February 5, 2023

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2021 in Review: Legends we lost

This has been a hard year for losing legendary advertising and marketing people, from Wieden+Kennedy co-founder David Kennedy to luxury fashion superstar Virgil Abloh to PR giants David Finn and Howard Rubenstein. People who shaped the marketing world we know today have died, but their legacies will remain with us for a very long time.

See Ad Age’s 2021 Year in Review here.


Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh, LVMH’s star designer and the most high-profile Black figure in luxury fashion, died in November at age 41 after battling cancer for two years. Abloh’s death shocked the fashion world, where he was known for his influence on streetwear and sneaker culture through his brand Off-White and his success revitalizing Louis Vuitton after his appointment as head of menswear design in 2018. In July, LVMH had bought a 60% stake in Off-White and named Abloh to a wider role at the conglomerate, giving him the authority to create new brands beyond fashion. 

Read: Virgil Abloh dies at 41


Serena Duff

Serena Duff, Horizon Media’s long-time head of the West Coast office, died in February after a battle with colon cancer. Over the 12 years after she joined Horizon Media in 2009, she grew the office from 75 people to more than 300, managing $1 billion in business. “There was so much more to Serena than all business,” said Horizon founder and CEO Bill Koenigsberg in a remembrance. “Her love for the people she managed, her sense of humor, her charity work, her themed parties, her monthly ‘raise the bar’ office gatherings, and of course her weekly postcards from L.A. to me that she used as a unique status report.”

Read: Remembering Serena Duff’s Legacy


David Finn

The PR giant who founded Ruder Finn died in October at 100, having led the company for more than 70 years. He was among other things enlisted by three presidential administrations—helping the Kennedy administration rally support for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; building Ready.gov following 9/11 for George W. Bush; and serving on the National Endowment for the Humanities under Bill Clinton.

Read: David Finn, co-founder of PR giant Ruder Finn, dies at 100


Cliff Freeman

The Mississippi-born adman died in September at age 80 of pneumonia in his Manhattan home. He was known for embracing humor like few others in the industry, leading Ad Age sibling Creativity to dedicate a regular “Cliff Freeman Comedy Corner” section to him. Freeman was creative director and copywriter behind Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef,” “Pizza Pizza” for Little Caesars and “Sometimes you feel like a nut” for Almond Joy and Mounds. He began his career as a copywriter for Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in the 1970s, ultimately leading his own shop Cliff Freeman and Partners from 1987 through the 2000s.

Read: Cliff Freeman’s legacy of funny ads


David Kennedy

The co-founder of Wieden+Kennedy, known for his work on such brands as Nike and Honda; pro-bono work for the American Indian College Fund and rustic metal sculptures he created as a fine artist, died in October.

“Creativity is like a plague that I’ve contracted and I can’t get rid of,” he said in a video created by advertising vet Rick Boyko for the Advertising Club of New York and International Andy Awards. “It’s just an itch I gotta scratch, I can’t stop. If I were in a jail cell facing execution, I’d be making something out of something. It’s a compulsive fixation that I’ve had all my life.”

Read: Wieden+Kenndey co-founder David Kennedy’s most famous ads


Ringan Ledwidge

In November, advertising lost one of its legendary cinematic talents with the death of Ringan Ledwidge. co-founder of his own production company Rattling Stick, Ledwidge succumbed to cancer last month at the age of 50, leaving behind a legacy of some of the ad world’s finest films. Ledwidge was a master storyteller who captivated across a spectrum of genres who also was remembered for his grace and generosity on set with his colleagues. His work included the much-celebrated “Three Little Pigs” for The Guardian, Lynx’s poignant love story “Getting Dressed,” Levi’s time-traveling romance “Dangerous Liaisons” and Axe’s unexpectedly thoughtful “Susan Glenn” ad from BBH; the poignant masterpiece of craft “After Hours Athlete” for Puma via Droga5; thrilling, celebrity-studded romps for Nike via Wieden+Kennedy and many more. 

Read: Director Ringan Ledwidge, master of ad storytelling, dies at 50


John McGarry

The co-founder of McGarryBowen (now Dentsu McGarryBowen), died Oct. 7 at age 81 following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He began his career at Young & Rubicam as an account director, rose to chairman-CEO, and was part of the management team that took the agency public and spearheaded Y&R’s acquisition by WPP. He made what his family called “a failed attempt at retirement” before founding McGarryBowen alongside former Y&R executives Gordon Bowen and Stewart Owen in 2002. There he brought on clients that included JP Morgan Chase, Disney, Kraft and Procter & Gamble Co.

Read: John McGary, founder of McGarrybown, dies at 81


Molly Parsley

Veteran marketing and communications exec Molly Parsley—who had represented agencies including Pereira O’Dell, AKQA and Edelman—died in March of undetermined causes. Parsley was well known within the industry for helping to build the reputations and fortunes of several standout shops.

Read: Farewell shining light agency PR executive Molly Parsley


Ron Popeil

The adman behind such late-night TV staples as the Veg-O-Matic, Cap Snaffler, Ron Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman and the Bedazzler died in July at age 86. He practically wrote the lexicon of direct-response TV advertising, including such famous lines as “Set it and forget it,” “Now how much would you pay?” and “But wait. There’s more!” Indeed, we hope there is.

Read: Legendary pitchman Ron Popeil, the man behind Ronco, Veg-O-Matic, Bedazzler and much more, dies at 86


Dick Roth

The founder of search consultancy Roth Associates (now part of Roth Ryan Hayes) died Dec. 31, 2020, at age 84. Roth Associates was among the earliest agency consulting firms, overseeing hundreds of pitches. The firm was acquired in 2016 by Matt Ryan, former New York co-chairman of Havas Worldwide; and Chris Hayes, ex-global chief marketing officer of Code and Theory, creating Roth Ryan Hayes, of which Roth remained chairman. Ryan in a statement to Ad Age said Roth “was most proud of the role he found himself in as an honest broker between the ever-changing need of marketers and the ever-changing agency landscape. He loved advertising as a whole. The strategies. The work. And most of all, the people he came to know.”

Read: Roth Associates founder Dick Roth dies


Howard Rubenstein

Arguably the best ever at public relations damage control, Rubenstein also died in late December of 2020, too late for year-end lists last year, but deserving of honor now. He was well known as an advisor to George Steinbrenner, who was often in need of his services. And he even worked with Donald Trump during the latter’s 1990 divorce from Ivanka. Rubenstein was, unlike some of his clients, an unflinchingly reasonable voice who managed to invoke trust even among the most skeptical journalists.

Read: Howard Rubenstein, PR’s dean of damage control, dies at 88


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