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Dinner with a legend

Years ago, when I was working in a smallish advertising market at a great, but smallish agency, an industry peer phoned out of the blue.

“Would you like to have dinner with Bob Levenson?”

My reaction was probably similar to that of a nun being asked if she’d like to wash feet with Mother Teresa; a golfer invited to play 18 with Jack Nicklaus; or a plumber being invited to snake a drain with Thomas Crapper.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, trying to regain some semblance of nonchalance, and failing.

“He’s coming to town on Thursday for a speaking engagement and the dinner is the night before.”

You know how you pencil something in when you might be able to make it? I Sharpie’d that night in my calendar. 

Bob Levenson would be in anyone’s top five of the greatest ad men in history. His boss, Bill Bernbach, changed advertising forever. Mr. Levenson had a bachelor’s and master’s in English. His writing was simple, compelling, and brilliant. 

When I showed up to the restaurant, I was expecting a long table of maybe 20 people. There were six of us, including the guest of honour, and I ended up in the seat directly across from him. He was impeccably dressed: cufflinks, shined shoes, perfectly knotted tie. Madison Avenue, personified.

When I was trying to break into the ad business, I studied Bob Levenson’s work like architects study the Franks (Lloyd Wright and Gehry). I knew all about his work, his agency, and his colleagues. 

He spoke to us like we were valued peers in the industry, when we were more like wanna-be’s. He was gracious, charming, courteous, and a wonderful communicator. Only once in the entire evening did I see a flash of anger, and that was when I asked about a particular former colleague of his. “We won’t mention that name again,” came his calm instruction.

A wonderful talent, great dinner companion, and good human. If one lives their life checking those three boxes, that’s time well spent. And it’s always nice to meet a hero who lives up to your expectations.

Bob Levenson

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