989 in a deal that unraveled ignominiously not long after as the ad recession doomed the expansion effort. That fiasco, along with burdensome debt taken on in a leveraged buyout and the agency's propensity to churn clients, spelled the end of Chiat/Day as a free agent, which has inevitably coloured perceptions of the Chiat legacy as has happened with other larger-than-life figures such as Lawrence and even Bill Bernbach.

Chiat/Day lasted only 27 years, from 1968, when Chiat and Guy Day agreed to combine their two small shops, until 1995, when it was subsumed inside the Omnicom Group, as part of the North American division of TBWA Worldwide.

To end at age 27 is not exactly a one-way ticket to obscurity; look at Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, all of whom never lived to see their 28th birthdays. While by the traditional calendar, 27 is barely 1.4 generations, in an evanescent business such as advertising, it's the equivalent of one of those biblical tribes that begat and begat until it was begone.

Already, one big advertiser that in typical fashion hired and fired and rehired the agency took the unusual step of buying a full-page newspaper ad to pay tribute to Chiat. The ad, from Apple Computer, invoked its "think different

campaign, which featured photographs of such icons as Gandhi, John Lennon and Charlie Chaplin. The ad showed Chiat leaning back in a chair, mirthful, as if asking the question from the Gershwin lyric: "Who's got the last laugh now?"

Topics