Viewpoint: Few `knew’ Barchou

One of the great ones died last month, and not enough people noticed.Sure, the funeral chapel on Danforth Avenue in Toronto was filled to overflowing, as it should have been.But the whole advertising community wasn't spending the whole week remembering, and...

One of the great ones died last month, and not enough people noticed.

Sure, the funeral chapel on Danforth Avenue in Toronto was filled to overflowing, as it should have been.

But the whole advertising community wasn’t spending the whole week remembering, and celebrating a man’s life. As it should have been.

That’s because you had to know Peter Barchou to know who he was.

Lots of people ‘know’ Geoffrey Roche, and Syd Kessler, and Gary Prouk, and Brian Harrod, and the other advertising superstars, but Barchou had neither the knack nor the interest for getting ink.

In fact, he was the master of the low profile.

To know Peter Barchou, you had to cross his path directly, in one of two ways.

Nights, he was a jazz piano player at Toronto hangouts like Phil’s Tavern, and, more recently, Louis Jannetta’s Place.

Peter would sit behind a baby grand, an uninhaled cigar clenched in his teeth, scraping the women off with a putty knife, two hands on the keyboard and his left foot on an electronic bass, creating a superb sound that had a little George Shearing, and a little Bill Evans, and a lot of Peter Barchou.

He loved it. And, he was goooood.

Days, he had the title of executive television producer at Young & Rubicam, Toronto, and he held that title for something around 30 years. Again, he loved it, and, again, he was gooood.

If you have a favorite television producer – a really outstanding one, that you know and trust – chances are that he or she, at one time, was a Barchou protege. Or, was the protege of a Barchou protege.

Peter touched a lot of people, and made them better.

But even that is not the point.

There’s a more important reason why I’m taking up a few column-inches of Strategy, and a few minutes of your time, to talk about somebody you likely have never heard of.

It’s the way Peter Barchou did business.

Peter was absolutely, intrinsically, deeply, genetically, down-to-his-guts incapable of bullshit. If Peter endorsed something, you could count on it.

On the other hand, if somebody around him was adopting a weak position, and Peter disagreed, you knew – sometimes because he would say so, more often because there would be an awkward silence, which, in Barchou language meant, ‘Smooth patter and tapdancing is supposed to go here, and I don’t know how.’

If you could not trust Barchou, you were in deep trouble because that meant you could trust no one. And, again and again, people responded. Problems that ‘couldn’t be solved,’ got solved. Clients that ‘couldn’t be dealt with’ got happy.

It seems to me, as agencies struggle more and more to find their place in this new world, that Peter’s way is a way worth remembering.

It seems to me, as we all grope with interactive television, and cd-roms, and multimedia, and 500 channels, and how to advertise on the Internet, that what we need is more trust in each other as people, not less.

It seems to me that communicators should start saying less often, ‘Why, of course we have the answer,’ and, more often, ‘Good question, we’re going to work on it.’

That was Barchou’s way. I guess I’m suggesting that we all remember it, not as some kind of strange memorial tribute, but for a far more pragmatic reason.

That is, it worked for Peter Barchou. And, I have a funny feeling it would work for the rest of us.

John Burghardt, formerly president of a national Canadian advertising agency, now heads his own communications firm.