No regrets: The proud life of an ad man

I am an ad man. I know, I know, that's not the trendy term in the business these days. You're supposed to have marketing in your title, and probably communications, and best of all, branding. But 'ad man' is how the public thinks of us, and 'ad man' is what the headlines call us when we're indicted. So let it be.

I am an ad man. I know, I know, that’s not the trendy term in the business these days. You’re supposed to have marketing in your title, and probably communications, and best of all, branding. But ‘ad man’ is how the public thinks of us, and ‘ad man’ is what the headlines call us when we’re indicted. So let it be.

I am an ad man. I’m a pretty bright guy, and fairly versatile, and I suppose I might have brought more to humankind if I’d chosen to be a cancer researcher or a missionary in Haiti (spent a month at that one). But I think my skills, my inclinations, certainly my enjoyment level, are all better off with the direction I picked. I’ve never regretted it.

I am an ad man. As such, I’m about as basic a part of the capitalist system as you can get. Though some people seem to have a problem with that, I don’t. I feel about capitalism pretty much the way Churchill described democracy: ‘It’s the worst system there is, except for all the rest that have been tried.’

I am an ad man. I really like the work. I love games and puzzles, and the advertising creative process is a marvelous and ever-changing puzzle. What am I trying to make out of these fragments? Which pieces fit, and where? When it’s done, will it just be pretty, or will it mean something? And the toughest part to learn: ‘I’ve got a wonderful fragment here, it’s gorgeous or it’s funny, but I can’t get it to fit the picture, I’ll have to throw it out.’

I am an ad man. I really like the people. Many decades ago, I was getting to know the woman who eventually became my wife. She was the product of a small and insular university town in upstate New York, daughter of a biology professor, and therefore she had been taught since birth that advertisers were somewhere on the food chain between paramecium and slug. And yet after a while, she said to me, ‘John, this is amazing. I not only like you a lot, I really like your friends!’ Still holds true. By and large, ad people are interesting people.

I am an ad man. Advertising has brought me across the paths of George Carlin, Jim Henson, Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, Bert Lahr (the Cowardly Lion), Buddy Hackett, Andrea Martin, Kim Mitchell, Al Waxman, David Cronenberg, and many more; and with the exception of Hackett, I’ve been richer for the experience. Once upon a time, I hired a raw and unknown kid from Hamilton for his first television appearance, a Canadian Pacific commercial, because he blew me away in the audition. He still does. Fellow named Martin Short.

I am an ad man. I love to travel, and I love to travel even more when the trip has a purpose. The quest for good advertising has led me to knock on doors throughout Sicily, asking the paisane their secrets about cooking pasta. It’s taken me to a pub in Somersetshire, England, taste-testing Canadian cheese in the town that gave Cheddar its name. And I was in Tehran in 1977, making films for the government of the Shah, downing Caspian Sea caviar and chilled Russian vodka. That was literally two weeks before the Iranian Revolution began, sending the Shah down the drain and the vodka too.

I am an ad man. I fully accept the implicit (sometimes explicit) contract with the client to move his stuff off the shelves. As Alex Kroll of Y&R New York succinctly put it, ‘I don’t have an identity crisis, I’m a salesman.’ I consider my clients to be trustworthy allies, unless in rare cases proven otherwise. I wake up in the morning energized by the prospect of doing good work, and I don’t have a bunch of hidden agendas or weird subliminal psychological tools with which to do it.

I am an ad man. The business has done very well by me, and I like to think I’ve done a few things for it. I introduced Michelin tires and Toshiba laptops to Canada, and they seem to have done pretty well. I gave Midland Walwyn Investments their ‘Blue Chip Thinking’ identity, and they later sold the company for a billion plus, and I immodestly believe those two facts may not be unrelated. I like to get paid, but the March of Dimes never paid me, or UNICEF, or Big Brothers, or Ontario’s Mood Disorders Association. That’s cool. I feel good inside the gut, if not the wallet.

I am an ad man. Most days, I find myself quite proud that I am. I haven’t heard many people in Canada say that lately, so I thought I would.

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, respectively.