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GP 9 November 2005: Big Footprints

“Big Ideas are so hard to recognize, so fragile, so easy to kill.  Don’t forget that, all of you who don’t have them.” - Jock Elliott 

All about Bigness.  Jock—John Elliott, Jr.—was all about bigness.  He owned the territory.  It wasn’t just that he cherished and took himself to be a protector of good ideas; or that his own stature cast a long shadow when he was in the room with you; or that he, along with David Ogilvy, the founder of and his predecessor as chairman of Ogilvy and Mather, felt that the ticket to great accomplishment was great people. 

Most importantly, we think, he grasped spiritually what bigness was all about and what it could do.  Twenty years ago or so, just after a visit when he was seeing us to the elevator at O & M’s then headquarters along Madison Avenue, he said, “You can just sense when a big man is in the room.”  Then, he felt, you experienced the magnetic force and radiance of the larger than life character you had encountered.  Those were the days, incidentally, when Ogilvy’s band of brothers stood head and shoulders above any ad firm in the world, perceived by friends and competitors alike as the aristocrats of the trade who could sell a lot but do it with class.  Selling with class has a whole lot to do with a company’s ability to spread itself across the globe. 

During his reign, the firm pushed itself into every corner of the world and even developed a global lingo, celebrating its “crown princes” (people on the fast track) and “barons” (the bosses of global regions).  At their best, they were supreme wordsmiths, but they used words to create elegant pictures.  Surely he was the inspiration for Big Ideas on The Global Province. 

At a recent dinner in one of New York’s finer Greek restaurants, he confessed to us that he was simply befuddled by ads in the present day.  He allowed: “I just don’t understand them.”  We all share his puzzlement, since ads now more or less talk about any distraction, studiously avoiding the fundamentals of the product.  The products themselves are less and less distinguished: companies have taken to selling everything but, because the products are hollow and commoditized.  And marketing itself addresses very small micro-slices of the marketplace, no longer beaming its messages to the whole of America.  It’s hard to have Big Ideas about small products and small markets, so nano-thinking has taken over the stage and tried to come to grips with a declining economy by offering niche products aimed at fractions of the market.  In this respect, advertising has become a force that divides instead of uniting America.  What we need, of course, are more durable, global products that don’t grow obsolete.  

This is not to say that he did not pay attention to little things.  When somebody came to visit at his office, he always went out himself to greet his guest.  As for his employees, he vowed, “If our people don’t go out to meet them, I’ll cut their throats.”  Like William P. Montague, Elliott thought, “Manners are morals in little things.” 

Black Jock Elliott.  On Saturday, October 28, 2005, he passed away at Mount Kisco Hospital, a jump away from his house in the country.  He was a New Yorker through and through, but also thrived on his Scottish lineage, a country he visited often.  Out by the sea near the remains of a Scottish castle, he once greeted us after our weary journey with a sumptuous picnic basket, full of sandwiches—and single malt Scotch, of course.  He loved to acknowledge that a brigand, Black Jock Elliott, was amongst his forebears—maybe the very one celebrated in this poem: 

Jock Elliott raised up his steel bonnet and lookit,
His hand grasped the sword with a nervous embrace;
Oh, welcome, brave foemen,
On earth there are no men
More gallant to meet in the fray or the chase.
Little know you of the hearts I have hidden here;
Little know you of our moss trooper’s might;
Linhope and Sorbie true,
Tundhope and Milburn too,
Gentle in manner, but lions in fight. 

The Scottish ancestry added just a few more inches to his height, and powerful stories to his fishing lore. 

Father Christmas.  We liked his retirement greatly.  We would still have one martini together whenever we met, but just stretch the drink out longer than we did in the 20th century.  And he gave himself over to Christmas which had been a big thing for him as a youngster and grew into a huge avocation as he put on years.  He collected Christmas lore and paraphernalia.  The Grolier Society had an exhibition of his Christmas books which was memorialized in a catalog entitled “A HA!  CHRISTMAS.”   Later on, he authored a book Inventing Christmas: How Our Holiday Came to Be, which we called the ultimate branding job in our “The Branding of Christmas.” 

Small-Town Washington.  Washington is a small town that is growing smaller and smaller.  It is clearly a company town, and George Washington aptly preferred to call it “the Federal City.”  Jock Elliott had very little use for the goings-on there.  The comedian Steve Martin once put out a puckish album called Let’s Get Small: “Let’s get small, really small.”  Unfortunately our nation’s capital has taken that message all too seriously, and it has grown so small under the last two administrations that neither the world nor the country can quite take it seriously.  Recent rumors that have just crossed our desk from thoroughly unreliable sources include: 

1. The Supreme Court Gambit.  We hear that the Bush people knew that Maiers would never make it to the Court and planned it that way in order to yank the chain of the virulent right.  Next, the President has put forward Judge Alioto to get the wacky Left to expend its capital.  When that plays itself out and Alioto goes down, or so goes the whisper, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will ostensibly get the nod.  This ol’ buddy, we are to believe, is Bush’s real candidate.

2. CIA, another FEMA.  A one-time CIA staffer reports: “News from former employer is not good.  Experienced people bailing out at an alarming rate.  You don’t hire children off the streets to do this stuff.  It takes years of hard-gained mentored experience to do right.  I have heard rumors that all the former directors have contacted the White House to tell them to get this guy out of there—he is way over his head and is turning it into another FEMA.”

3. The tuned-in President.  From a White House mole that Robert Novak does not know: “The President, who is known for never watching television news, was watching television anxiously in his private dining room during the 2:00 p.m. news conference when the tight lipped Special Counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald announced the Libby indictment and the continuing Rove investigation.”

Second Stringers.  In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, we often have spied  second stringers occupying chairs that are too big for them.  They are generally also- rans who have been around Washington for a while but who once worked under more capable people. That’s what all the rumors above suggest as well.  The worry is not their ideological proclivities.  Washington has gotten smaller, because it is peopled by smaller men, not because it is haunted by robust ideologies or high-powered thinking.  There’s a leadership gap, something that’s happened before in America, and something that time always cures.

Character is Destiny.  John McCain (along with Mark Salter) is just out with a book Character is Destiny: Inspiring Stories Every Young Person Should Know and Every Adult Should Remember.  Its title is borrowed from the great Greek existentialist philosopher Heraclitus, who was full of pregnant aphorisms.  The 34 characters who people the book are role models for us and point to the very dimension that is in short supply now—in Washington.  With some confidence, we would claim that character will out and big people will stage a comeback in our councils of state. 

Well, Jock Elliott had an abundance of character.  So we need not mourn his passing but rather celebrate his magnitude.  We only hope and presume he will come spend some moments with us as a Spirit of Christmases Future.  David Ogilvy (as related by Ed Ney) said of him: “What makes Jock so good?  Wisdom.  Decency.  Civility.  Fairness.  A deep keel.  Intellectual honesty.  Eloquence.  CHARACTER.  …  He is a Gentleman with brains.” 

A few dinners back, when the Elliotts entertained us at a lodge, he walked us out to the door with a smile.  At the last, he almost whispered, “Good bye, old friend.”  Well, good-bye, Jock.

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