Special Report : Brian Harrod: ‘If there’s anything I believe in, it is the importance of advertising ideas’

Few art directors have had as much influence in shaping the face of Canadian advertising as has Brian Harrod.Harrod has been involved in some of Canada's benchmark creative through the 1970s and '80s for such clients as Levi Strauss, Christie Brown,...

Few art directors have had as much influence in shaping the face of Canadian advertising as has Brian Harrod.

Harrod has been involved in some of Canada’s benchmark creative through the 1970s and ’80s for such clients as Levi Strauss, Christie Brown, Tetley Tea and Kodak Canada.

In fact, Harrod was the key creative figure at McCann-Erickson Advertising in Toronto through the mid-to-late-1970s when that agency went on one of the longest sustained hot streaks in Canadian agency history.

Teamed with writer Allan Kazmer, Harrod and McCann led the period when creative was king in advertising with campaigns like the lion hair drying demonstration for Philips Electronics; all of the original ‘Mr. Christie, you make good cookies’ work for Christie Brown; the ‘Bits and Bytes’ campaign and the landmark Ritz print advertising also for Christie; as well as the early ‘Living a life’ advertising for Levi’s; and memorable newspaper campaigns for Ontario Pork and Tetley Tea.

In 1981, Harrod began a new chapter in his creative career when he became teamed with copywriter Ian Mirlin.

Over the next decade, and still today, the team of Harrod and Mirlin have been at the forefront of the Canadian creative community.

Harrod and Mirlin left McCann in 1985 to become partners in a medium-sized Canadian agency. The new company was called Miller Myers Bruce DallaCosta Harrod and Mirlin.

Two years later, they returned to the Interpublic fold, opening a new agency under their own names, Harrod & Mirlin. They quickly picked up where they’d left off and landed such accounts as Levi Strauss, Chrsitie Brown, Suzuki and Nabob Foods.

Significantly, Harrod and Mirlin have just completed a buyback from Interpublic, making the agency one of a growing number of smaller creatively driven shops to spring up in the market under full Canadian ownership.

In an informal conversation with Strategy, Harrod talked about industry trends and the thinking behind his and Mirlin’s decision to patriate their agency.

When Ian and I started [Harrod & Mirlin,] we did it with Interpublic partly because we felt that it would free us to do what we really wanted to do all along – advertising.

We thought they could look after the monetary side, and we would be free to just worry about the work.

But after a while, we began to see that Interpublic, in a sense, was holding us back.

It had nothing to do with Interpublic’s attitude towards us, which, from the moment we started up right through to the final negotiations of the buy-out, has been wonderful.

It was a bunch of other things.

First, we were American-owned so that cut us off from a lot of opportunities.

We were also seen to be close to McCann [one of the Interpublic multinational agencies operating in Canada,] so that limited us even further because we couldn’t go after business that might be seen to conflict with McCann business.

Many of these limitations were more perceived than real, but they were limitations, nonetheless.

And, of course, we had no chance of offering equity as a means of keeping the people we wanted to keep.

So, in the end, we were experiencing many of the negatives that come with being part of a multinational, without any of the benefits.

We were not a system agency, so we didn’t get system business. We had to find our own business, but we were limited in what we could pursue because of perceived conflicts with system-wide accounts at other Interpublic agencies.

Around Christmas-time, we and Interpublic agreed it really wasn’t working well for either of us, so Interpublic said, okay, why don’t you guys buy yourselves back.

And, we did.

Right now, we’re going through a huge global amalgamation of businesses.

More and more accounts are moving into one global agency. And, yet, something else is happening at the same time, and it’s there in that corny slogan, ‘Think gobally, act locally.’

Sure, system-wide business will align with big, system-wide agencies.

But, for a whole bunch of reasons, other opportunities will be opening up for aggressive, entrepreneurial local agencies.

Here is what happens.

Often, when you’ve got a piece of global business, you become a bit sloppy on it. First of all, you didn’t win it, so you don’t have a lot of ownership on it.

You’re probaby going to get some interference from head office.

And, because nobody here has that sense of ownership, it’s less likely that you’ll find someone at the agency to crusade on its behalf, or to feel passionate about it.

Of course, there are exceptions, but, generally, global business is under-cared-for, all the way from the marketing people at the client to the agency people.

It’s sort of…not their business.

Often, as well, the best people in the agency don’t want to get involved because they’re not doing creative, it’s just pick-up.

So, the account tends to filter through to more junior people in the agency with a figurehead at the top.

And, there’s a little bit of animosity with New York because so much of the ownership of the business is there.

It can be a crippling disease for the agency.

I remember when I was a junior working on Kellogg’s in South Africa.

I remember this incident vividly.

The client called us all into his boardroom. It was interesting because he called in everyone who worked on his business. It wasn’t just the senior management.

He said, ‘I’ve called you all in today to resign the agency.’ He said, ‘It’s got nothing to do with anything you’ve done. In fact, you’ve done everything I’ve ever asked you to do.

‘The reason I’m resigning you is because you never did anything I didn’t ask for. I want an agency that will do things I don’t ask for.’

Boy, that was a lesson to me. It taught me that what clients are looking for is initiative. Thinking that is outside of what they know already.

The point is, when you’re dealing with a piece of global business, that you haven’t won on your own, and for which you feel no sense of ownership, there’s little reason or will to go that extra distance. To push further and to do things that the client hasn’t asked for.

So, there’s a great opportunity here for local agencies.

‘When you’ve won a piece of business in this market on your own, you are constantly working to keep it. You are coming up with ideas all the time. You are on a constant alert, looking around the marketplace for opportunities, ideas, whatever it takes to care and feed that business.

I think what you’ll find is that there will be two kinds of agencies here – the really big multinationals servicing system-wide business, and then a bunch of smaller locally owned agencies.

‘There will be increasingly less room, or need, for the mid-sized multinationals.

here is a group of people in this marketplace who are doing wonderful work right now.

[Geoffrey B. Roche & Partners Advertising] are also a bunch of unsung heros, like SMW Advertising, for example. I love their print. They continue to amaze me.

I pick up award annuals and see this lovely Lexus advertising, and it wasn’t Team One in the u.s. that did it, but SMW Advertising.

Certainly, the success of people like Geoff [Roche] helped Ian and I in our decision to buy into our own agency.

It proved that there are opportunities out there, and that there is a hunger for something different.

One thing that I most admired about Geoff was his gutsiness in the way he structured his agency.

We happen to have a different kind of agency than his so his structure wouldn’t make sense for us.

But, the fact that he would say, ‘I will have 24 people, and 14 of them will be creative,’ is a very brave thing to do.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Geoff has the biggest creative department in Canada right now.

Geoff has dared to be different and I love him for that.

The joy of our business is that it’s like a big menu, there can be something there for everyone.

I can see no reason why Toronto can’t become a North American advertising centre.

If I had an ambition for us, it would be to move south of the border. Once we’ve had a chance to plant some former roots, we’d love to begin pitching business in the u.s.

With free trade now, there really is no reason why a client can’t hop a plane and come to Toronto.

It’s as easy to fly from New York to Toronto, as it is to fly to Chicago, or Boston, or Minneapolis, or Richmond, Virginia.

or all of the worry about the changing face and role of advertising, there are still some fairly fundamental things that I believe haven’t changed.

I was at a seminar recently and heard one of the most remarkable interviews in which someone was talking about his relationship with a brand.

The guy was saying that one of the most treasured moments in his life is when he opens a can of Classic Coke. And I said, ‘Man, how can you beat that?’

Imagine, this is his moment. The can is ice-cold. He pops it open. The first sip. It’s something special between him and a brand. Something nurtured over years and years of careful and caring advertising.

I thought, ‘If you get to own this … if you establish this kind of a relationship…it’s God-given.’

I think the ’80s played really fast and loose with brands.

There was a feeling that they had their own momentum, and that they would be self-supporting and go on forever. I think we’re paying the penalty for it now.

I remember way back when I was working with Jim Reeve at McCann. I remember sitting with him once with a client, who said to us, ‘How much can we save if we cut this much out of our advertising budget?’

And Jim said, ‘Well, this year, you will save this much. But, next year, it will cost you twice as much to repair the damage.’

And the client understood what he was saying. There was so much respect for brands back then. People understood the value and the support that a brand needed to have a relationship with consumers.

It’s interesting, though, how much the whole process has been reversed. Back then, clients – marketing departments – weren’t big, and weren’t all that sophisticated. So, the agencies were counted on to fill a real need. They were also paid more.

Now, if you’re a young mba you’re going to make a hell of a lot more money working for a client than you are an agency.

I think we’ve abdicated some of that authority and leadership, too. We haven’t been out hiring the best of the best. We now feel lucky if we can attract the bright young person who really wants versatility and wants a myriad of problems to work on.

My advice to young people today would be to not be the company people that we were in my generation.

I would say, put your work first. I was lucky because I always had that at McCann.

In fact, it was always the work that kept me there. And many times I turned down job offers of more money because they only meant more money, not necessarily better work.

I would also tell young people, ‘Don’t hesitate to go freelance.’

I think young people need to have more feedom, and to not be as attached to companies as my generation was. People should be prepared to leave jobs more easily.

Somebody once said that until you are 40, you shouldn’t get married. You should live in a trailer park. You shouldn’t have any financial encumbrances. You should just be an absolute free spirit, so you could do with your career absolutely what you wanted.

And, so, if you came up against a difficult situation that would compromise your talent, you could resign or happily be fired that day and not have to worry.

I would urge young people to stay in a position where they can always take risk.

Probably the lowest point in my career was when I first came to Canada.

I began working at MacLaren [Advertising], and it turned out to be the worst year in my career. It was just such a political agency at the time. People weren’t talking to each other and no work was getting through.

I remember wondering whether this is what North American advertising is all about.

The creative explosion hadn’t happpened in the u.k. yet, so I came to North America, thinking this was the Holy Grail. I wanted to do all that Doyle Dane [Bernbach] ’60s advertising.

Yet, there I was, in this intensely political agency, enmeshed in everything but making ads. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m not going to be able to work in advertising.’

In fact, I even went for an interview with Eaton’s [department stores] to apply for a job where you begin as a shop assistant and then move on to become a buyer.

But, I got a job offer at McCann and quickly realized that all agencies weren’t the same.

This was at a time when the most wonderful things were happening there. The agency had Group X [a creative boutique,] run by Dennis Bruce and Cubby Marcus.

But, the most important figure by far was George Pastic. He was the best. George was the one who created the excitement and broke all the barriers.

We were doing advertising, but George was doing things that puzzled us all. He did things we couldn’t understand because he was so ‘out there.’

George was truly inspirational. It was enough to be able to just go over and yak with George.

In many ways, he was the purest form of inspiration. He did everything on his own terms. George became the top art director in the city. He would only work on certain pieces of business and with only certain writers.

Then, at the peak of his career, he decided he was bored with that, and he became a photographer.

Soon, he became the top photographer in town and when he reached that peak, he decided now it was time to turn to film, so he became a director.

McCann, at that time, had a wonderful attitude of pushing the limits, which brought about a whole explosion in the quality of work.

It became a magnate for other great people and an inspiration to the whole city.

One of the first writers I can remember working with is Ross Jarvis. He was brilliant. He wrote what is still one of my favorite lines.

It was for Quaker, for the ads were to go up on the subway. The line could just as easily run today and be equally effective. It simply read: ‘Central Heating.’

You know that feeling, when you’re riding in the subway in the middle of winter. A bowl of Quaker in your tummy. That’s what it really is – central heating.

When I worked with a writer – Mark Levine. He was absolutely wonderful. Crazy. A true free spirit. Wild. And, also, a true inspiration.

We came up with a commercial idea once that was typical of Mark.

This was back in the days when you used to sell stereos, not on sound, or quality of the components, but as pieces of furntiture.

We were asked to come up with something for a new Philips stereo that was designed like an Ethan Allen box.

The commercial we created was about bringing a stereo into a living room, and the reaction that the rest of the living room has to it. All the comments.

The sofa was tucked away in a corner, chatting away The lamp was talking to a coffee table. And the copy was just wild.

All the furniture in the living room having this discussion about how happy they all were to have this stereo in the living room with them.

And then came Allan Kazmer.

We didn’t click right away. It was always an edgy situation. Allan was all corners.

At first I thought that this guy was going to be too painful to work with, especially after having come from working with Mark, who was brilliant, crazy, paranoid.

I always have operated on the basis of the ‘pain value’ – is it really worth it?

Allan was difficult, but also very exciting. He was dynamic, and, like so many talented people, when he was on a high and at his best, there could be nothing better.

He was a hard-drinking, blue-collar Detroit boy, and I had come from a rather expensive South African education.

But, like so many other things in life, you find out how you both fit in the puzzle, and, for us, that took about six months. Once we figured that out, we had a great relationship. We melded beautifully.

I think what really makes a great creative team is when you’re different. It never works when you’re the same. It was like that with Allan, later, with Ian Mirlin.

Ian is much more cerebral than me. I tend to rush into things. I have this need to get things done immediately, whereas I an likes to take time to consider it in more depth.

With Allan, he was so much on the edge, and pushing things all the time, that my role was to bring him back and make things a little more practical. Make clients feel a little more comfortable.

For me, there is no single agency today that is like a Doyle Dane of the ’60s. There is no single inspirational leader. There are many, and they’re spread out all over the place.

Wieden Kennedy keeps surprising me. Goodby Silverstein. Fallon McElligott. The Martin Agency, and all these smart little New York agencies that are coming onto the scene.

In most cases, all these agencies have done, really, is bring back the one thing that Doye Dane brought to advertising, and which should have never left, and that is, the strong advertising idea.

If there’s anything I believe in, it is the importance of advertising ideas.

When I look at young people coming in for interviews, if there’s one thing I look for, it’s ideas.

I don’t care how beautiful their art direction is, or how cleverly they write. If they don’t have ideas, then I’m not interested.

I think David Harrison [president of Harrison Young Pesonen & Newell] put it well recently when he said, whether it’s interactivity, or database, or some new technology, if the communication doesn’t start out with a strong advertising idea, it won’t go anywhere.

I can’t imagine that this will ever change.