2019 has been a tough year for me. I lost three of my most influential leader-mentors. Like 3 well-landed punches in the ribs, their deaths knocked the wind out of me. Thrice spurring a humble reflection on my own mortality. Most importantly I mourn a world with them no longer in it — because they opened so many doors for me and my peers. It’s heartbreaking that they’re no longer here to inspire a new generation of creatives. I suppose that’s my job now. And while I can’t hope to live up to what made these guys great, I’ll try.
Glenn Eddie Gill
I first met Glenn at Square One, about 6 months into my first job. He was a tenured creative director who’d built his career at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, Leo Burnett in Chicago and the venerable Richards Group here in Dallas. He was a copywriter. I remember him best perched in front of his laptop, with proper posture, quietly and diligently tapping away at headlines, taglines, radio scripts for our clients like Whataburger, Dave & Busters and The Parking Spot. Glasses perched on his nose. Freshly shorn flat-top. He wasn’t in the military, but as an army brat he’d developed a deep admiration for their haircuts.
Glenn was a meticulous observer of detail. Especially when it came to people he’d met, stories he’d heard, and a quote that he found particularly funny. I’ll always remember him as the guy who knew my Mother-in-Law’s name, birthday, hobbies and favorite food. After meeting her once. And he continued to ask about her nearly every time I saw him — for years. “Wish Mary Alice a Happy Birthday for me”, he’d text me out of the blue in late October. He also remembered these details about me, my wife, my son. “How’s Susie? Do you guys still live at [address no longer accurate]? And Kell? Is he still making the girls swoon with those football skills of his?” Glenn was intently interested in the people in his life — and he demonstrated that with an impeccable memory and a well-timed, well-worded text message or email to let me know he was thinking about me.
Glenn taught me to listen for the funny stories, and turns of phrase, that surrounded us all day, every day, working in the field of advertising. Creative people were always using language to make one another laugh (often at one anothers’ expense). Glenn was a soft target for the sharp wit of younger, fiery creatives. He laughed at every joke — especially the ones at his expense. Often with a stunned and bemused “WOW!” to let us know we’d landed a blow. He was as good-natured as they come — and good natured people in advertising were in short supply. Glenn Eddie Gill was a rare human in so many ways.
He was truly in awe of the creativity with which his peers would unleash their wicked will. And he dutifully took note — literally — of every zinger, in a notebook he carried. He role modeled “always be listening.” He had thousands of witty one liners and exchanges he’d documented over a long career in advertising. He swore he’d publish them all in a book — Quote of the Day.
Glenn was happy to let his younger peers present their work to our clients. He was so incredibly patient. He was happy to share credit. He was happy to step back and let us shine. He understood that leadership was about building up those around you, not tearing them down. He was generous to a fault, which is to say, he gave far more than he received in the way of accolades. I loved that about him.
After I left Square One, I continued to keep in touch with Glenn. He’d ask about my son or my wife (and usually my mother in law). I’d ask about his perfectly ordered closet, or his recent barbecue exploit or his latest freelance gig. In those texts, he never once mentioned he was fighting throat cancer. Only when he got the clean bill of health from his doctor did he announce it on Facebook, with gratitude for a tight-knit group of folks who’d helped him endure. When the cancer came back, he kept that quiet too.
In February, I learned of Glenn’s passing. As I sat in his memorial, scrolling through our text messages all the way back to 2015, I pondered all the ways he’d made me a better student of humanity. Listening better. Remembering details. Demonstrating that one way to show you care about people is to show them that you remember their name, their birthday, their favorite food. He was so quiet, and gracious, and humble. One of his favorite phrases — the one I can still hear him say: “Good for you!” It was never about him.
After 5 years at Square One, shortly after September 11th, 2002, my wife and I decided to move back to the East Coast. Susie was pregnant with our first kid and we were looking to move back into the Grandparent Radius (a theoretical short drive from my parents’ house so we might take advantage of more family time and the occasional babysitter.) My search started in Philadelphia. But thanks to 9/11, advertising was experiencing a bit of a slow-down. So we ended up in Harrisburg, PA. Where I found the Neiman Group — and more importantly, Rudy Banny.
In many ways, Rudy was the polar opposite of Glenn. Loud. Crass. Relentless. He dressed like he had just climbed off a private jet from Vegas in 1983. Hair whipped up in an electrified coiff. Elvis sunglasses. A lot of mostly unbuttoned, embroidered shirts. Our industrial, historic waterworks-turned-agency echoed with his voice — “Kickass! Shitfuckyeah! HELMS!” He lead our creative department like a glam track coach. Shouting us into his office for quick pep talks and assignment briefings. Always dismissing us with a reverberating “GO!” that was meant to be both encouraging and dismissive. I was, and remain, highly influenced by the language of my peers. Those who worked with me later will all recall the way I punctuated our meetings: “Go!” — that was all Rudy.
Rudy taught me self-reliance by throwing me into the deep end, and then tossing me a few cinder blocks to carry. And then asking if I could whistle a happy tune while I worked furiously to keep my head above water. In short, he had more faith in my ability than I did — and never thought for a minute to check with me if I could handle everything. He simply knew I could do it. Maybe he was waiting for me to say “okay — that’s enough.” But somehow my partner Keith and I got it done, won awards, managed some juniors, and had a blast. So he’d wing in another cinder block.
He promoted Keith and me to leadership roles. And gave us even more responsibility. And never stopped to ask what we needed, or how it was going. He would just blaze on ahead, with a machete in one hand, shouting so we might follow his voice. Sometimes I read this as trust. Other times it felt like I was being left in the dust. I guess at some point I realized those things could be one and the same.
I remember Rudy as a bold risk-taker. And not just with how many buttons he left undone on his shirts. He pushed his creative team. And his clients. And his agency partners. And our creative partners: photographers, directors, producers. He pushed hard, and tirelessly, for better ideas, for tighter execution, for strategic dialog. His impatience could be palpable — like, uncomfortable. He’d flinch and twitch and squint and slowly shake his head at about 90% of the ideas we shared with him. He despised incrementalism. “No. What else?” Then we’d share an idea that struck him. “Ha HA! YES! That’s it. Is that it? Anything else? GO!” And we were off.
Rudy was a huge motorcycle afficionado. It was part of his loud, graphic brand. Later in his career, he and his partner Buffy McCoy Kelly opened an agency in Charlotte that was literally part advertising, part custom motorcycle shop. Motorcycles, speed graphics and tattoos became the agency’s brand. Loud, fast, colorful, bold, aggressive. Big Daddy Roth driving a Custom Victory painted by Jimbo Phillips. Those bikes were so f’ing cool. The brand work they used to promote the agency was so f’ing cool. 300% attitude. 100% Rudy.
When I heard he’d died unexpectedly, this past June, I was stunned. It didn’t seem possible. He was so much goddamned bigger than life. He had so much left to do, so much to offer. I hadn’t connected with him in about a year and I was crushed that I wouldn’t have another chance to hear him squawking about his agency and his kids and his bike. And how I should GO kick more ass. What a tremendous loss. A truly deafening silence.
He was so bold. So unique. So fun. So free. He was living a creative person’s dream: own your agency, call the shots, feed your creative team, tell outrageous stories, make outrageous speed machines and GET PAID FOR IT. He was, if I’m honest, kind of a hero of mine. Fearless. Brave as hell.
Tom just passed away this November. Fortunately, I did have the chance to catch up with him one last time. To remind him that I owe my entire career to his incredible generosity, empathy and foresight.
I first sat down with Tom in June of 1997, in a small conference room, tucked under the steps at Square One. I’d just moved from Delaware to Dallas. With my girlfriend. Without a job. If the right offer didn’t come along soon, I explained to Tom, I’d be forced to lower my standards. He sat there, dressed in a pair of shorts and a polo shirt like he was about to go play 18 holes of golf (actually, he was). He looked at me for a minute, with a flat smirk on his face. And then he leaned back in his chair and ran his hand through his hair. And then he swore at me for a good 15 minutes. Tom Hansen said “he’d rather f’ing kill himself” than see me go to [a lesser competitor down the street, whose name I’ll keep off the record]. He had no job openings, but made space for me anyway in this fledgling agency he’d started the year before with his friend and partner, Tim Murphy.
I gave him, and that agency, my whole heart for five years. Learning like a sponge. Taking notes. Asking questions. Walking into meetings I wasn’t invited to and sitting down to listen. I asked any question that occurred to me. I never once felt I was in the wrong place, or out of line. Tom answered any question he could — or he’d simply say, “Go find out.”
Tom had the amazing ability, when he was with me, to make me feel like the most important person on the planet. He could maintain complete focus. Never a furtive look at his watch (or later, iPhone). He’d hold a clawed hand up, gesturing my direction, and hypnotize me with his fingers — like he was massaging my brain. He let me know that he believed in me. Many times he described how the agency he’d built would be run by “us” someday: me and a dozen other (significantly more talented) agency folks in our twenties. He was sure we’d pick up the reigns and carry his vision forward. He trusted us nearly unconditionally to steer the vision of this agency he’d built with enormous personal financial risk and a lifetime of industry capital — relationships, experience and lessons learned the hard way. He seemed to know he couldn’t do it alone. We were all pretty sure that, if necessary, he certainly could.
Tom was a meticulous writer. An inspiring storyteller and presenter. A sharp business mind. A razor-sharp wit. He lived his craft. If you could remain within 10 feet of the man at all times, you could learn the entire business of advertising by osmosis. Even when he was dead serious, somehow he was also hilarious, warm, generous and transparent. What an incredible role model.
In his later years, after I’d changed jobs, and eventually industries, I was still drawn to Tom and the people from Square One. Tom was a magnet for great talent, for genuine people, and for good times. His agency was wrested from his control in a bitter business battle that left him hurt and betrayed. Some might have even faulted him for his generous and trusting heart. But the family he’d built around that agency was stronger than a balance sheet, a few great clients, a strong portfolio or four walls. His legacy lived on through those tight-knit relationships. I’d otherwise attribute all this to the first-job warm-and-fuzzies. But the sentiment was unanimous. Tom was extraordinary, and he made us feel that way too.
Tom went on to run another, much larger agency. He recruited and empowered a new cadre of talent. He ran the business deftly. They won business, they made money, they won awards. Later, he took the helm as CEO of a new company and, weirdly, became my client (!!!) for a single assignment. I still remember how his creative sensibility, his trust in the process and our talent, his humanity flooded back into the room for those few, brief hours we worked together again. It was totally weird. He was the same and he was different. He was my client but he was also still a better creative director than I was. He was more encouraging of my team than I was. He was more patient than I was. I felt a tinge of shame — but also a tinge of hope. Tom could do that.
For the last year or so, I remember Tom meticulously documenting his battle with cancer. And the related battles with the healthcare and insurance industries. Though his own personal journey was likely agonizing and terrifying, he used his talent as a writer to shine a harsh yet humorous light on his experience. He rarely betrayed his suffering beyond the occasional x-ray or experimental treatment he’d signed up for. Instead, he’d focus on the accomplishments of his daughters and the love he had for his wife. It was so Very Tom for him to focus his energy on positive things — and others.
Tom taught me success is achieved by empowering your team. Being patient with the curious new hire who wants to sit in on the meeting. To start shoveling your vision into the arms and hearts of your most promising early career talent. He was generous and selfless and perhaps that’s because he was such a consistently great judge of talent. If that’s true, maybe I was better than I thought.
All these men worked with people they liked. And lived for the people they loved.
They lived for the joy of creativity, unearthing the golden nugget of an idea and polishing that idea to brilliance. And they lived for the pursuit of getting better, and encouraging others to get better.
They were tremendous role models for how to build a creative, compassionate culture. They embraced talent for more than just their ability to do a job, but to build a vision. Their vision. I’m proud to have worked with them and called them friends. I’m sad they’re gone. However, surely they knew, they’ve raised my bar as a creative person, a creative leader and a human being.