John Foss retires after 14 years as president and CEO

ACA given new life under FossIn the 1960's television series Bewitched, Darren Stevens' advertising ideas often captured the imagination of consumers.But not without the help of his meddling mother-in-law, Andora, and a little hocus-pocus.However, in the world that turns beyond the...

ACA given new life under Foss

In the 1960′s television series Bewitched, Darren Stevens’ advertising ideas often captured the imagination of consumers.

But not without the help of his meddling mother-in-law, Andora, and a little hocus-pocus.

However, in the world that turns beyond the tv screen, industry leaders such as John Foss have had to compete in the advertising and marketing industries relying on their own, mere mortal attributes.

Foss, who is retiring as president and chief executive officer of the Association of Canadian Advertisers after 14 years has been described as athletic, tactful, intuitive, intelligent, competitive, stoic, friendly and generous.

All tallied up – neither warlock nor divine – just a man who got the job done with a lot of marketing moxie and diplomatic savvy.

‘He brought ingenuity and integrity to the association,’ says long-time associate Scott Irwin, president of Irwin Toys.

‘He also had a unique ability to act as a facilitator between people with diverse interests,’ Irwin says.

Sitting above the urban hustle of Bloor Street in his Toronto office, the 66-year-old’s stature commands attention.

Tall and poised, the 6′ 7′ Scandinavian speaks softly as he reflects upon what for him was a labor of love.

‘I have enjoyed every minute of it,’ Foss says from behind the expansive length of the aca’s boardroom table where many heated battles have been waged, lost and won.

‘I’ve always tried to have fun,’ he says.

And although Foss is a modest man, he admits his logical mind and diplomatic approach have served him well.

He has learned to balance the interests of an association whose members are as headstrong as they are talented, like an performer juggling knives.

It was in his native Norway that he honed his analytic skills studying social economics, and later, working in his first marketing job in a steel wool company as the assistant export manager.

In a land in which memories of valiant Viking voyages are deeply embedded in the national psyche, the young Foss dreamed of a world beyond Norway’s borders.

He learned of international commercial activities, Asian customs and southern climes while growing up in a small town on the coast of one of the world’s largest seaports south of Oslo, the Norwegian capital.

‘I was always fascinated by trading around the world, and other cultures,’ Foss says.

‘We were living in a kind of global city,’ he says. ‘Someone was always gossiping over the back fence about what their son was doing in Cairo this week, or when they arrived in Houston.’

Finally, family nuptials beckoned the wishful wayfarer. In 1954, Foss travelled to Montreal to attend his brother’s wedding.

He decided to stay and learn about advertising in the more developed North American market.

With a letter of introduction from his former employer, Foss knocked on the doors of many Canadian companies.

And, within a few months, he landed a job with Canadian Canners, which made Alymer and Delmonte brands.

He excelled there, moving up from assistant advertising manager to advertising director within a year.

It was the late 1950s. Heady days in the burgeoning Canadian advertising and marketing industries. Days Foss recalls with great fondness.

‘It was a great time to be in advertising,’ he says. ‘We tested the limits.’

One such limit was to push the conservative Canadian Canners company into using American comedienne Phyllis Diller as a spokesperson for its soups.

‘It was the biggest selling job I ever did,’ Foss says. ‘But we were up against Campbell’s Soup, which dominated the scene.

‘And we had to have some treatment that would get consumers’ attention beyond hitting them over the head with a two-by-four,’ he says.

Foss went to Hollywood.

With his help, the company produced a series of successful commercials featuring the wacky comedienne who danced about in silk lingerie and a feather boa while delivering one-liners about her domestic disability.

‘At the end, she would always return from the cupboard with a silly grin and a can of our soup,’ Foss says. ‘She brought the house down.’

Foss’ employers were impressed.

But it was only the beginning for the brash, young marketer who would continue to serve up fresh ideas to the food company executives over the next 20-odd years.

As advertising manager at Canadian Canners, Foss also became a voting member of the aca.

As his expertise grew in the company, so did his involvement in the advertising association.

In the mid-1970s, the president of the aca, Tom Blakely, asked Foss to compose a blueprint for the future of the association.

Blakely was so impressed by it, when he resigned, he pushed the board to hire Foss.

‘If I would have known what I was getting into, I might have taken a different approach,’ Foss says with a laugh.

Blakely attributes Foss’ success to his ability to look beyond the present.

‘One of his great lines was, `The future isn’t what it used to be,’ ‘ Blakely says.

‘John knew that when people look from the past to the future, they look to a future they don’t understand,’ he says. ‘He didn’t do that.’

Foss, referring to King Arthur’s medieval wizard who could predict the future, calls it ‘the Merlin factor.’

But Foss, well aware many aca issues are rooted in its history, could not ignore the past.

When the aca was established in 1914, it was to bring greater responsibility to the advertising industry.

At that time, miracle cures abounded with pills, potions and lotions – medicines that were touted as cures for cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Marketers worried these false claims would tarnish the reputation of all advertisers.

The protection of freedom of speech has long been one of the thorniest issues facing the aca.

It is one battleground Foss knows well.

About this issue, the typically reserved Foss is precise and intense.

‘In terms of my aca experience, I would have to say that the one thing I take pride in is the role that I played in getting the symposium that dealt with truth in advertising off the ground,’ he says.

It is because freedom of speech was seriously threatened, that the study of truth in advertising began.

In the early 1970s, the federal minister of Consumer and Corporate affairs, Ron Basford, proposed legislative changes affecting advertising, suggesting a literal concept of truth which Foss describes as being ‘absolutely ridiculous.’

For example, advertisers could not use actors under the proposed changes. If a commercial used a gas station attendant, then he or she had to be employed in that occupation.

Robert McAlear, then creative vice-president at Baker Lovick, came up with a novel idea: why not consult those who are most knowledgeable about truth to construct guidelines for the advertising industry?

With the backing of the aca, advertisers and marketers turned to the men of God in order to define truth in advertising.

Four philosophers from the Toronto School of Theology labored for more than six months to come up with the guidelines.

The resulting report, ‘Truth in Advertising,’ was highly acclaimed and proved to be instrumental in effecting considerable change in Canadian industry attitudes, legislation and regulations.

Among the report’s conclusions:

‘Advertising must provide an atmosphere which is ethically defensible. If a hair tonic advertisement implies, either directly or indirectly, that a full head of hair is essential to every man’s sense of poise and self-confidence, that ad is dishonest, even though all the factual information it supplies about the product is true.’

Foss, for one, was pleased with the results.

The report lent legitimacy to the advertising community and dismissed the notion that there was a conspiracy in the industry to brainwash consumers.

‘We ended up with a report on truth in advertising that was quite a lot better than what we were up against in the attempt to restrict the legislation,’ Foss says.

The continuous conflict between advertisers, the public and the government over the proposed ban on advertising for a variety of products has also occupied much of Foss’ time at the aca.

First, it was the threat to ban tobacco advertising, which the association began struggling with in 1974.

Alcohol, feminine hygiene products and even sugar-coated cereals have also been on the hitlist, Foss says.

‘We have fought hard for freedom of speech,’ he says.

‘Our view is that if a product or service can be legally produced, displayed and taxed, marketers should have the right to advertise it.

‘The scary thing is that it isn’t just tobacco, which now has been banned, and which everyone can relate to in a way, because of the health risks associated with it.

‘The thing is that when you get one [product banned,] the gates are open for banning others.’

Other battles have been within the industry.

Foss says the tug-of-war over the ownership of creative materials – whether they belong to the advertiser, writer or the illustrator – has been ongoing.

A new copyright law legislated last year gives the creators ownership in some cases, which Foss says many in the association disagree with.

‘We can understand it if you write the great Canadian novel, or the most beautiful score of music in the world – then, yes, you should have copyright – but we do not agree with it when it comes to commercial materials,’ he says.

Although he laments the days when contracts between agencies and marketers were settled with a handshake, Foss has played an important role in convincing agencies and marketers to define the terms of their contracts.

Over his 30 years of involvement with the aca – since 1979 as president – he has also been actively involved in other organizations, serving as director of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the Canadian Outdoor Measurement Bureau, the Canadian Advertising Research Foundation and as a member of the World Federation of Advertisers.

Foss admits there are new challenges facing advertisers today.

‘The rate of change is unbelievable – that’s one of the issues,’ he says.

‘Back in the ’50s, marketers were constructing five- to 10-year advertising plans. Now, in many cases, you can only plan as far in advance as five to 10 weeks.’

Foss says the pace of change, along with a slow economic recovery, dramatically reduced advertising budgets, and worse, increasing scepticism among marketers over the value of advertising, will continue to be the dominant issues in the near future.

But he says the biggest challenge is figuring out how to build brand loyalty with the ’90s consumer, adding marketers will have to work harder than ever to establish empathy with their customers.

‘The way we built the Delmonte brand – with a captive mass audience – that process is no longer possible,’ Foss says.

‘But there has to be a better way of doing it,’ he says. ‘And that has to be one which builds on a better understanding of the consumer.’

He praises Loblaws’ Dave Nichol for his marketing of the private label brand President’s Choice as a good example of a strategy which builds an intimate relationship with the consumer.

He says tactics such as Loblaws’ ‘Insider’s Report,’ newsletter is a brilliant idea because it gives consumers the feeling that Nichol is talking directly to them.

‘Research is becoming much more sophisticated, and that’s where the hope for the future lies,’ Foss says.

Despite his much-heralded role at the aca, Foss does have his faults, confides long-time associate Brian Philcox.

Philcox says that while Foss is fair, balanced and diplomatic in his work at the aca, he is a brutal opponent on the tennis court.

‘He has beaten me every time, and completely without remorse,’ Philcox says, laughing.

Others point out that Foss can also be a show-off on the ski slopes. And it is not just his style that attracts attention.

Brenda Andrachuk, group vice-president at Media Buying Services and former aca associate, remembers skiing with Foss while on a business trip in Quebec.

While they grabbed lunch in the chalet, passersby stopped to stare in disbelief at Foss’ 220-centimetre skis hanging outside.

Foss admits he once wanted to be the world’s best downhill skier. But, looking back, he has few regrets.

And while the rigorous routine of the past, with many long days, is changing, he plans to keep his mind, body and career in perpetual motion.

‘I may find that I’ll take it a little easier than in the last 30 years,’ Foss says.

‘But I’m not ready for a rocking chair on a verandah, or anything like that,’ he says with a wink.

But there will be more time for skiing. And for his grandchild, his five children and his wife Pat, who is a sculptor. He and Pat plan to do more travelling.

‘We may go to Morocco again,’ Foss says. ‘We just came back yesterday, and we really enjoyed it. Pat wants to return, get off the beaten track and ride camels in the desert.’

Foss plans to continue to work in the industry as a consultant.

‘I’m open to offers,’ he says. ‘I’ll continue to be interested in the things that are moving and shaking in our industry.

Foss says he will help make the transition to his successor, Patrick McDougall, as painless as possible.

He will continue to work with the aca on some issues, offering advice when needed.

Suddenly, glancing at his watch, Foss jumps to his feet.

‘I’ve got a meeting scheduled in about one minute,’ he says. ‘Can we take up where we left some other time?’

ACA Gold Medal Award

The Gold Medal of the Association of Canadian Advertisers honors individuals for outstanding services to advertising. Such services may range from singular accomplishments to major or sustained contributions to the general advancement of the industry.

Gold Medal Winners 1979-1993

1979 Ñ Wm. J. Harris

1980 Ñ Jack N. Milne

1981 Ñ Les McMahon

1982 Ñ Tom Blakely

1983 Ñ Paul L’Anglais (Posthumous)

Yves Bourassa (Posthumous)

W.D.H. Davis

1984 Ñ Hugh Dow

Michael Kennerley

1985 Ñ Jacques Bouchard

David Hopkins

1986 Ñ Robert E. Harris

1987 Ñ Ross A. McCreath

1988 Ñ Paul Mulvihill (Posthumous)

Claude Cossette

1989 Ñ Robert J. Galloway

1990 Ñ Rupert T.R. Brendon

1991 Ñ Ann Boden

1992 Ñ Stu Eaton

1993 Ñ Lloyd Hodgkinson

News highlights during Foss’s tenure


- All media advertising in New-foundland is slapped with a 4% tax

- Tobacco product advertising is banned on the Toronto Transit Commission


- AM stereo comes to Canada


- Labatt introduces twist-off cap for Labatt 50 brand in Quebec and Blue in Ontario

- Eaton’s accepts VISA


- R.J. Reynolds merges with Nabisco Brands

- Canadian Satellite Communications (cancom) and Motion Picture Video Corporation, Toronto, deliver TV commercials via satellite to all TV stations in Canada


- Federal government proceeds in its move to completely ban tobacco advertising in two years

- Bell Canada tests on-line videotex service in Montreal, allowing home shopping, banking, air flight bookings and access to newspaper databanks


- Ontario’s liquor licence board okays the use of outdoor media to promote wine, liquor and beer in the first of several major revisions to the rules governing alcohol advertising in the province

- Both CBC and CTV’s Toronto outlets nix an Ontario Ministry of Health for AIDS awareness despite its approval by the Telecaster Commit-tee, which screens commercials for 20 private broadcasters and the Radio-Canada commercial clearance group


- After signing on CTV, A.C. Nielsen announces it will launch Canada’s first national people-meter system in September. However, BBM Bureau of Measurement complicates matters with the announcement that it will go ahead with plans to introduce its own people meters

- Imperial Tobacco says it will set up two new corporate entities, Players Limited and du Maurier Limited, to circumvent sponsorship restriction imposed under the federal government’s Tobacco Products Control Act

- Molson Breweries and Carling O’Keefe Breweries sign a 50:50 merger deal, making Molson Breweries Canada’s largest brewery, a position long held by Labatt

- Imperial Tobacco and Rothmans Benson and Hedges announce they are cancelling their outdoor buys as of June 30, 18 months before the Jan. 1, 1991 federal government deadline banning advertising in the category

- Within days of the federal government’s Aug. 1 approval of over-the-counter sales of the pain reliever Ibuprofen, pharmaceutical companies begin activating their multi-million dollar marketing plans for the drug

- Lever Bros. joins the ‘green’ movement with a $20 million environmental action program. In Septem-ber, Procter & Gamble introduces its EnviroPak refill packaging system


- Environment Canada announces a major environmental program, The Green Plan, that promises to raise its communications budget to as much as $40 million


- The federal government orders a review of federal nutrition labelling policy in the wake of charges that some ‘cholesterol-free’ labels ‘hoodwink’ the public