A fond look back at a talented rebel: Bill Hamilton, 1943-2017

Bill Hamilton (right) with Rick Boyko in the mid-90s

Fourteen years. That is how long Bill Hamilton and I were partners, and over those fourteen years I received a private master course at the seat of one of the most brilliant and talented advertising/marketing/leadership professors ever.

With a head full of white hair, he was driven by a passion, wit, and insatiable quest for knowledge that made his “hurts my hair” expression all the more meaningful.

Bill impacted my life from the day I was lucky enough to become his partner at Chiat/Day. He was a terrific writer who, like most creatives, did not believe he was as good as he was and, of course, made sure I did not believe I was any good as well. Both born of middle class working families, we shared a similar work ethic, constantly pushing each other to never settle, and in doing so succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.

Bill, to quote an old advertising line, was “hard on the outside but soft on the inside.” He was tough, demanding, and his sometimes quick outbursts could intimidate, yet were always served up for the betterment of the work. To him, only the work mattered. Yet at the same time he was also a caring, inspiring, supportive champion of all he led. And that was Bill’s real genius: he challenged and inspired everyone around him to passionately pursue greatness because he embodied the Chiat/Day philosophy that “Good enough is not Good enough.”

While I was fortunate to have a front row seat to his genius, there were hundreds if not thousands whose lives Bill changed as well. Because whoever came into Bill’s orbit came out with a deeper understanding and passion to strive for greatness. Here's just a small sampling of those whose lives were impacted by Bill.

“I loved Bill Hamilton. He was my partner, and he was my friend. Bill challenged everyone. He was provocative. He created work that was quite different from the Ogilvy “canon.” Bill could take a small, simple idea and put it forth in a way that made it huge. He was a remarkable developer of young talent. They flocked to him because he was a great teacher and because he made what they were doing exciting. One of my favorite Bill Hamilton expressions was “Let’s dirty some paper.” He made a mark. He made a difference to clients, to Ogilvy, to me. He will never be forgotten.”

-Shelly Lazarus, chairman emeritus, Ogilvy & Mather

“Bill Hamilton. He was smart, stubborn, angry, happy, funny, thoughtful. And creative. He’s probably fishing right now. Loved him.”

-Lee Clow, chairman, TBWA\Chiat\Day

“I was lucky. In my first job I found myself in a group led by Bill Hamilton at Ketchum/Pittsburgh. Bill taught me what it meant to understand a client’s needs and to solve problems creatively.

The emphasis was always on thinking. Not art direction. Not copywriting. Bill would say that art direction and writing could be learned but thinking was a rare commodity and should be embraced. Over the next four decades Bill never deviated from the initial principles he related to me as a novice in the business. It was always about the thinking. For that, I will be eternally grateful.”

-Gary Johns, founder/director, Johns+Gorman Films

“Bill simply made every one and every agency he led better—a lot better. For me, he was the best, most brilliant and inspiring creative director I’ve ever worked with. His depth of passion and knowledge for music, art, photography, acting, comedy, movies, architecture, everything creative was endless. And he brought pieces of it all with him when he talked about advertising. Bill was a creative soul like no other and when he married his creative side to his unsurpassed sense of the business world, you had the ingredients needed to make one hell of an advertising creative director.”

- Rich Russo, CCO, Havas Adrenaline

“I spent a lot of time with Bill Hamilton, first as a babysitter for his son Scott, and then as a young producer at Ogilvy. We grew very close and he ended up being a mentor and father figure to me. I loved being around Bill whether it was in a pre-pro meeting, or listening to the Allman Brothers at 1am, I invariably learned something and came away smarter and more curious. He taught me to be brave (around him you had to be), and to passionately care about the work. Bill was toughest on those he loved most, and I was no exception. But it was always worth it.”

-Sherri Levy, head of production, adam&eve NYC

“Bill Hamilton gave many of us our shot. Mike Shine and I got together and talked about our time at Chiat/Day NY in the late ‘80s with Bill. In no particular order, here are some of the by- products of that era. Buckley DeCerchio - Carroll, Raj, Stagliano - Weiss Whitten - CAA Advertising (via Len Fink) - DaVinci Einstein - Hempel Stefenides - Merkley Newman Harty – Mad Dogs & Englishmen – Hungry Man and Butler, Shine & Stern. Bill had a natural talent for finding talent. He built a creative department in the ‘80s that spawned a wave of influential creative start-ups in the ‘90s. We spilled a bit of scotch for Bill. Rest in Peace.”

-John Butler, chief creative officer, BSSP

Simply put, Bill changed people’s lives, he changed people’s careers, he changed agencies, he changed brands, he changed the business, and he changed me.

David Ogilvy said, “Our business needs massive transfusion of talent. And talent I believe is most likely to be found among non conformists, dissenters, and rebels.” Bill Hamilton was that talented, non conformist, dissenter, and rebel who will be sorely missed.

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