Chiat's Day and Night


by Stevan Alburty

I first met Jay Chiat at a urinal.

It was my second day on my first real job. Desperate to find work in a Los Angeles that is not nearly so sunny when you are unemployed, I had bluffed my way into a file clerking job in the print production department.

“I’m Jay Chiat,” he said. Due to the circumstances, our introductions avoided the use of hands. I did not know at the time that I would work for Jay  (for many different bosses, but always for Jay) for 17-1/2 years, rising eventually to head two different departments, print production and IT.

That first meeting always summed up for me the contradictory nature of Jay’s personality. His presence could make you feel simultaneously welcome and awkward. Whenever you encountered Jay, you never quite knew if he was going to praise or predigest you.

His wrath was legendary. During the construction of a new floor or building, the ill-chosen color of an electrical switch-plate, if in violation of his personal aesthetic, could throw him into an intolerant rage that would shake the building. Yet for years, unknown by all but the closest confidants, he funded the care of several former employees who had fallen on hard times as a result of illness and accident. It was this duality that inspired the intense loyalty of those who worked most closely with him, for his lightening both cauterized and illuminated.

Years later, we were on an elevator together on the way to a memorial service for Rodney Rhodes, one of the many talented starving artists Jay would support with odd jobs at the company. Rodney had died of AIDS. Here we were, in a crowded elevator on the way to a funeral, and Jay was obviously as sad as any one of us - and yet he picked that moment to bitch at me about some computer problem with which his laptop had been recently plagued.

My therapist in the 80s (who in the hell worked at Chiat/Day and didn’t need a therapist?) was a wonderful man named Jerry Croghan, who was also Tom Carroll’s cousin. (Tom is the current President of TBWA/Chiat/Day.)

Many of Jerry’s patients were from Chiat/Day and he once confided that Jay was a frequent topic of his patients’ conversations.  Though Jerry had never met Jay, except through his patients’ fragmentary complaints, he came up with what to this day I think is the best description of Jay I have ever heard: he said that Jay was the quintessential Jewish mother, dispensing guilt and favor with equal abandon.

This confusing amalgam of hot and cold, yin and yang, hate and love, permeated the culture of the agency. A new CFO, freshly imported from a pin-striped agency on the Avenue, once wailed to me, “Nobody seems to be able to tell me exactly what this goddamn ‘Chiat/Day culture’ is!” 

I smiled with contentment. “That’s what makes it so versatile.”

At times, Jay seems almost embarrassed by his success in advertising. As if he had to prove his business acumen through his own independent efforts, separate and distinct from the more collaborative art of advertising, he invested in or started numerous small businesses, convinced that each was going to be a fantastic success. There was a sandwich shop which looked more like an art gallery; there was an importing company which was supposed to receive vodka from the then U.S.S.R., but wound up trying to very rapidly unload several thousand pounds of whitefish; there was a 900# which dispensed medical advice. All failed.

CFOs lived in dread of Jay attending dinner parties, for he’d invariably meet somebody with some hair-brained idea for making millions, an idea that would follow Jay into the office the next day like a lost and very enthusiastic puppy.  The CFOs job? Fund yet another quest for the grail.

Employees often joked about “Chiat/Day and Night,” referring to the long hours.  I always thought that phrase also captured Jay’s mercurial spirit. It was his constant restlessness, this almost manic combination of dissatisfaction and vision, which fanned the “hysterica passio “ which was Chiat/Day.

If there is a heaven, Jay is in it now and at peace.  Or is he?  My guess is that he is strolling around his new celestial office, chiding God that the whole place would work better without the whole cloud thing.

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Stevan Alburty (alburty@earthlink.net) is at work on a novel, a satire on the world of business. The character of the messianic ad guy is pure invention.