PJ’s secret weapon

They say that creative is a young man's game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don't have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here's a chance to meet four who can.

They say that creative is a young man’s game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don’t have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here’s a chance to meet four who can.

Ron Woodall on Ron Woodall

Title: EVP, creative strategies, Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver. (But this is a total sham. I am not a strategist. Strategists look like Gordon Gekko. I look like Santa Claus.)

Age: On the cusp of 67

Education: Four utterly useless years at art and design school in Montreal. Far more educational was my subscription to The New Yorker while Bill Bernbach was there.

Work history: Began at McKim in Montreal in 1959; then J. Walter Thompson Vancouver start-up in 1963; stayed for 10 years, then dropped out of agency work to become a painter, author and photographer.

CD of Vancouver’s Expo ’86 World’s Fair (including writing and producing the IMAX theme movie A Freedom To Move, shot in 29 countries); designed concept and theme of Australia’s Brisbane Expo ’88; consultant to Alpha Projects, a team of Expo ’86 execs offering full planning and management packages for major entertainment events and attractions.

Consultant/CD, Science World, a $50-million science-themed educational institution and tourist attraction located in former Expo Centre theme pavilion.

Partner/writer/director, GGR/Woodall Pictures, a TV and film production house specializing in humorous TV commercials for the likes of General Motors, Labatt, Diet Coke, Toronto Blue Jays.

Consultant/CD, MUSIC ’91, a $25-million touring musical festival for B.C. ministry of tourism; international consultant for events in Hungary, Spain and Korea; to Palmer Jarvis (now PJ DDB) in 1992.

All-time favourite ad: ‘Hot Food, Cold Beer’ (on an old adobe building in New Mexico).

Favourite TV show: Often transfixed by Punjabi cinema. Everyone is going to die but they still dance and sing and even the men wear lipstick. It’s not unlike the agency business.

Pets: Three cats; two are normal and one is so feral he needs his own room. The normal ones seem to believe Mike Tyson is locked in that room and will kill them if the door is left open, so they walk by his door like Chuck Berry.

Favourite sayings: Next to a dog, the wastebasket is your best friend. / Expect the worst and never be disappointed. / Nothing matters much and few things matter at all. / Nothing is often the best thing to do. / If you have no talent, be modest about it./ More means worse. / Tell the truth and make enemies.

How does Ron Woodall feel about being a sexagenarian in an industry dominated by whippersnappers three or four decades his junior? Positive enough to have ‘Geezer’ printed on his business card.

Of course, his card also identifies the white-bearded West Coaster as ‘executive vice-president of creative strategies’ at the Vancouver headquarters of Palmer Jarvis DDB. And Woodall’s boss says that title is even rarer than ‘geezer.’

‘We’re probably the only company in Canada that has a creative strategist rather than just traditional creative directors,’ explains PJ DDB president Frank Palmer. ‘It basically means that I asked Ron to be our Yoda… a teacher, coach and mentor all in one…while the rest of us played Luke Skywalker, asking him what we should do next.’

Brilliantly fulfilling that unique role was exactly what it took, according to industry insiders, to help transform the lacklustre Palmer Jarvis of 1992 into the creative powerhouse it is today, when the agency regularly nabs the lion’s share of prestigious creative awards, not to mention topping Strategy’s Agency of the Year list for the past three years running. It attracts and sustains an enviable client list including Sun-Rype, Purolator, Clorox, Budweiser and Lever Ponds. And, just five years after Woodall came on board, PJ was snapped up by global giant Omnicom to become PJ DDB.

How could Woodall enable all this? Ironically enough, it was partly because he swore off advertising just a dozen years after getting into it – as a junior art director at the McKim agency in Montreal in 1959 – and then didn’t darken an agency door for two decades.

It was the several stellar careers he practiced in the interim (see ‘Ron Woodall,’ right) that made Woodall a renaissance man who brought a wealth of diverse experiences back into the ad biz when Palmer urged him to eschew other offers, curtail his beloved writing, painting and photography projects and help rescue a foundering ship.

So what did Yoda tell all the Lukes when he accepted Palmer’s challenge?

‘Well,’ Woodall recalls, ‘I knew I didn’t want to actually write any creative, pitch any creative, execute any creative’ – or do brand management. What he did want was to apply the two gems of ‘common-sense logic’ he says have guided his every move.

One was that ‘advertising is not brain surgery,’ despite the ascendance of increasingly arcane analysis. ‘I’ve always believed that really good work is still more art than science. But it’s gotten so much more cautious today. Ideas have to fit through a much smaller sieve than back when we all worked from hunches.’

The second of Woodall’s trusted tenets was that ‘the fastest way to [refute] negative perceptions was to win lots of top awards, and that could only be done by our creative people. So we told them that was their number-one priority. It was a bit of a heresy but it drew some of the best talent in the country to us. So the work got better, the clients got happier and DDB saw what we were doing and bought us.’ And, sure enough, they won a lot of awards because they ‘would always swing for home runs.’

Woodall says he’s done a lot of thinking about how to motivate creative people. ‘They’re right-brained and they see what they do as an art form, while the business [side] usually sees creative as a just another tool to move product. But it takes a fair amount of left-brain thinking to create fertile ground for right-brain thinking and that’s where I come in, interpreting and translating [between the two sides].’

Putting all this into practice wasn’t easy at first, Woodall concedes. ‘There was resistance to changing policies and attitudes and convincing clients to make high-risk choices.’ But it’s a lot easier now that his heretical theories have borne such succulent fruit.

So easy, in fact, that ‘Yoda’ says he now spends only a couple of days a week at PJ DDB, ‘hanging around the creative department like a junkie getting high on the stimulation.’