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Generosity Series

How The CEO Of A Global Ad Firm Uses His Platform To Change The World

David Sable of Y&R doesn’t want to just sell stuff.

Tradition dictates that the CEO of advertising agency Y&R joins the board of the United Negro College Fund, or the U.N.C.F. After assuming the helm as the global chief executive in February 2011, David Sable was asked to take his seat at the College Fund table.

The collaboration between Y&R, U.N.C.F. and the Ad Council, dating back to 1972, resulted in the iconic tagline, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." After attending a board meeting in his new role, Sable called his Y&R team and said, "Kill the brief. We have a new brief. The brief is: It’s not about how sad it is that this poor African-American kid is not going to be allowed into college but how stupid are we not to invest in this kid to go to college because that’s the future of America."

The issue for the College Fund was no longer about acceptance to college but attendance at college. And after 40 years with the original tagline, the U.N.C.F. launched a new campaign this month with an updated version: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste but a wonderful thing to invest in."

"That’s the best that we can do," Sable says. "Not just take a brief and do a nice thing for charity and have people sit around and cry and feel bad. But how can we help the organization in its change as it looks to go to the next level, as it faces the next challenge."

Applying his talents to help an organization move forward is Sable’s preferred method of giving back. "There are things that you can do to help organizations by applying not just man hours of ladling soup but man hours of your expertise and contacts," Sable says. "That’s an exponential give. When you’re able to do that, it changes you. It gives meaning to what you do."

Sable admits he is a reluctant board member, yet he continues to raise his hand, most recently becoming the chair of UNICEF’s New York Philanthropic Advisory Board and, for many years as a member of the United Jewish Federation’s (UJA) Executive Board. By putting his skills to work for meaningful opportunities, he has gained purpose beyond his daily routine and has been exposed to many different people and experiences. "At the end of the day. I’m in advertising. It’s what I do. It gets me through the day and pays my salary and I have a great life," Sable explains. "But the meaning of it is not the same as if I were a doctor working in an emergency room. I have found that any place I could get involved with and bring my talents or expertise to was added value to me."

In Sable’s meeting room, settled on a shelf between awards, bobble heads, hats and other memorabilia is a traditional charity box found in most Jewish homes. Sable’s Jewish heritage is at the crux of his interpretation of generosity. In fact, Sable believes it’s less about charitable giving and more about justice, which he points out is the root for tzedakah, the Hebrew word for charity. "There’s justice in the world," Sable says. "If you’re on the have side, then you’re required to do something to help the people on the don’t-have side. It’s not about anything other than this sense of justice. You’ve got to fix what’s broken. You can’t just let it sit."

Sable believes advertising can help solve some of society’s problems. Being a force of change during his 35-year advertising career makes him proud as a CEO, parent, and person. "If all I did was come to work every day, I’d be lost. I wouldn’t be fulfilled. It fulfills me to do those things. Because without it, I’d be empty."

As CEO, Sable strives to create a culture that is alive and just, one in which colleagues take care of one another. After the Japanese tsunami, Y&R set up a matching program to benefit their employees in the area and after Hurricane Sandy, employees donated time and money to aid relief and cleanup efforts.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.

One employee whose child had severe allergies and was getting bullied for being different assembled a Y&R pro bono team on the side to create a public service commercial. Although it was not an officially sanctioned project, the volunteers used the company’s services, infrastructure and even network of contacts to get airtime. "They took entrepreneurialism; they took their talent in marketing; they took their passion; they took the infrastructure they had sitting around them; and they just did it," Sable says. "I was proud they did it without interference. We’re celebrating it in the biggest way."

This engaged spirit Sable believes is what keeps the company real. "Without it we’re just automatons, just walking around and working hard," Sable says. "I had decided awhile back that I wanted things on scale, that I knew were providing big services and were really making a difference with the ability to really change the world. And at the end of the day, you feel good."