Cundari Integrated Advertising

When 20 year old Aldo Cundari returned to Canada from an elite Italian design school in September 1979, he dreamt of becoming a sculptor. But in the tradition of the true Renaissance Man, he was destined for wider horizons. ...

When 20 year old Aldo Cundari returned to Canada from an elite Italian design school in September 1979, he dreamt of becoming a sculptor. But in the tradition of the true Renaissance Man, he was destined for wider horizons.

Today, 20 years later, the organic growth of Cundari Integrated Advertising reads like a classic entrepreneurial success story – how one man’s creative and business acumen came together to forge what can legitimately be called Canada’s first truly integrated agency.

As a Toronto teenager with energy to burn, Cundari had always wanted to develop his innate creative skills. Studying graphic design all through high school and college, he took a special advanced course and created sculpture, pottery, painting and design.

Then he was off to design school in Rome where he studied interior and industrial design. ‘When I graduated, I came back to Canada with the intention of being a sculptor, but the recession of the late ’70s early ’80s forced me to get a job’ Cundari recalls. ‘I knew a lot and I loved design. I didn’t want to be an agency creative director so much as just get my foot in the door and see what happened — while still doing all my artsy stuff on the side.’

Having just turned 20, Cundari started freelancing as a one-man creative print production company out of his parent’s basement, servicing ad agencies, promotional houses and companies with internal art departments.

It wasn’t long before he was picking up more work than he could handle. He had been using a small typesetting company and within six months, he was their largest client. He merged with them and bought 50% of the company. Within a year, he bought the other 50%, incorporating in 1980 as The Cundari Group.

‘It seems that whenever I get focused and involved, things happen’ explains Cundari. ‘Suddenly I owned my own business. As a young kid with a lot of energy, I was cranking out a ton of work during a recession with great creative at low budgets.’ Within six months, Cundari had four people on staff and an extremely efficient typesetting production facility.

‘The roots of the company were a bit chaotic’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t say to myself, ‘In five years, I’m going to own my own agency.’ In my second year, I was really enjoying it and taking it seriously. Within five years, I tripled my size, having to move offices every year to accommodate the rapid growth.’

Then Cundari realized he was doing a lot of work for agencies that were basically tripling and quadrupling his rates and charging the client for it. He was getting repeat business because the clients wanted to see him at the meetings. ‘So I made a firm decision that within one year I would wean myself off all agency work and go directly after clients myself’ he says.

That’s when Cundari’s singular gift clearly emerged: his unerring instinct for recognizing good creative that will turn a profit for a client.

In 1981, he landed his first major account – Spalding Canada. He handled their packaging, catalogues and promotions, including the very first promotion in Canada for a golf company.

With his background in sculpture, young Cundari got his kicks in three-dimensional packaging design.

‘Spalding were constantly giving me challenges just to prove myself. There are a limited number of channels to sell a golf ball, so they challenged me to find a new channel for their corporate logo golf ball business. I made some mock ups of mini-beer cases of Labatt’s Blue that held 12 golf balls imprinted with corporate logos.’ The concept was called Image-Pack and could be applied across all kinds of packaged products.

‘When they first saw it, their mouths dropped’ Cundari remembers. ‘When they took it to two clients who were confirmed Wilson golf ball buyers, they immediately switched over to Spalding — a very large order.’ Image Packs became a worldwide product for Spalding. On the success of that one project, Spalding started feeding 21 year old Aldo Cundari regular creative business.

‘That was my biggest break because Spalding became a solid name on my roster’ he says. ‘Then I started selling plus winning more projects and improving my personal presentation skills.’ By his fifth year, the young entrepreneur had built up a solid stable of clients and a staff of 17 at his office at 1 Yonge Street. In 1991, he moved to his present office at Lawrence Avenue and the Don Valley Parkway.

From the beginning, Cundari was a big believer in investing in automated processes internally. With an automated typesetting system, his typesetting department quickly grew from one to 15 stations, not only servicing internal work but also pumping out thousands of pages for book publishers.

Cundari then bought Apple computer technology in 1985 and developed his own software for kerning and tracking pairs for type fonts called Pairs Software.

Cundari recalls getting caught up in the exciting days of software pioneering in the early 1980s: ‘Graphic design houses that needed to kern and track print material were now moving into Apple hardware globally. So I was selling a pantload of our software locally and abroad. I now had marketing skills and sales experience in three continents. For many years, besides great creative I had a price advantage over any agency because of our internal automated processes.’

With the booming success of his proprietary software, Cundari realized he had to make a tough decision. In 1988, he sold his software company to Agfa Worldwide in order to concentrate more fully on his booming agency business. But he never changed his attitude about the importance of investing in leading-edge technology internally.

Not only a pioneering software developer, Cundari was simultaneously pioneering the new concept of integrated marketing. As far back as 1985, Cundari was preaching the gospel of integration — a prescient concept that, 15 years later, is now at long last catching on with agencies and clients.

Realizing that his company was thriving by working with several different marketing disciplines, he began writing articles in trade magazines in the late 1980s about integration. He asked a fundamental question: why can’t one agency under one billing system successfully execute a client’s advertising, direct, promotional, packaging, and collateral work under one roof from one strategic platform?

Unfortunately, at the time, very few clients or agencies understood integration. ‘I was laughed out of offices because they didn’t think we could do it all in one agency’ Cundari recalls. ‘The mindset was stuck in traditional, separate camps and silos. Many of the larger agencies thought integration meant buying up a lot of different companies and integrating them on the same floor plate. You had a company with one name that had separate clients for advertising, promotion, direct, etc. The result was the creation of warring camps fighting over revenue. That’s not real integration. Over the past 10 years, agencies have learned that lesson the hard way.’

In the mid 1980s, Cundari started pitching actively himself as an integrated shop. ‘Any time we hit a client that loved the concept, it worked extremely well. If the client were not attuned to work that way, we’d just get one segment of their business and grow within from there. Clients would assign the advertising portion of their business to their global or North American agency and everything else – direct, promotion, etc.– would come to us.’

This was a major reason Cundari never became a media-buying agency: ‘I always saw media buying as a conflict of interest for an agency. If I’m going to recommend a solution, I don’t want a media machine hanging over my shoulder that I have to feed media dollars because it will influence which way the money goes. We decided to be revenue-neutral – charge fees and develop creative campaigns that best suited the product and most direct way to influence the consumer. If media were part of it, our media planning specialist would get involved. Now that’s where all agencies are going globally — consolidation of all media buying groups into separate entities, soliciting business separately from their own agency.’

After seven years in business, The Cundari Group reached a crossroads. Cundari was still creative head, as well as selling and managing. The agency had its share of good, solid brands such as Nissan, Procter & Gamble, Hewlett Packard and Nestle, but they were perceived as a sold workhorse — never AOR status, but someone you kept in your back pocket to solve problems.

It would take another five years for the agency to craft itself as a fully integrated, AOR shop. In 1990, now with a staff of 26, Cundari brought in a new team to manage overall creative and established a ‘controlled growth’ strategy: the agency would build steady annual growth of 20%, working with clients who were among the top three leaders in their industry categories. The landing of two blue chip clients — BMW and Siemens – proved a turning point.

‘We believe BMW is one of the sexiest brand in the world, let alone the auto sector’ says Cundari. ‘We’re privileged to do that work – that’s the way we look at it. And most Siemens divisions are first or second in their categories as well.’

Cundari’s controlled growth philosophy was developed in response to what he calls the ‘shooting star’ strategy – a huge surge in growth followed by a downturn.

‘When agencies win many huge accounts in a short span of time that overwhelm their agency, it means hiring many new people, changing the dynamic of their organization, and likely causing their clients a lot of grief and pain. Often you don’t ever recover from that kind of turmoil and rapid growth.

‘That’s why some agencies tend to fail and why we tend to hold onto our clients a lot longer. Our clients appreciate the effort we make focussing on their business. Strategy-wise, over the short term, we may not win all the individual battles, but over the long term, we’ll win the war.’

During the 1990s, Cundari gradually converted project-based clients to retainer-based clients and built and consolidated strong creative and management teams. Again, like his software company, success created a dilemma: with the rapid expansion of offices into the UK, New York, and Australia, he was spending increasing amounts of time away from his wife and four children. So 18 months ago, he decided to reduce his international affiliate holdings while retaining equity and re-trench in the Canadian market, re-focus on what he does best, and grow locally.

‘I proved that I could grow internationally and win business’ he reflects. ‘But if you don’t have a sound family life, it’s pointless. Today, there isn’t a part of the world I can’t cover through my international affiliate, if need be, through friends and associate offices.’

Within the last year, Cundari has made three key additions to his 45 person staff. President Gary Lee, an 18-year veteran with a variety of experiences on the account, media and promotions sides with McCann Erickson, Bates, BBDO and Padulo. Seasoned creative director Peter Day, former owner of Deacon Day Advertising; and Dennis Forbes, a freelance writer who has produced award-winning work for all the major agencies.

‘We’re all excited about re-tooling the agency’ says Lee. ‘Aldo virtually invented integration and has been living it from the start. That philosophy is evident in the mindset of the people who work here. He’s had consistent success with promotions and direct marketing, but also award winning traditional advertising. And like all great brands, they must evolve.

‘Our mandate is to up the ante, building on our integrated roots. Aldo is learning all the time and that’s the key. He’s always getting better, as is the agency. And the people here are allowed to thrive on their own. They feel good about what they do and therefore they stick with the shop.

Lee sees his mandate as being ‘all about the work’:

‘We hold strategy and creative development at the forefront of everything we do for our clients. The advertising we produce is built on solid brand truths and consumer language in order to gain a solid level of permission with consumers as we move forward. A heightened level of regard for the communications we produce, coupled with an instinctive integrated approach and strong opinion in assisting our clients with their business is what we stand for here at Cundari.’

Peter Day was attracted to Cundari because it’s one of the few small, independent Canadian agencies left that controls its own destiny.

‘I was drawn to Aldo’s entrepreneurial spirit and how he grew his business’ says Day. ‘The growth of his creative reputation reminds me of the metamorphosis of Franklin Dallas under creative director Peter Holmes. Aldo has assembled a great group of people and clients; as an integrated shop, he actually practices what he preaches.’

Cundari’s ability to retain loyal employees is another key factor that has helped sustain the agency’s success over 20 years.

Design group manager Sylvia Latina joined the company right out of school 15 years ago as a paste-up artist, then moved into design.

‘Aldo never gives up’ observes Latina. ‘He’s like the Timex commercial: he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. He is a hard, steady worker who leads by example and he’s always there for us. He is very good at understanding a new client’s business within the first or second meeting; he’s a quick study who can respond strategically and creatively on the spot. Aldo also has

a good sense of humour, which

is always important in any

environment.’

Starting as typesetter 18 years ago, Judy Madge is now Cundari’s production art manager.

‘Aldo always sets a good example with his work ethic’ notes Madge. ‘He has high expectations of us all, but he expects as much from himself as well. He is a brilliant businessman but he also has a big heart — he’s generous with his employees, which in turn creates loyalty. And he’s a good communicator-we always know what’s going on with the company at large.’

Account director Angela Lane, a15 year veteran who started in design then moved to the accounts side, likes the fact that at a smaller, integrated agency she can learn all aspects of the advertising business.

‘Aldo is not afraid to let you try things and give you the technological tools you need to get things done, whether it’s in creative, production, or marketing. He’s a good listener. He supports me through educational courses to upgrade my skills. At big agencies, you tend to get pigeonholed and the different divisions get caught up arguing over the same pot of money. Here, we can grow and learn together.’

VenGrowth, one of Canada’s largest and oldest venture capital investment management groups with over $1 billion in annual revenues, hired Cundari this past summer after an extensive agency review.

‘We were highly impressed with Aldo, his team, his vision, his creativity, and the way he manages his business’ says Deborah Gray, VenGrowth’s vice-president, sales and marketing. ‘He’s brilliant yet personable, a man of integrity. As a company, we invest in smart entrepreneurs, so we recognized in Aldo a smart entrepreneur.’

Gray says Cundari operates very differently from the other 15 agencies they approached.

‘We took a bit of a chance as Aldo doesn’t have a lot of financial services experience’ she says. ‘But we liked his style and presence. He takes on leaders in their industries, and we’re a leader in ours. He’s extremely strategic in his thinking, as we are. Few agencies yet have the ability to work on a client’s business from a truly strategic standpoint. He and his agency are conscious of our entire business needs, not just marketing communications.’

So what does the next 20 years hold for Aldo Cundari, the integrated left brain/right brain artist/entrepreneur whom sculpted a unique, homegrown agency model that has proven to be years ahead of its time?

‘We have stayed extremely independent’ observes Cundari. ‘If we get bought by another agency, our integrated corporate culture would likely be destroyed – unless we find a partner who thinks like us and believes in keeping clients.