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Sally Hunter-Wiley, trailblazing Leo Burnett ad exec, dies at 66

Sally Hunter-Wiley

Sally Hunter-Wiley

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Updated: September 20, 2014 6:16AM



Sally Hunter-Wiley was a pioneering Leo Burnett ad executive toward the end of the male-dominated “Mad Men” era, and anyone who underestimated her learned she was a lot more than a blonde who drove a red Corvette.

The University of Chicago-educated Mrs. Wiley became the first female media director at Burnett, planning and buying commercial airtime and print ads for prestige clients like McDonald’s and United Airlines.

Those ad buys involved hundreds of millions of dollars and critical decisions on which publications and broadcasts might maximize exposure — anything from the Super Bowl to the World Series to 1983’s must-see final episode of “MASH.”

After earning an MBA from U of C, she was pursued by a consulting group. But the firm turned her down in a disapproving letter that criticized her wearing of pants and her blunt (and sometimes, salty) language, said Laura Desmond, who worked at Burnett with Mrs. Wiley before becoming global CEO of Starcom MediaVest Group, a Burnett subsidiary.

The snub only strengthened her resolve. Mrs. Wiley framed and displayed the rejection letter when she was hired in 1972 at Burnett, an advertising pinnacle in the go-go generation.

“Undaunted, Sally decided, ‘I’ll show them’ — and she did,’ ’’ said Desmond. “For many women, Sally demonstrated that success is determined by smarts and tenacity, not gender and fashion.”

Former colleague Mary Ann Foxley agreed. “She was gender-neutral,” said Foxley, a former media director at Burnett and Starcom.

Mrs. Wiley died last Wednesday of esophageal cancer at age 66.

She had mentored many fledgling ad execs. “She was not threatened by young, smart people but instead embraced them,” Foxley said.

In the pre-computer days of adding machines, she didn’t blow up or point fingers if someone made an accounting mistake.

“Let’s say someone came in and they were preparing three purchases — ABC, CBS and NBC Football,” Foxley said. “She would say, ‘Why would NBC Football be so much more expensive than the other two?’ She would talk out loud — one of the things that made her such an effective trainer.”

Eventually, Foxley said, Mrs. Wiley would figure it out, telling a junior staffer, “ ‘You dropped a decimal point,’ instead of, ‘How can I trust any numbers you bring me from now on?’ ’’

“Sally was not arrogant. She was smart,” said Dick Hobbs, a retired Burnett executive vice president and worldwide media director. “Sally was not a bossy person with clients …. She treated clients how they like to be treated — like clients know what they are doing.”

She wed a fellow Burnett staffer, management director John Wiley. He died in 2007, said their daughter, Mackenzie Wiley.

Mrs. Wiley usually wore her mane of blonde hair in a ponytail or a bun. She always dressed correctly, although she had little interest in clothes — “She had a lady at Marshall Field’s who dressed her,” Foxley said.

She witnessed an era of three-martini lunches and wine Fridays. The gang at Burnett used to call the bar at the Amoco Building its “One East Conference Room.”

Mrs. Wiley navigated it all with humor, grace and grit. “There was no sexual harassment when Sally was around,” Foxley said. She stood up for herself and others, Foxley said, with admonitions like: “ ‘If your hand goes to my leg one more time, you’re a dead man.’ ”

She was born in Santa Monica, Cal., to Nancy Hunter and NASA rocket scientist Maxwell Hunter II. She moved to the Midwest for undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan.

After retiring in the late 1990s, Mrs. Wiley returned to a sport she enjoyed in childhood: horseback riding. She opened a Walworth, Wis., horse farm, Gaea’s, named for the Greek earth goddess. She powered it with wind and solar energy, built big, clean stalls, and bred and boarded dressage horses, her daughter said.

She enjoyed playing golf at the Glencoe Golf Club and fishing in Hayward, Wis., and in Canada at the Rough Rock Outpost on the Winnipeg River.

During retirement, she learned to paint and play violin.

In addition to her mother and daughter, Mrs. Wiley is survived by another daughter, Samantha; her sister, Peggy Norman, and her brothers, Dave, Matthew and Maxwell Hunter III.

Private funeral services are pending.

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