Death Takes Toll On Negotiations For New SAG-AFTRA Commercials Pact

Contract negotiations are always tough, but these were downright tragic. And when they were over in the wee hours of Sunday morning, both sides raised a glass to toast their fallen comrades – one from each side who’d died suddenly and unexpectedly during negotiations for a new SAG-AFTRA commercials contract.

The death of SAG-AFTRA president Kathleen QuinnKen Howard on March 23 had cast a pall over the negotiations. Doug Wood, the ad industry’s chief negotiator, remembers getting the call while he and his team were taking a walk during a break in the talks. It was a beautiful spring break in Manhattan, and David White, the union’s chief negotiator, had called to inform them that Howard had died. Four days later, on Easter Sunday, Wood’s top advisor, Kathleen Quinn, died after secretly battling esophageal cancer. It was a shock to everyone involved.

Contract negotiations are always about numbers, with both sides haggling over minutia to save a buck here or to make a buck there. But these talks had an added human dimension unlike any that had come before. Death has a way of putting things in perspective.

“This was a strange negotiation,” Wood said. “I knew Kathleen for the last 20 years or more. She was my right hand for every negotiation I’ve done. She was an irreplaceable font of knowledge and an invaluable asset. Her passing was an incredible loss.”

Howard hadn’t taken part in the negotiations, which were held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, but his passing touched everyone at the bargaining table. Quinn’s death just four days later sent everyone reeling again. She’d been a major player in the first week of the talks in February until her rapidly deteriorating health forced her to take leave.

“I was sitting in our suite at the Waldorf when I looked at my email and got the notice of her death,” Wood said. “I informed my team and then the union. It was all very sad.”

“She was a stickler for detail and very meticulous in that everything had to be absolutely accurate,” he said. “She was a real historian of the contract; a repository of the historical documents.”

“I saw her on the first day of negotiations,” said her longtime friend, Jo Ann Kessler, an ad industry exec who once served with her on the negotiating committee. “Her shoes are going to be very hard to fill. She was the keeper of institutional memory and knowledge. She knew those contracts. She could recall the details of how things got into the contract and when they got into the contract. She was a sharp thinker and a problem solver.”

Despite the deaths, the negotiators pressed on, reaching a deal Sunday morning at 3 AM – midnight on the West Coast. Neither side is saying what the terms of the deal are yet, but the advertisers and ad agencies pressed hard for a small provision that Quinn had been pushing for years. It allows fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and single-brand retailers like Apple – like all other advertisers – to edit existing ads for special promotional offers without triggering payments for a whole new commercial. In past negotiations, the ad industry had always traded this away for something else, but this time, in her memory, they held firm and got it. “She did a solid for McDonald’s and Apple,” a source laughed ruefully.

At the end of successful contract negotiations, it’s traditional to have a champagne toast, but this time it was a more somber affair. John McGuire, the union’s senior adviser, raised a glass in memory of Quinn. It had been their fifth and final contract negotiation.

“He was very gracious,” Wood said. “He said we’ve all lost a very important person who we all loved, and who was a friend.” Then everyone raised a glass in memory of Ken Howard.

“Money’s important but there are a lot of things that are more important,” said Tom Finneran, executive VP of agency management services at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, where Quinn had been VP of production services for more than 17 years. “Kathleen was a sweetheart. We’re going to miss her for sure. She was like a member of the family.”

The contract now goes to the union’s board of directors for approval, and then to the membership for ratification.

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