Book review: An inside look at V&B

The Creative Edge: Inside the Ad Warsby Randy ScotlandViking Penguin226 pages $27.99Reviewed by Marty Myers, partner, Bruce & Myers Creative DirectionsThis book is a well-observed account of the inner workings of Vickers & Benson Advertising, described on the flyleaf as 'one...

The Creative Edge: Inside the Ad Wars

by Randy Scotland

Viking Penguin

226 pages $27.99

Reviewed by Marty Myers, partner, Bruce & Myers Creative Directions

This book is a well-observed account of the inner workings of Vickers & Benson Advertising, described on the flyleaf as ‘one of Canada’s pre-eminent ad agencies.’

Perhaps the last of the great, old, Canadian-owned advertising agencies – arguably, our most endangered species – v&b is seen close up, having been carefully delineated from within by Financial Post columnist, former Marketing staff writer and longtime agency observer Randy Scotland.

The astute Mr. Scotland knows ad agencies and ad people, and was able to persuade v&b principals to permit him over an extended period – December 1992 to January 1994 – to enter the v&b inner circle ‘to provide a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the agency.’

Thus it was that he became privy, during a particularly difficult period in the agency’s recent history, to what would normally have been confidential information about v&b goings-on.

These goings-on included bringing two agency factions together under the leadership of a new and dynamic president, John Hayter, recasting the agency as a ‘creative powerhouse,’ brainstorming to become a ‘big ideas’ company, aggressively pitching, but, disappointingly, not winning the Shoppers Drug Mart account, helping the federal Liberal party win the 1993 election, coming up with a new campaign for Heineken, and, putting up with incessant and overly academic consultants telling v&b how to do business better, smarter, cheaper, quicker, sooner or later.

As well as providing us with a useful v&b historical retrospective, Mr. Scotland takes us on a number of interesting, and, often entertaining, side trips into such other ad agencies as Chiat/Day, Cossette Communication-Marketing, DDB Needham, Foster Advertising, Geoffrey B. Roche & Partners Advertising, J. Walter Thompson, Kert Advertising, Leo Burnett, MacLaren and MacLaren:Lintas, McCann-Erickson Advertising, McKim and McKim Baker Lovick/BBDO, N.W. Ayer, Ogilvy & Mather, Ronalds-Reynolds, Saatchi & Saatchi, Scali McCabe Sloves, Spitzer Mills & Bates and Young & Rubicam.

And, of course, numerous advertisers also get their due.

As an admirer of v&b, and a fan of its creative kingpin and conscience, Terry O’Malley, I was, I admit, curious about what had been going on behind the news releases.

I read Mr. Scotland’s book, therefore, eagerly, learning much I hadn’t known about the new v&b, about its breaks and heartbreaks, about its losses and wins, about its political activities, about its reorganization, and about its attempts to understand and renew itself.

Informative, revealing, often instructive, sometimes distressing, occasionally moving, The Creative Edge filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of v&b.

I learned, for example, how Chairman O’Malley’s elevation to an icon, reduced him, in effect, to a left-out, out-of-work owner. I also learned how passionate and determined Hayter was, how eloquent, how focussed.

I learned, as well, how the seconds and thirds in command at v&b responded to their new leader.

When they agreed with him, they were effusive. When they disagreed, they were, it seemed to me, guarded. When they disagreed among themselves, they resorted, unwisely at times, to bombast, or lame argument.

All appeared to be trying not to be noticed.

This diminished their visibility in the book, except, unfortunately, as detailed by Mr. Scotland, for the lingering notoriety of old misjudgments, either of their own, or, of themselves by others.

At the same time as it informed me, The Creative Edge also left me with a sense of deja vu, due partly, I think, to the fact that I know most of the v&b players, and, partly, to my own agency background.

Needless to say, I had strong feelings of connection and empathy with much of what I read, and can only applaud v&b’s bravery and admire Mr. Scotland’s acuteness of vision.

While I think people outside advertising will enjoy this book for the inside look it gives them into our business, for those of us in advertising in Canada, I would call it mandatory reading.

We don’t, after all, have many books about Canadian advertising. Before Canadian advertising becomes something else, we’d probably be wise to read what we can, while we can. Besides, it’s a good read.

For me, the most interesting thing about The Creative Edge is that although it is, on the surface, the story of a survivor, it is also – whether by intent or inadvertence doesn’t matter – an analogue for what has happened – is happening – to Canadian advertising agencies and to the advertising business in Canada.

These days, you can play a winning game, yet still lose for reasons that have nothing to do with how you played.