I was a young ad exec working in Midtown when the planes hit

Getty Images
Getty Images

Here are a few life lessons I carry 20 years later.

On September 11, 2001, I was working at FCB NY, managing the AT&T Wireless business. I was working on a big brand campaign to herald their new technology and promise of greater connectivity in advance of their upcoming IPO. 

We had just finished a 4 week shoot around Manhattan, capturing the City at its finest. We shut down a portion of 6th Avenue for panoramic crane shots across. We did a high-speed film capture from Central Park South down to Patience and Fortitude (the lions outside the New York Public Library). We maneuvered around the Twin Towers in a helicopter to get quintessential New York aerial shots that would create advertising magic for our biggest client. I was still young in the business, but it felt like I had already made it to the top.

I was in the office bright and early that morning, excited to look at one of the latest edits on the campaign. Then the first plane hit. Then the second. 

FCB was located on 42nd Street across from the Chrysler Building. My colleagues and I looked out our office windows and saw people running out of the building, across the street, as we heard the news report that all New York City landmarks were presumed to be targets. 

My then-girlfriend-now-wife and I left the building to join the masses of people trekking north along Third Avenue. Everyone was trying to use their phones, but nobody could connect to anyone. Ironic. 

After hours of frantically trying to place a call and despairingly receiving none, one finally came through. It was from a client outside of New York instructing me to ensure that any image of the Twin Towers was removed from their TV spots. I had never experienced such a world-stands-still moment of disbelief, rendered speechless despite so many things on the tip of my tongue. 

From that moment I learned a few things that have helped shaped by perspective as we live through our latest world challenge.

1. Empathy and compassion have a place in business. Being a successful “suit” in adland required awe-inspiring unflappability, incredible resourcefulness and unparalleled responsiveness. Those are all very rational traits that require a high amount of control, but doing them well also prevented me from operating with genuineness and visceral emotion. It was almost hard to be human if you wanted to do your job well. 

I learned then that EQ matters just as much as IQ. When you let your humanity come through, business gets better, it’s more fruitful and it’s much more satisfying. 

2. Agility is an art masquerading as a science. When NYC, the epicenter of advertising, shook to its core twenty years ago, the technology available to us was nothing like it is today – and yet, we all made things happen. It was impossible to get to editing suites below 14th street for months, yet we still finished commercials. Air travel halted, yet we still carried on with global business. We found a way. 

Agility is about the ability to move quickly in response to challenge or change. Perhaps we were more creative back then without today’s technology, which risks creating overly methodical structures designed to engineer…wait for it…agility. As we move with haste, let’s not forget how to get to where we’re going with practical common sense.

3. Never underestimate the significance of a ‘thank you.’ Two little words, when said meaningfully, can have such a tremendous impact on one’s soul. In addition to acknowledging gratefulness, they also convey appreciation, belonging, approval and acceptance. Talent in our industry yearns for these qualities while working from home, disconnected from agency culture. We need to look after our people’s mental health. 

We make intangible things -- ideas -- which need fertile ground to flourish. Talk with your employees individually and regularly. How are they doing today? What do they want tomorrow? How can we help them get there?

These three lessons share a resounding theme of humanity. The very human aspect of coming together got us through 9/11, it’s getting us through the coronavirus pandemic and it needs to get us through the metamorphosis that our industry is experiencing. 

Jason Kahner is President, Global Health & Wellness at Grey.

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