On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, New York City streets bustled with the usual clamor of rush hour commute. Corporate employees hustled to grab their coffee, hoping to catch one train or the next, scheduled calls and greeted one another in the street.
For many ad agencies, that morning was unceremonious. The day would consist of client meetings, pitches, campaign brainstorms — the usual.
But the day would soon take a turn for the unimaginable, when at 8:46 a.m., American Airlines Flight 11 from Boston crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower, killing all the passengers on board and trapping those in the building in a haze of smoke and fire.
The rest of the day’s events, and the days that followed, are etched into every New Yorker’s — and the world’s — memory.
For ad execs whose companies were headquartered in New York, it was a harrowing time to step up to the plate and lead their people through the fear-filled aftermath.
For many, it was a defining moment, which continues to affect their leadership approach to this day.
To commemorate the 22nd anniversary of 9/11, Campaign US has asked ad execs to reflect on their leadership on that day and the years to follow.
Below we have compiled their thoughts, which have been edited for clarity:
Shelly Lazarus, chairman emerita, Ogilvy
On Sept. 11, 2001, Lazarus was CEO of Ogilvy and Mather. She was in London for a meeting with the agency’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa teams. She had just completed her “state of the agency” presentation when she was pulled out of the room and told the news.
Someone whispered in my ear that I needed to leave the room to ‘see something.’ I went to a television where I saw the planes go into the buildings. It was overwhelming. I did manage to get through to my husband who was in Manhattan (thank you to [then WPP CEO] Martin Sorrell. who somehow managed to get an open line for me), and found out my family was all accounted for. We actually stayed in the Heathrow hotel for the rest of the day as the rumors swirled that attacks were planned across Europe. It was harrowing.
I remember that we had a client event scheduled for the next night at The Ivy. I was supposed to do a talk on the power of brands. I agreed to go ahead with it, but with the acknowledgement at the start of the presentation that this was hardly the issue on everyone’s mind at the moment. The support of the Brits in the audience for me, an American, was palpable and heartfelt.
I remember going to Grosvenor Square where a memorial was forming in front of the American Embassy. People were coming out to leave flowers and to simply express their support to anyone they heard speaking with an American accent. It was beyond moving.
I finally got back to New York City on Friday night. U.S. air space had been closed until then. As I landed, a strange light [appeared on the skyline]. I wasn’t sure what [it] was, [until] at some point I realized that there were candles everywhere on the ground.
At the time, I did not know that a message had gone out to New Yorkers to light a candle that night and put it in a window. The view from the sky was magical. What a way to return home!
The next week in the agency was surreal. People weren’t really talking. There was sadness everywhere. I decided we needed to bring everyone together for what I called “milk and cookies.” (We actually did serve milk and cookies). And we just talked and grieved together. We hugged. We realized how important we were to each other. It helped.
[At that point], I learned the importance of human connection. We held on to each other and got through it. The memories from those days are forever.
Richard Edelman, president and CEO, Edelman
On Sept. 11, 2001, Richard Edelman was serving as president and CEO at Edelman, whose headquarters were and continue to be in Manhattan.
Edelman has a deep connection to the 9/11 terrorist attack and the aftermath.
[At the time], we were the PR firm for Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 600 people that day, one of whom, Surya Clarke, had only recently moved from Edelman to be our client.
[In the days after the attack], our team managed PR for the firm’s CEO Howard Lutnick, while others at Edelman volunteered at a grieving center at the Carlyle Hotel, comforting the families who lost parents and partners. We were selected to build a website before the first anniversary of 9/11 by the City of New York, which we called LowerManhattan.info, to provide up to date information on subways, air quality and re-opening of restaurants.
We carried on our work for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, with a design identity and clarity on the commitment to rebuild downtown, celebrating each step of the recovery.
We were involved from the beginning on the 9/11 Memorial, its design, and then its opening. We have worked for a decade on the Museum, which opened in May 2014, including a visit by Pope Francis a year later.
This has been Edelman’s most powerful example of giving back to the community, to tell the story of the awful day as one of resilience, hope and humanity at its best.
Mark Penn, chairman and CEO, Stagwell Group
On Sept. 11, 2001, Mark Penn was serving as CEO of Penn Schoen Berland (PSB), an agency he co-founded that was later acquired by WPP. At the time of the attack, he was in Seattle visiting his client Microsoft just before he was expected to head on a company trip to Korea.
Stranded in Seattle for six days, I witnessed from afar the profound impact of that tragic day. It was a moment that not only tested our resilience but also shaped my approach to leadership for years to come.
In those uncertain days following the attacks, my immediate priority was to provide reassurance and steady leadership to our employees as they grappled with the implications of the tragedy. We had to navigate uncharted waters and ensure the safety and well-being of our team while keeping our business running.
The experience forever impacted our company culture. Unity was paramount, and we embraced the spirit of defiantly building in the face of tragedy. This ethos is one I had been building my entire life, and quickly became a cornerstone of my leadership style; it has served me, and the companies I’ve led, well in subsequent personal and professional challenges, be it recessions, pandemics, or more.
Back in 2020, I made the deliberate decision to move the New York agencies within our network to the new One World Trade Center, not just as a symbolic gesture, but as a commitment to being part of the long-term revitalization of downtown New York. It represents our dedication to resilience, progress and the belief that even in the face of the greatest of tragedies, we can rebuild and grow stronger.
John Osborn, director, Ad Net Zero
On Sept. 11, 2001, Osborn was EVP, director of integrated marketing at BBDO. On the morning of the attacks, he and his wife, who worked at Time Inc. across the street, grabbed a taxi to head to work, as they were running late. On the way, they heard the breaking news.
On the morning of September 11th, my wife and I grabbed a taxi because we were late for work. On the way, we heard the breaking news on the radio, and by the time we exited the cab in midtown, the second plane had just hit.
Most of my day was spent trying to care for our people. We had folks stranded in other cities who couldn’t get home, some in other countries and a bunch of folks already in the office trying to figure out what was happening. Many were huddled around televisions and some were trying to connect with loved ones who worked downtown. It was a horrible day.
Several days later, then Mayor [Rudolph] Giuliani reached out to John Wren [CEO] at Omnicom seeking help to rebuild the spirits of New Yorkers along with the economy. Phil Dusenberry from BBDO was enlisted to build a team and develop a campaign, and I was humbled to play a supporting role. What I remember most was how willing everyone was to help, regardless of who worked where. Everyone came together.
The result was The New York Miracle, featuring quintessential New York celebrities living out their dreams in the only city in the world where someone's dreams can come true. Like Henry Kissinger sliding into home plate at Yankee Stadium, or Woody Allen landing a triple axel in the rink at Rockefeller Center. The campaign ended with an invitation to come be a part of it. Local business and tourism rebounded.
We used to live next to a fire house on the upper west side. The morning shift from that firehouse near our apartment never returned home that day. So many lives were lost, and so many lives were forever changed in an instant. I try to make every moment matter and to take nothing for granted. To me, there is power in hope, and I know that in the face of the worst, humanity wins in the end. Through the sadness, there was a great lesson in the importance of human connection and how amazing things can happen when people come together under a shared mission bound by purpose. We will never forget.
(Photo credits: All headshots used with permission from their respective owners)