There are a few people you meet along the path of your life who make an indelible impression, perhaps because of their unique combination of grace, intelligence, and honesty. Bill O’Connor was just such a person.
Bill was unique in his ability to observe, speculate, report, and yes . . . bear witness, to the radical changes impacting the CPG world. And he had been doing it, as a Principal of the Chicago based Source/Inc for 41 years. In 2009 he and his partner decided to close the firm. Our industry will be poorer because of that decision.
I first met Bill as a member of what was then known as The Package Design Council. Founded in 1952 by a group of prominent designers, it was a vibrant advocate for our industry for over 40 years, and was merged into the AIGA when I was the PDC’s President in the mid 1990s.
The Greatest Generation of Designers
He was a member of what I will characterize as the “greatest generation” of design managers. Unheralded and unsung, this group included those who began their practices in the 1960s and 1970s. They built, quietly, respectfully, and successfully on the work done by an earlier group of designers like William Golden at CBS, or Walter Margulies, and Walter Landor, who just after World War II collectively defined our profession as a separate entity from the printing and advertising trades.
We would meet occasionally in New York during events or conferences, and our friendship grew. One day I vividly remember getting a phone call from him asking if I would like to be an expert witness in a package design case. This was something he had begun to do with regularity, but couldn’t take this case because one of the parties was a client. He said it had something to do with two companies introducing cream cheese in South America within weeks of one another. It sounded like a blast, and I jumped at the chance.
I will save the details of this experience for another post, but trust me, sitting in a federal courtroom, in the witness chair, before a Judge, trying to talk about the finer points of brand equity, while being torn to bits by a very capable Kraft attorney was painful, but actually a very valuable experience.
Bill was the consummate expert witness. He was one of the first to recognize the relevance of, and find a way to quantify, the cultural influences that now guide much of the strategic work we do for our clients. As he put it, Source/Inc was one of the first at,
“Mining the culture for the values and symbols that build powerful brands”
And because Bill was such a keen observer of our world, the world of consumer brands and those of us that support them, and he chose to move on last year, I am only hoping that his choice doesn’t reflect badly on the future for those of us who remain.
Bill, we all thank you dear friend, and Pam and I wish you well.