Jay Chiat spent his honeymoon last July on the Riviera. Too bad his bride stayed home in New York. Five hours after marrying photographer Donatella Brun, the 60-year-old advertising executive hopped a plane to rendezvous with top executives of American Express Co. As Brun waited, Chiat successfully sold the executives on his new ad campaign to revive the lagging Green Card. "The meeting was planned," Chiat laughs. "The wedding wasn't."

Such fanatical devotion has helped Jay Chiat build his 23-year-old agency from a quirky, creative California shop into a major contender. On Nov. 7, Chiat/Day/Mojo Inc. beat out incumbent Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Inc. to win the $60 million charge-card account. AmEx joins other accounts such as Reebok International Ltd. and Shearson Lehman Brothers Inc., all of which add up to $ 150 million in new billings for the New York office in 1991. Throw in new business in London, Toronto, and Venice, Calif., and Chiat says worldwide billings will rise 18%, to $1.2 billion.

But manic dedication hasn't guaranteed stability: Indeed, the American Express victory offsets a devastating string of account losses. "We've had a few comebacks in our history," says agency president Lee Clow. "I think it's part of our culture."

ALARMING EXODUS. That's an understatement. Chiat/Day bounces up and down as wildly as the bungee jumper it once filmed in a controversial -- and quickly yanked -- ad for Reebok athletic shoes. Among the high-profile accounts the closely held agency has won and lost in its 23 years: Honda, Nike, Apple Computer, and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. With Reebok, Chiat/Day won, then lost, then won the account again.

The exodus of clients grew so alarming last year that many wondered whether Chiat's high-style approach was badly out of step with the hard-sell marketing methods of the 1990s. What's more, while Chiat spent 25% of his time in Europe mapping out foreign expansion, several top agency executives were exiting at home. Chiat says the agency's instability is the price of having risk-takers as clients. "We've made our mark by working with rather flamboyant entrepreneurs," he says. After being hired by Apple founder Steven P. Jobs, for example, Chiat was fired by Jobs's successor as CEO, John Sculley.

The rescue mission started when Chiat resumed his job as creative director, a title he had relinquished years ago. Chiat even knocked out some headlines for clients such as Reebok and Shearson, and his prodigious energy helped recharge the agency. "Jay has sort of an iron-man complex," says Steve Hayden, a former Chiat executive who now runs BBDO's Los Angeles office. "You'd be working with him at 2:30 a.m. and he'd call a meeting for 7 a.m."

Despite the account wins, Chiat won't be able to start sleeping late. For one thing, he has taken on some of the industry's thorniest marketing problems. Reebok, for example, is still fighting to regain its lead against Nike Inc. More important, American Express must deal with the erosion of its franchise in an era when its gilt-edged image seems outmoded. Industry newsletter publisher Spencer Nilson figures AmEx's share of the U. S. credit- and charge-card market dropped 1.62 percentage points, to 21.1%, in the first half of 1991. Chiat's approach is to treat the AmEx card as being in a class by itself and its name as an icon -- like Coca-Cola. The slogan: "The Card. The American Express Card," accompanies ads playing up the card's strengths. In one spot, a business dinner unexpectedly grows from 6 to 12 people. The host is unruffled, though, since his card has no preset spending limit. Chiat/Day's ads are also hipper and more offbeat than Ogilvy's more traditional work. In the ads, the card doubles as the tail of a supersonic jet or as a footbridge to a putting green.

MEASURING SUCCESS. Kenneth I. Chenault, president of AmEx's U. S. charge-card division, says he chose Chiat/Day because the ads were "captivating" as well as practical. But some wonder whether Chiat's devotion to creativity in advertising might yet rub such sober clients as American Express the wrong way. Chiat insists he measures success not by billings or the longevity of clients but by the quality of "the work" -- a term he and his staffers repeat like a mantra. "Chiat is obsessed with the work," says Hayden, "so sometimes the relationship with the client suffers."

With AmEx's unusual new campaign, Chiat is putting his belief in "the work" to the test for a mainstream client. If he can pull it off, his shop's latest hot streak may actually burn a while.

      New accounts won in fiscal 1991 by Chiat/Day/Mojo New York
      Account                           Millions
      SHEARSON LEHMAN BROTHERS             20
      REEBOK INTERNATIONAL                 60
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