Most people reading this will not know the name Tom Townsend. Among his many enviable qualities was humility. You certainly wouldn’t have known about him or his work from anything he did to promote it. Still, you should know Tom for his advertising legacy—and so much more.
Tom was an accomplished creative leader in advertising. Starting his career in the early 1980s, he joined D’Arcy Masius Benton and Bowles in 1986, where he worked the next 10 years as a group creative director on accounts including Anheuser-Busch, M&M Mars and Southwestern Bell. In 1996, he and his then D’Arcy account partner Tim Rodgers founded their own agency, Rodgers Townsend in St. Louis, Mo. Today, some 23 years later, the agency continues to “dare and delight,” as their agency position promises, for clients including AT&T, State Farm and Spectrum Brands.
But his advertising career was just the edge of Tom’s many creative talents, which also included painting, writing and music. He was one of the most gifted and visceral artists I’ve known.
To watch Tom play the piano was mesmerizing. Arms fully outstretched left and right, fingers skipping across the keys, hovering above a few of them as his ears, not his eyes, guided which notes would be called upon. No sheet music, eyes mostly closed or looking upward to the ceiling, his body often raised above the bench, he was an artist fully enveloped in the feeling of his art.
In 2014, Tom left advertising following the tragic death of his 21-year-old son Alex, who passed away in a fatal car accident. In Alex’s memory and to celebrate his son’s same gift of music, Tom and his wife Jeanne founded Pianos for People, a nonprofit in St. Louis that refurbishes pianos and provides them, along with music lessons, to those who are otherwise unable to afford them. In the last seven years, Pianos for People has provided nearly 300 pianos, taught 200 students weekly and reached a combined 10,000 people through its various camps, workshops and special events in the greater St. Louis and Ferguson areas.
Watching Tom play the piano live on a handful of occasions or in the flood of videos that have been posted to social media since his recent death, it’s hard to fathom the absolute joy and love he emanated. After all, this is a man whose son was killed in a fatal car crash—but that’s not all. In 2018, Tom was shot at gunpoint in a failed carjacking attempt in St. Louis, shattering his jaw and leading to a series of reconstructive surgeries over the last year. And just last month, Tom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer so aggressive he lived only two weeks past his diagnosis.
After his sudden death last week, Tom’s wife Jeanne posted on Facebook, “Completely heartbreaking and heartbroken. We will fill this huge, gaping, empty, bottomless hole with LOVE. Because that’s what you taught us to do.”
Where is the anger, resentment, the lashing out to the perpetrators, the hate that he and his family are surely entitled to for not one, but three, unthinkable outcomes?
Indeed, to know Tom was to know unyielding forgiveness, kindness and love. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch several months after last year’s failed carjacking attempt, he simply said, “I’m grateful to be alive.” Following this incident, Tom continued to raise funds with Pianos for People, only furthering his outreach to the community he loved. To this day, the carjacking assailant has not been apprehended.
So, where’s the lesson in all of this? Why was Tom Townsend filled with love and not rage?
In an industry that is either hard or harder and in an age of largely anonymized social media where speed trumps perfection, we have too easily forgotten that understanding, kindness and love count. Incredibly so. That as humans and, more specifically, as an industry, we are responsible to raise each other up in the process of our losses and learnings. That a hand up, an outreach of kindness and love can help set us back on our way when we have lost it or stumbled. And when we’re all on our way together, doing our best, creating positive impact, we as both individuals and an industry prosper and create even better outcomes. The cycle is virtuous.
This is what Tom Townsend knew: that to show kindness and love in the worst of outcomes was the surest path to restoration and progress. What Tom embodied that we can all learn from is that the limited benefit of rage and anger sat only within him. He showed that the potential broad and exponential impact of kindness and love to correct and propagate change existed for not only himself, but also his family, friends, colleagues and community.
Unmitigated kindness, understanding and love have the opportunity to reunify our industry in a way it has long missed. The question sits squarely with us: Can we surrender the short term and personally held benefits of anger and aggression for a broader impact of shared learning and success as an industry that will come from seeking to understand, be kind and love?
The last song I watched Tom play on the piano was Amazing Grace.
I once was lost, but now am found;
‘Twas blind but now I see.
Our industry and world has lost Tom Townsend. But his legacy of love and grace can live on through us, if we choose.