James Abernathy, cofounder of Abernathy MacGregor, dead at 78

Jim MacGregor talked to PRWeek about the death of his friend and business partner.

NEW YORK: James Abernathy, a giant in financial and strategic communications, died last week at the age of 78 after undergoing treatment for lymphoma.

In 1984, Abernathy and Jim MacGregor founded the PR firm that still bears their name, Abernathy MacGregor. Over the more than three decades Abernathy served as CEO, the agency handled a litany of high-profile transactions and crises.

MacGregor, currently Abernathy MacGregor’s vice chairman, said he first met Abernathy in 1971 as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal covering broadcast and advertising. At the time, Abernathy was his primary contact at CBS.

Their paths eventually crossed again when they worked together at ABC for then-president Elton Rule. After Fred Pierce succeeded Rule in 1983, Abernathy and MacGregor were given the "golden handshake."

The pair then launched their firm.

"When we started, the reason we were able to get off the ground was because [Abernathy] had the trust — and therefore, the referrals — of half a dozen financial advisers," MacGregor explained.

One of these financial advisers included J. Carter Bacot, then-chairman and CEO of Bank of New York, who launched the unprecedented hostile takeover of Irving Trust in 1988.

To support his controversial bid, Bacot enlisted the services of Abernathy MacGregor, putting them on a map dominated by Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Burson-Marsteller and Kekst and Company, MacGregor said.

In what was then the longest-lasting bank takeover, Bank of New York successfully acquired Irving in 1989. As mergers and acquisitions and crisis comms became a hallmark of their agency, Abernathy and MacGregor proved to be a good match in business.

"I’m the guy with the ability to write anything persuasively and the guy who sometimes has off-the-wall ideas that work," MacGregor said. "He’s the guy that knows what you can actually persuade a client to listen to and he can persuade them to do it.

Abernathy’s pitch style, MacGregor said, could be boiled down to the following: This is the right thing for you to do and you have to do it now.

"[Abernathy] had the kind of persuasive moral authority to make the sale," MacGregor said of his business partner. "That’s a gift. Not everyone has that."

MacGregor recalled his final conversation with his friend of almost 50 years. They talked about his health, which led to the topic of the health of the firm.

"And we were both saying, ‘Gee, this firm is doing pretty well without as much of us as it used to have,’" MacGregor said. "That’s not a bad conversation to have at a certain age."

Abernathy was the firm’s sole CEO between 1984, when it was founded, and 2016. In January 2017, Tom Johnson was named CEO. Abernathy was most recently executive chairman, according to the firm’s website. 

Johnson said that losing a friend and mentor like Abernathy has been hard for him.

"I have been incredibly lucky to have learned under him, especially after assuming the reins of the CEO position, and also had the benefit of having both him and Jim MacGregor be a constant presence and base of support for me and countless others here through the years," said Johnson. "Together, they created something really special, and I know the team here feels honored to carry on [Abernathy’s] legacy in the days, weeks and years to come."

Abernathy MacGregor has about 80 employees across offices in New York, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC. Havas acquired the agency in 2000. Abernathy operates within the AMO Network, which will receive a $100 million investment from Havas to be deployed over the next five years.

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