Don Keller conquers London.

In the late 70s Don Keller was packed off to London for a couple of months of R&R after his wife died. At the  time it was rumored that a rival agency had Don at the top of their wish list. So getting him out of town and out of sight may have been doubly appealing to Leo Burnett’s creative head Carl Hixon.

At first everyone in the London office thought he was some kind of charming mid-western naif, an aw-shucks-just-shook-the-hay-from-his-hair innocent.  He was hip to critters like Tony The Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop. In London critters were not hip.

But then he’d wander the creative department and slip into offices unnoticed. Ideas were being battered around but progress remained elusive. Knotty problems would not untie. Frustration and voices rose. Then he would quietly say something.

“You could always try…”

Suddenly people stopped talking, looked at each other, then looked at him. Maybe this was no hayseed. Dan Parfitt, my art director and I looked at each other, looked at Don, and thought the same thing: “That’s…good!” The word got out. Suddenly Don the midwesterner couldn’t walk down the hall without being invited into every office with an open door and a creative team trying to get out of jail.

Everyone wanted a piece of him. It became a competitive game: Capture Don. Get him in the morning before anyone else does, put him to work, then take him down the pub. Then take him to dinner. Kidnap him.

Think Lawrence of Arabia in the scene where Lawrence, having survived the terrible Nephood desert, “God’s Anvil”, goes back into it to rescue a bedouin warrior the other tribesmen had given up for dead. On his return one by one each man offers Lawrence their blanket and saddle, their hospitality. So in London: “Come into my office, Don.” “Don, in here—-got a minute?” Everyone wanted his ear, his eye and nod of approval. I was no different.

At one point he turned to me in surprise and a little exasperation, “Gerry, remember, I voted for Nixon twice, and you want MY opinion?!!!”

Of course that became the cover of his leaving card.

Unlike Lawrence, and any creative director you could name, Don was self-effacing. His talent was actually bigger than his ego. In advertising this was unheard of.

Then we discovered he could draw.

That was something not many art directors in London would admit to, because it meant they would have to do their own storyboards and miss time at the pub, instead of sending them to a studio artist for the equivalent of £200+ a frame (client pays). Don did his own. And they were not just an outline of the story. Looking at Don’s boards you could see the movie.

He drew the frames with points-of-view and camera angles and movement indications he had already thought about, as if he had pre-screened the spot in his mind. Because he had. (The only other person I ever knew who did boards completely realized like that that was Tony Scott.)

Drawing and painting, of course, was what he really wanted to do, what he trained to do at the Art Institute of Chicago with classmates like Leroy Neiman and Claes Oldenburg. His house was filled with his art: paintings and drawings. But like many artists, he either had trouble letting them go—-as gifts or sales—-or he got too much joy teasing me and Jim Jenness and a few others with the promise of one. On the other hand, he gave Florence, our youngest daughter, a painting and a bunch of drawings. This was the same daughter he had carried sleeping and exhausted out of a hamburger restaurant on Oak Street 30+ years ago when we first moved to Chicago. Rebecca, our older daughter, still has her drawing of Tony the Tiger inscribed with Don’s art director spelling, “Rebbeca, You’re Grrreat!”

With talent, charm and unstinting generosity, he nurtured the talent and, more importantly, the spirit in all of us.

An innocent abroad? Ha!

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