‘This unusual but perfect balance’

'Keep up the fight for good ideas,' says Bill Durnan, president and chief strategic officer for Nucleus Strategic Core Properties, a division of Cossette Communication Group.

‘Keep up the fight for good ideas,’ says Bill Durnan, president and chief strategic officer for Nucleus Strategic Core Properties, a division of Cossette Communication Group.

When he says it, you have to believe he means it. In his three decades of service to the Canadian advertising biz, Durnan has been responsible for some of the best ideas the industry has seen, both creatively and strategically.

For his efforts and commitment to creativity in television advertising, Durnan has earned the 2004 Spiess Award.

Named for the late Fritz Spiess, widely held to be the dean of Canadian cinematographers, the award is given to an individual in any facet of the advertising industry whose commitment is ‘continuing and of the highest order,’ according to the Television Bureau of Canada

Cossette EVP and Toronto president Dom Caruso, whose first professional experience with Durnan dates back to MacLaren 14 years ago, says that for Durnan, ‘commitment’ pretty much sums it up.

‘Bill represents this unusual but perfect balance of attributes that in this business is highly valuable,’ says Caruso. ‘I’ve never worked with anyone who can get you so excited about an idea as Bill can. Once he’s on to something that he thinks has legs, he gets everyone excited about it.’

Former DDB Needham CD, Gary Gray sat on the committee of past winners that selected Durnan for the Spiess and says the decision was easily made. In fact, when the group watched Durnan’s reel after the vote had concluded, they unanimously agreed they’d made the right choice.

Durnan’s ouvre includes some of Canada’s most famous spots. For instance, during his tenure as president of Ammirati Puris Lintas, the agency produced Labatt’s ‘Out of the Blue’ campaign and Sunlight’s ‘Go ahead, get dirty.’ Since moving to Cossette, his knack for inspiring great work has continued, with the agency producing the popular ‘There’s a little McDonald’s in everyone’ and others.

‘I have to tell you it is the most timeless grouping of material that I’ve seen in years,’ says Gray. ‘I don’t think there was anything on the reel that I couldn’t run today and I think that is one hell of an achievement.’

Durnan began his career as an account manager with Vickers & Benson in the early 1970s. It was the Terry O’Malley and Bill Bremner era, he says. He remembers the time when ‘we ate, drank and slept’ the business. After six years, Durnan moved to MacLaren, where he would begin to make his mark as an account manager for Molson.

During his 16-year tenure at MacLaren, he made the jump from accounts to creative, becoming a writer, then Toronto creative director and then national creative director and part owner of the agency. This is where he first encountered Caruso.

‘From the first time I met him I became immediately inspired because he has a passion for this business that you see in very few people,’ says Caruso. ‘When he decided to go out on his own, I knew somehow that our paths would cross again.’

Durnan says he has always admired entrepreneurs, and after 16 years at MacLaren, it was time to move on to become reacquainted with his own creativity. He opened Durnan Communications in 1994 and purposely kept it a small operation with clients like Second Cup and President’s Choice.

After three successful years, his company was purchased by Ammirati Puris Lintas and Durnan was appointed president, giving him the opportunity to work on brands such as Johnson & Johnson, Lever Ponds and UPS. Some suggest Ammirati reached a creative peak during the two-and-a-half-year Durnan presidency, but Durnan credits people such as writer Tom Nelson, former president Arthur Fleischmann, and former creative director Doug Robinson for the reputation Ammirati enjoyed during that period.

‘The reputation preceded me,’ says Durnan. ‘What I may have brought to Ammirati was a slightly more disciplined strategic process. We did have a great run with [Labatt's] Out of the Blue campaign, then Sunlight and Clarica. We had a good following and good people. The integrity was very good at that agency.’

In 2000, Durnan stepped down as Ammirati prez and took a sabbatical, leaving the agency in the hands of Fleischmann, who left the agency in 2001 with several others to form John St. in Toronto. Fleischmann says that in many ways he owes his career to Durnan, who suggested he be his presidential successor at Ammirati.

‘Bill’s vote of confidence and support was key in the success of my career,’ says Fleischmann, who adds that Durnan’s enthusiasm for the business leaves an indelible mark on all who meet him – and the carpets in his offices.

‘He’s a ball of energy,’ says Fleischmann. ‘We used to joke that you couldn’t let him walk around with a full cup of coffee because he speaks with his whole body. There were coffee stains all over the Ammirati carpet.’

In 2001, just six months into his leave from advertising, Durnan returned to agency life with a part-time role at Cossette Toronto which combined his penchant for creativity and strategic development. He was assigned to Bell and McDonald’s as strategic counsel, eventually leading to a role as strategic officer.

Now president and chief strategic officer at Nucleus, Durnan remains on the front line of these advertising ideals in Canada.

Although it is considered the creative strategic planning wing of Cossette, Durnan hopes Nucleus will be regarded as a company of ‘corporate or brand culturists, trying to identify the essence – ergo nucleus – of a company, then trying to allow that to discipline all the actions and everything around the brand or company. You have to surround your target audience in every which way, in the most inventive way,’ says Durnan.

Though he feels his current passion, integrated marketing, is still baffling to some in advertising, Durnan feels it is part of the industry that needs to be taken more seriously.

‘I believe more and more that we should think of ourselves as choreographers, and the world as a stage,’ he says. ‘How you bring it to them can be just as exciting as what you’re bringing to them. I love that aspect.’

His love for the industry is something many of his peers respect. Fleischmann, for one, still marvels at Durnan’s passion and enthusiasm for the business.

‘Some people hit 30 years in the business and become so cynical and just get tired, but this guy has maintained the freshness we all had in the business when we first started, and he still has it,’ he says. ‘Good on him.’