Honoring a True Hero

There’s a saying that a big man can make you feel small, but a great man will make you feel ten feet tall.

As the sad news of Ambassador Ed Ney’s passing has spread across the Y&R network these past few days, the tributes and nostalgic memories have begun to flow among those who knew and loved him. The official news stories, of course, all celebrate his illustrious career as an incredible innovator and leader in our industry, the man who virtually invented “integrated agency services” back in the ’70s (what Ed called the “whole egg” and Sir Martin Sorrell now refers to as “horizontalism”). This was followed by Ed’s second career as a United States ambassador and then elder agency statesman at Young & Rubicam Group. His life’s chronicle could—and I hope someday will—fill a book.

But for those of us privileged enough to know and work with him over the years, Ed Ney’s legacy is far more personal. He was a friend, a mentor and, certainly for me, a genuine hero. And my hero worship began with our first official meeting when he was chairman and CEO of Y&R and I was a lowly account supervisor assigned to salvage the ailing Jell-O account in 1982. We created a small task force on the project and had developed some big and fairly novel ideas about what to do, but no one above us was wholly confident we knew what we were doing (with some good reason, I might add).

I was called down one day to Ed’s paneled office to review our progress, one-on-one. After waiting nervously outside for a few minutes, he invited me in (cordially, as always) and then started to ask some pretty direct questions about our plan. After listening very attentively, he said, in his famous rasp, “You know, one of my first jobs at Y&R was as the account exec on Jell-O. I know the CEO of GF [General Foods] pretty well and he can smell BS from a long way away. But if you and your team really think you’re right about this, go do it.”

There’s a saying that a big man can make you feel small, but a great man will make you feel 10 feet tall. I walked out of that office determined to sell the program and make it work. And we did. But the real lesson I learned from that day was what true leadership was all about.

When I started at Landor in the mid-’90s and returned to the Y&R family, Ed was in his “chairman emeritus” phase, though he was anything but a mere figurehead. I soon started getting calls from him about all kinds of projects—and occasionally to take me (and Landor) to task for helping to create names like “Young & Rubicam Brands,” which never sat well with him! But mostly he wanted our help with nonprofits he was deeply engaged with, like the United Negro College Fund, the American Revolution Center, and the Museum of Television and Radio. The minute you picked up an Ed call, needless to say, you knew it was him—the wonderful smoky voice, always asking how you were, then talking about “some people we’re working with you should meet….” (Ed never said “I” when talking about his projects or his past accomplishments at Y&R. It was always “we.”)

And soon “we” would be off and running on some engagement and I would be bringing in a Landor team, usually of young people eager to work with a legend. The last great project we did together was to rebrand the Museum of Television and Radio into The Paley Center, an organization Ed had helped conceive and build with CBS founder Bill Paley himself. We did the strategy, naming exploratory, research, and design all “by the book” and then ultimately sold the new brand in a pretty intense presentation to the organization’s board (which included Ed, plus CEOs from Sony, Verizon, Hearst, Sirius, and the NBA, not to mention Barbara Walters, Marlo Thomas, and Henry Kissinger!). But truth be told, Ed had very quietly suggested we name it after Bill Paley at the start of the project; he had effectively back-channeled the idea well before we got to the finish line.

He then insisted upon taking our entire team out for a BBQ dinner afterward to celebrate, at which he regaled us with stories from his many lives. When I once introduced him as “the original Mad Man” a few years ago, he simply snickered and said, “They don’t have the half of it….”

Always impeccably dressed in blazer and bow tie (a Paul Stuart man through and through), gracious to all he met, sincere in his praise, and keenly interested in you and your work, Ed Ney set a standard to which I have long tried, fruitlessly, to measure up. I hope his legacy will remain alive for those who follow in our ever-evolving business of marketing communications, an industry he genuinely loved and understood through and through. But I worry that his innate sense of character and style may be lost on a generation that seems to value instant messaging and technical networking more than personal relationships that grow from a firm handshake and a thoughtful word.

Ed Ney believed you were measured by what you stood for and what you accomplished. For those lucky enough to know him, he measured up every inch a hero, and we will really miss him.

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