BUSINESS

The creative challenge

Finding fun in an ‘unkind, nasty’ business

BRENDA DALGLISH October 22 1990
BUSINESS

The creative challenge

Finding fun in an ‘unkind, nasty’ business

BRENDA DALGLISH October 22 1990

The creative challenge

BUSINESS

Finding fun in an ‘unkind, nasty’ business

It was the kind of assignment an advertising agency relishes: design, from scratch, a new cookie for kids. Brian Harrod, 57, creative director of Harrod & Mirlin Inc., a mid-sized Toronto agency known for its creative skills, came up with a recipe that added a dash of personality to graham wafers. Harrod, whose name is among a handful that keep coming up when ad executives talk about the best creative work in Canada, designed bitesize cookies in the shape of teddy bears, dragons and dinosaurs. Said Harrod: “Kids love to bite the heads off their food.”

But developing approaches that capture consumers’ attention and, at the same time, inspire them to buy the product is not all graham wafers and glamor. Those who do it for a living often are disparaging about their profession. “It’s just advertising, it’s not brain surgery” is an expression repeated often by the best creative people in the industry. Still, they seem to enjoy the challenge of finding new ways to make consumers do things they otherwise might not. Said Gary Prouk, creative director of Scab, McCabe, Sloves (Canada) Ltd. of Toronto: “Advertising is

a very difficult, unkind, nasty, unforgiving business. But it can be fun.”

Many of the industry’s successful practitioners originally had other career aspirations. Harrod, who left South Africa as a merchant

Even top executives in the ad business usually refuse to take themselves too seriously

seaman when he was 18, used to spend his free time sketching. He says that he wanted to be an artist until a critic advised him to go into advertising. Allan Kazmer, creative director of Carder Gray DDB Needham Advertising in Toronto, says that he wanted to be a writer or a journalist, but could not afford to go to college full time. For his part, Scab’s Prouk says that

he would have preferred to be a poet, but realized that he would be unable to support himself.

Each of these creative directors has a different style. For Harrod, the most important step is just getting noticed in all the clutter of messages. He added: “If you want to be seen you’ve got to be a little controversial, a little provocative. But it’s a delicate balance.” His blue-jean advertisements for Levi’s, which feature photos of jean-clad bottoms and discuss ouchless flies, can go a little further, he says, than the Mr. Christie cookie ads, which he also produces. But even then, by being just a little controversial, cookie ads offend some people. One of Harrod’s TV ads for the cookies featured this line of copy: “How do you stop a dragon from breathing fire? You bite off his nose.” That brought complaints from a few people who said that it promoted violence.

Kazmer, 49, describes his approach as more subtle. “I want to slip into your living room,” he says, “sit down on the sofa and sidle up to you before you even notice that I’m there.” He cites his 30-second commercial for Volkswagen Passat that features a man and a woman, probably old lovers, meeting in a restaurant to catch up on each other’s fives. The characters are carefully developed in the hopes that viewers will become interested enough in their lives to watch to the end. The car appears only in the last 10 seconds and is treated as a casual prop rather than the centrepiece.

Humor, says Prouk, is a cornerstone of his

work. His award-winning ads for the Caramilk chocolate-bar secret are all funny. In one, Mona Lisa nibbles on a chocolate bar and then breaks into a broad grin.

Divergent styles aside, creative directors in Canada share a common complaint: low budgets. For one thing, the Canadian market is one-tenth the size of the U.S. market. As a result, Canadian advertising competes directly for the consumer’s attention against U.S. advertising, which is produced on a budget often 10 times as large. Alan Wiggan of Hayhurst Communications Alberta Ltd. in Calgary says that he spent about the same amount of money producing five five-minute Royal Trust commercials as it would have cost to produce one beer commercial in the United States. Declared Kazmer: “In this business a good idea is more important than money, but it sure would be nice to be able to afford a helicopter shot now and then.”

Even when Canadian agencies do produce internationally competitive advertising, it rarely appears in the United States. Ad executives say that is because all agencies resist using ideas developed by others, even when they are working for the same client.

Harrod & Mirlin appeared to have a winner when they came up with a campaign for Kodak Ltd. that described the company’s product as “the official film of real life.” Harrod says that his team developed the commercial when they learned how upset Kodak was when Fuji Photo Film Co. Ltd. outbid them for the right to be

the official film of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. After the ads ran in Canada, Kodak was so pleased with them that it flew the creative team to its Rochester, N.Y., head office to present the campaign to the company’s main U.S. agencies. Recalled Harrod: “Oh yeah, they said they loved it. But somehow they just never got around to using

it.” On another occasion, a U.S. agency rejected one of Harrod & Mirlin’s ideas for a CocaCola ad that used the phrase “Coke folks.” Said Harrod, raising an eyebrow: “The reason they gave us was that Americans wouldn’t understand the use of the word folks.”

Still, except for lower salary levels, neither Harrod nor Kazmer say that they feel disadvantaged because they are working in Canada rather than in New York City, or some other creative hub. They contend that with modern technology their work can be done anywhere. One well-respected creative director in Toronto has just moved to British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, and Minneapolis is considered one of the hotbeds of advertising creativity today. But Prouk, who worked in New York during its advertising heyday 20 years ago, is critical of the current atmosphere in Toronto. He says that advertisers and agencies there have become complacent. Said Prouk: “It’s like playing musical chairs, only nobody ever takes away a chair. The music starts, everyone walks around, the music stops and everyone sits down.”

But for all its trivialities, these practitioners say that their profession does have some serious social responsibilities. Kazmer says that he strives to “celebrate humanity,” not to sneer, smear or degrade. And in the end, it is that which separates the good, effective advertising from all the merely mundane.

BRENDA DALGLISH