Ad Exec Tilley's Suicide Does Not Indict Blogs, But Should Spotlight Workplace Depression.

Posted by: David Kiley on March 3, 2008

On February 25, DDB Chicago creative chief Paul Tilley took his own life by jumping off the Fairmount Hotel. Since then, there has been a firestorm of entries and comments in the blogosphere suggesting that Tilley was driven to his fatal decision by an entry in www.agencyspy.com and the entry’s succeeding comments.

The entry stemmed from memos forwarded to the www.agencyspy blogger, who is anonymous, from Tilley to his staff. One memo showed the creative chief ham-handedly urging his charges to do better. “Some of you are doing truly great work — work that makes DDB/Chicago one of the top 10 most awarded creative agencies in the world,” Tilley wrote. “But too many of you are only doing good work. And some of you are doing work that simply isn’t good enough.”

Another memo showcased Tilley’s slogan for motivating the staff, “Everyone, As discussed at the Agency meeting last month, we’re focused on growing and winning by giving One Degree More. You’ll start to see this brought to life in a variety of ways.
The first, a speaker series, kicks off next Wednesday with a presentation and discussion by renowned photographer David Turnley. David won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for his images of the political uprisings in China and Eastern Europe. He is a remarkable and inspirational speaker, and we can learn from his stories. Special thanks to Diane Jackson for helping bring him to DDB!”

The blogger and most of the comments accused Tilley of being a weak and uninspiring manager with a poor command of language. Other blogs and even news stories have suggested the blog item played a role in Tilley’s death.

I decided to add my two cents for this reason. No one who hasn’t experienced the ravages of clinical depression first-hand or second-hand can, in my opinion, write intelligently about Tilley’s tragic death.

No blog entry was responsible for Tilley’s suicide. The conditions that have to be in place for a person to jump off a building is what author William Styron called a “brain storm.” How ironic that in Tilley’s business, the phrase “brainstorm” has a completely different meaning. Tilley’s wife has reportedly said her husband was “complicated.” I’m not surprised. Depression is a complicated disease. And it is a disease.

While it is possible that the blog traffic may have contributed, I have to say as someone with personal experience in this area, it perhaps accounted for the last 0.5% of the tragic process.
Other ad executives complain that some blogs attack people personally. It seems to me that the entry in question attacked Tilley’s management style and decisions. When you get to be a creative chief at a major ad agency, your style, decision and creative output is on stage and open for criticism whether there is a blogosphere or not. Comments that follow a blog entry tend to get far more personal in their attacks….aimed at both the subject of the entry and the blogger. I get pilloried in comments on this blog and the Autobeat blog.

Earlier today, I went after ad-man Peter Arnell for having an over-blown reputation, and for being ill-deployed at Chrysler by CEO Bob Nardelli. That is my opinion. When I refer to Arnell as an overblown “wedding planner," I suppose that could be taken as a personal attack. But I think it is a colorful way of describing Arnell’s work and value to Chrysler’s situation. It is certainly a characterization that I could not write in a magazine article. But blogs are not magazine articles. I would be hard-pressed to call many blog entries journalism. It is a new form. And people in the public eye, like corporate CEOs, marketing directors and agency creative directors, will have to cope. If they can.

Coping with public scrutiny goes with the title and job description. There are plenty of anonymous jobs in a company that don’t put a person on stage.

The New York Times today, in a story about Tilley, ham-handedly referred to an incident in which a teenage girl committeed suicide in 2006 after she received taunts on the Internet. Is this really comparable to a 40-year old corporate executive? I don’t think so. Teenagers have undeveloped minds and defense mechanisms.

If Tilley was suffering from Depression, which is likely, it is also possible that his superiors and staff didn’t know. I knew a newspaper editor, a seemingly rock-solid guy whose colleagues would have made the first hire at any start-up paper for his capacity to organize and establish standards, disappear from his job for two months following a break-down that landed him in a hospital. His colleagues were astonished that he had been functioning at such a high level. That is the nature of Depression.

Having worked at two ad agencies, I can attest to the fact that the atmosphere in a creative department can often resemble a high school drama class, with sophomores jockeying to displace the juniors and seniors in the big play. If a campaign bombs, or business goes out the door, or pitches are not won, it can get downright ugly.

And creative directors are often promoted to leadership posiutions based on their creative victories rather than their leadership qualities and instincts. Those that have the leadership skills, but perhaps not the creative chops, usually get taken down. The ones with the chops but not the leadership often fall down.

Everybody going to work at a big ad agency is issued a knife with their new-employee welcome kit. It is not an atmosphere conducive for a sick man getting better.

Reader Comments

Fact Checker

March 4, 2008 4:28 AM

If Tilley was suffering from Depression....

Unless it's the first word in the sentence, "depression" is capitalized only when referring to the "Great Depression."

From Kiley: People with experience with the disease consider it The Big D. Get over it.

Fact Checker

March 6, 2008 2:03 AM

People who understand language consider its inherent logical structure to be the sole conveyor of meaning.

Make sense or don't: it's your choice.

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News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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