Trudeau: ‘He was an image-maker’

The red rose in the lapel. The slide down the banister. The pirouette behind the Queen's back. Among contemporary politicians, few have surpassed Pierre Trudeau's talent for building an image....

The red rose in the lapel. The slide down the banister. The pirouette behind the Queen’s back. Among contemporary politicians, few have surpassed Pierre Trudeau’s talent for building an image.

It was a gift that the former prime minister, who died Sept. 28 at the age of 80, applied with exceptional facility throughout his epic political career.

Terry O’Malley remembers it well.

The former creative director of Toronto’s Vickers & Benson Advertising, O’Malley was one of the founding members of the Red Leaf group, a consortium of ad agency professionals assembled by Trudeau and his closest advisers to engineer election campaign strategies for the federal Liberal Party.

O’Malley worked with the group from Trudeau’s first run at the prime minister’s office in 1968, to his last election in 1980. And in that time he developed great admiration for Trudeau’s innate marketing savvy – as well as for the man himself.

‘He was an image-maker,’ says O’Malley, who today lives and works in his hometown of St. Catharines, Ont. ‘[And] he had this total confidence in what he was doing. He had no other agenda than the agenda for this country.’

Working with Trudeau in the heat of an election battle was an energizing experience, he recalls.

‘This was a short, slight man who, to me, looked like Wilt Chamberlain. He had this unbelievable aura about him, as if there was something radiating from him. You always felt like you were with the champion. It would be like working with Muhammad Ali. You knew you had this incredible weapon, and you expected to win.’

In addition to O’Malley, some of the key Red Leaf members during the Trudeau years included Terry Hill, Gabor Apor and Mike Koskie of V&B; Hank Karpus of Ronalds-Reynolds; Pat Bryan, Tony Miller, David Harris and Ken Tilley of MacLaren; and researcher Martin Goldfarb, who helped to pioneer the use of public opinion polling in federal election campaigns.

While Trudeau guided the strategy, much of the day-to-day direction for the group came from his principal secretary Jim Coutts – a formidable tactician, according to O’Malley. ‘The two of them probably had as much brain power as any intellectual cartel in this country,’ he says.

Besides developing campaign advertising, the Red Leaf group was responsible for designing the familiar Liberal Party logo, and instituting the consistent use of the party’s signature red and white in all campaign materials, right down to lawn signs.

In the frenzy of a campaign, group members rarely gave much thought to long-term considerations. But in hindsight, O’Malley says, it became clear that what they were doing, under Trudeau’s leadership, was building a brand – one that continues to define the Liberal Party in the public mind today.

‘When the transition came from Trudeau to [subsequent leaders], that’s when you suddenly realized that you did have a brand, in a sense. Whether it was John Turner or Jean Chretien, you used all the same materials. It’s been consistent ever since.’

Still, O’Malley’s favourite Trudeau anecdote has less to do with grand political gestures than with his gift for the small touch.

During the 1980 campaign, he recalls, Trudeau came to Toronto to film a commercial featuring a local family. The shoot took most of the morning, so the daughter went back to school that afternoon with a handwritten note from her co-star: ‘Please excuse Linda from school. She was helping me to be elected prime minister. Signed, Pierre Elliott Trudeau.’

‘To me, that’s a symbol of savvy,’ O’Malley says. ‘He was that tuned in. He hated acting – he felt there was a sense of insincerity in that. He liked spontaneity. We’d lay out the canvas for him. And he’d be the painter.’