‘Wolo’s gone, and it hurts me more than I knew’

It was almost 20 years ago that Bob Wolowich invited me to lunch at Old Angelo's on Toronto's Elm Street, and asked me if I wanted to start an ad agency. (We always thought they should have put up a plaque.)

It was almost 20 years ago that Bob Wolowich invited me to lunch at Old Angelo’s on Toronto’s Elm Street, and asked me if I wanted to start an ad agency. (We always thought they should have put up a plaque.)

The most surprising thing was, I said yes. Not long before, I had written an article saying there was no better life in the ad business than being a successful freelancer (and I pointed out that consultant is a better term than freelancer – you can charge more.)

And yet I said to Bob, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ There were a lot of reasons involved in that decision, some good, some not so good, but a great big part of my assent was, it was hard to say no to Bob Wolowich when he was on a roll.

Bob was an enormous man with an enormous presence. Peter Sellers – the talented copywriter, not the zany actor – tells of sitting in an agency lobby, quaking as he sought his first job. Says Peter, ‘Then this ox of a man rolls past the reception desk and shouts, ‘SO YOU’RE THE SONOFABITCH WHO WANTS TO GET INTO THE ADVERTISING BUSINESS!”

Wolo was an art director, and not a very subtle one. Whether the headline you gave him was ‘Sparkplugs, 50% off!’ or ‘Tell a wonderful woman you love her,’ you would probably get it back set in 40-point type in what the industry came to call ‘WOLOWICH BOLD.’ But the energy was always there, and so were the results. Bob teamed up with some of the giants of the business – Doug Linton, Terry O’Malley – and produced hundreds of ads which won awards and sold stuff. More you cannot ask.

What many don’t know about Bob Wolowich was that he was also a good writer.

He was not an educated man, and he usually wrote in longhand that some poor soul would have to decipher; but unlike so many people, Bob didn’t choke when he faced an empty page. He just wrote like he talked, straight-ahead, plain and simple. I once taught a series of workshops on writing at Ontario Hydro, and I urged the assembled executives to write their ideas without buzzwords and uselessly complicated sentences. I even gave my approach a name. I said, ‘Now we’re going to try an exercise in Wolowiching.’

Bob’s brother delivered a fine eulogy at his funeral on April 28, and brought up Wolo’s love for dogs. Jack Wolowich said to the mourners, ‘Bob always seemed to have a dog around, and they always seemed to be the same. They were large…unwieldy [isn't that a glorious adjective for a dog?]…and very much in need of training.’ Then he paused, and with exquisite timing spoke the punch line: ‘A lot like their owner.’

Back to that agency we started. It eventually went down the tubes, for many reasons, including the fact that Bob and I were admakers, not administrators. But we had a hell of a ride along the way. From a standing start, we ran three offices, employed 60 or 70 good people, billed as much as $35 million, and boasted blue-chip clients like Toshiba, Rogers Cantel, and Ontario Hydro.

As it all slid downward, there were many not-so-great moments. But I prefer to remember my partnership with Bob Wolowich by thinking about our second Christmas party.

We had been in business a year and a half, and we had started to take off. The new-business pitches kept succeeding, our clients spread the word about us, the Financial Post called us the wave of the future, the staff thought they were working at Cloud Nine.

The party was a love-fest, not the Christmas grope-and-grabby kind, just a whole lot of happy people. Our valued colleagues at Communiqué showed up, snapped a bunch of photos, and came back an hour later with a brilliant little slide show synching those pictures to John Lennon’s ‘So This is Christmas.’ I think Bob and I asked them to reprise the show about 17 times.

It was maybe 4 a.m. before we had the good sense to leave – the restaurant was not strictly observing the liquor closing laws – and we had the good sense as well to grab a cab. Wolo and I sat in the back seat and wept. ‘Wazzn’t that the greatest?’ ‘How bout that shot of Andy and Higgers?’ ‘Are they all beautiful, or what?’ Yeah, we were drunk, but we were right, at least temporarily: the world was wonderful, and we could do anything.

Bob thought that until his dying day. He believed that the Castrol business would come back to him, and so would Country Style Donuts, and WOLOWICH BOLD would rise again. And what reason was there on earth to tell him otherwise?

Thanks for it all, Bobby. I’m going to miss you.

John Burghardt has been president of a $35-million advertising agency, written films for the Shah of Iran, brought home a Cannes Gold Lion, and godfathered the Cookie Monster with Jim Henson. Not considering himself a Type A personality but acting like one, he is currently involved in two New York State theatre projects, a children’s multimedia concept, and a new tourism communications firm known as Geo*dentity. He also returns phone calls and e-mails, at 416 693-5072 and burgwarp@rogers.com, respectively.