20 years later, adland reflects on 9/11

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Getty Images

Industry executives remember that fateful day two decades ago.

The 9/11 attacks physically happened in New York City, but it was a crisis that shook the entire world.  

In the New York-centric advertising industry, countless people remember heading to work that day as usual, ready to bury themselves in pitches and meetings and brainstorm sessions and spreadsheets. Instead, they were met with a horrifying threat that would reshape the city and the world. 

Even those sitting in offices as far away as Bermuda and London felt the shocks of 9/11. Advertising executives who had undoubtedly visited New York before for a client pitch or two thought about their American counterparts and feared for their own lives and homes. 

To mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Campaign US rounded up some recollections of that day from advertising executives across the country and the world who will never forget.

Eileen Kiernan, global CEO, UM

I still have so many vivid and visceral memories of that terrible day. So much horror, chaos and unimaginable tragedy. I was working at Time Inc. and had a non-urgent meeting at 9am. The TV was on in my office and as I was tracking the unfolding events, I could tell it was bad. And yet, out of some sort of bizarre and naïve professional courtesy, we went ahead with this nonsensical meeting while our sense of the world collapsed. 

I think about that sometimes, why professional politeness took over at that moment. Looking back, it seems ludicrous. We didn’t have the context then, but we do now. I hope there’s a gift in that – that we will forever have learned to choose right over polite. 

John Osborn, CEO, OMD USA 

My wife and I had just gotten into a cab heading to work from our apartment over a firehouse on West 77th Street when the first plane hit. In those pre-iPhone days we had no idea what was going on and, like the rest of the country, at first we thought it was a tragic accident. By the time we arrived at our offices — she at Time Warner, and me across the street at BBDO — we knew we were in the midst of something horrific.

At the office, everyone was huddled around TV sets, watching in horror as the events unfolded — a scene for which the wailing sirens of emergency vehicles speeding down 6th Avenue against traffic provided a mournful soundtrack. That night I realized that several of those vehicles had carried the firefighters from the West 77th street station. None of them made it back to our street.    

Two lessons I learned that day that I will never forget: 

1. The true test of leadership is how you lead in moments of crisis - All of the BBDO account leads walked the floor of the agency, making sure that before anyone left, we knew they had a safe place to go to. For those we wanted to shelter in place, we stayed with them until late in the afternoon, waiting until we knew the last person had left before we closed the door behind us. In the days that followed, BBDO stepped up to help heal a devastated city. About a week after the attack we put together a team to create a campaign to restore the spirit of the city. That effort became “The New York Miracle.” To this day, it stands as the best and most important project on which I’ve ever worked — and the work of which I am the most proud.   

2. When a city is brought to its knees, it takes a lot of helping hands to get it back on its feet - The selflessness and empathy which was on display in the days, weeks and months following the attack made me realize how different the aftermath would have been without the efforts of relief organizations like the American  Red Cross. Within minutes, the Red Cross mobilized to provide help, and their work continued for years. Seeing their volunteers working tirelessly was my incentive for getting involved with the ARC, where I’ve been proud to serve as Board Chair for the Greater New York Region over the past nine years.

Jonathan Schoenberg, executive creative director/partner, TDA Boulder 

I lost someone I had shared a home with that day. Seems like yesterday. So tragic. I had close friends who worked in finance and attended so many funerals. As a New Yorker, it still hits hard. 

From an advertising standpoint, 9/11 changed media. It accelerated us to a 24-hour news feed and all that brings with it. It also accelerated racist tendencies that were always brewing in our country and the nationalism that we have seen since. As a native New Yorker not living there today, I still think about 9/11 whenever I am in lower downtown. 

Katie Keating, founding partner and co-CCO, Fancy

After many delays, my fiancé and I planned to be married in New York City on Sept 22, 2001. After the attacks, we thought maybe we should postpone again. When we suggested to the priest that he may have more important issues during that time, such as grieving families, he said we needed to have the wedding as planned. People need celebrations and the affirmation of goodness and love. It's something I always try to remember.

David Stevenson, CEO, Two by Four

That morning, I arrived at the office right before the second plane hit the south tower. I’ll always remember the face of a young account director as she thought of her friends who worked at the top of the North tower. 

Even 700 or so miles away in Chicago, we felt the overwhelming sadness and sense of loss. We continue to grieve for those who lost their lives just because they decided to show up for work that day.  

Al Moseley, global chairman and CCO, 180LA 

I was working at TBWA London at the time. When the news came through that an airplane had hit the North Tower, we assumed it must have been an amateur pilot lost over Manhattan. All work stopped in the creative department, and we gathered around the TV amidst noisy speculation as to what could be the circumstances. When the second plane hit the South Tower, everyone went silent. The whole thing was too dreadful to imagine. 

Ron Lewis, group creative director, Grey

I wasn’t in the country that day, but I moved to the US a month later, traveling on the emptiest plane I have ever been on. The flight attendant told me to sit wherever I wanted. Surreal. 

On 9/11, when the plane hit the first tower, I was watching the news at home in Barbados. It was so horrible to see. The tallest building in Barbados is about 11 stories, so the magnitude of what happened really sunk in when I arrived in New York, and I felt the scale of it all.

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