By Erin Joyce
Silicon Alley executives are remembering legendary adman and former chief executive of Screaming Media, Jay Chiat, who passed away in Los Angeles Tuesday at the age of 70.
“It’s very sad news,” said Kevin Clark, now the chairman of Screaming Media
, the content aggregator and technology company Chiat helped launch in the mid-1990s.
“I would call him one of the most creative business leaders of the past generation. He certainly left his mark in many places,” said Clark, whom Chiat recruited to the New York-based company to replace him as chief executive.
Chiat, who is credited with helping to create the annual Super Bowl advertising frenzy with the Orwellian-themed spots for Apple Computer’s new Macintosh in 1984, died in his home Tuesday after a battle with cancer, said a spokesman for TBWAChiatDay, the agency that evolved from the firm Chiat founded.
By the early 1990s, the Bronx-born Chiat was already a legend in the advertising industry and approaching retirement age when he became involved with the beginnings of what would later become known as Silicon Alley.
James Robinson III, the former chief executive officer of American Express and founder of venture firm RRE Ventures, was an angel investor in Screaming Media who helped get Chiat involved in the company in 1993.
Impressed with the advertising work that Chiat’s agency had produced for American Express during the 1980s, and aware of his interest in the emergence of new companies using the Web, Robinson approached Chiat about becoming involved with emerging Web-focused companies.
“He was a brilliant maverick, and a true professional,” Robinson said. “He was an incredibly creative, talented and nice man.”
Robinson and Chiat decided to join in supporting entrepreneur Al Ellman, who had launched Screaming Media’s forerunner, Interactive Connection, which would help aggregate and pipe real-time content and information to Web environments.
The story goes that when Chiat responded to Robinson’s invite to invest, the entrepreneurs thought a voice mail Chiat left for them was a joke.
“So here’s this legendary ad guy backing this small entrepreneur,” said Clark, who also got to know first-hand Chiat’s uncompromising devotion to excellence.
“He was a very tough businessman, a very demanding type of individual who always strived for the best.”
But he also had a compassionate side, Clark added, and was very helpful to many entrepreneurs around town, including Alley-based incubator LC39.
“Jay Chiat was an investor in and supporter of LC39,” said Albert Wenger, the chief executive. “He provided advice on our media related investments. We are saddened by Jay’s passing and extend our condolences to his family.”
Robinson and Chiat helped raise about $5.5 million for Screaming Media, and were instrumental in guiding a $30 million institutional round of funding before the company went public.
During his work with Screaming Media, Chiat led the charge to change the name from Interactive Connection, which has served the company’s business interests and brand-recognition well, Clark said.
In 1995, Chiat’s agency, Chiat-Day, was acquired by the Omnicom Group, a Madison Avenue advertising conglomerate, which combined the company with TBWA International. The agency then became known as TBWAChiatDay.
Although his list of achievements and leadership in the ad industry include many memorable campaigns such as the Energizer Bunny for the battery company, he is perhaps best remembered for the Super Bowl ads for the introduction of Apple Computer’s Macintosh.
The Orwellian imagery in the spots featured a brightly dressed woman in running gear throwing a sledgehammer through a screen to herald the arrival of a new computer, suggesting a challenge to a “Big Brother” mentality of conformity in the computer industry at the time.
“He did things very differently, and we got to see his creative brilliance” during his years running the company, said Clark, who took over Chiat’s role as chairman of the board in 2001 when Chiat’s illness became more advanced.
“He’ll be missed.”