It’s all in the attitude

Strategy founding editor Mark Smyka, now Cossette's director of communications, takes a look all the way back to the birth of this magazine and shares some stories from his days in the editor’s seat.

Strategy founding editor Mark Smyka, now Cossette’s director of communications, takes a look all the way back to the birth of this magazine and shares some stories from his days in the editor’s seat.

The time was late 1989, and all anybody wanted to talk about was the looming recession.

Or, more accurately, speculate about a recession. Were we already in one? If so, how long would it last? Who would get hurt the most?
This is what everyone else was asking.

At Brunico, the business publishing company we had started from nothing a little more than three years earlier, there was really only one question on our minds: “What the heck are we doing?”

We had already made our mark in the publishing industry with the success of Playback, a feisty, independent-minded magazine that had taken the film and TV production industry by storm.

Now, we were facing another uphill climb with a second start-up. Only this time it was in the face of a rapidly softening market, and our fate was tied to an industry – marketing and advertising – that would be the first to suffer if the recessionary warnings proved true.

Thus, the question.

But it was not in our nature to be demure. We pushed ahead with our product, originally named Playback Strategy, confident that our brand proposition was strong and that we had the necessary resources and talent to pull it off.

Looking back, the recessionary environment probably worked to our advantage. The qualities you need to survive tough times, like resilience, enterprise, focus and a hankering to do things differently, we had in eager abundance. Our competition didn’t.

The best illustration of our difference – and our attitude – was in the way we approached naming an Ad Agency of the Year. In the rest of the advertising trade world, editors and reporters would huddle in secret conclaves, like cardinals voting for a new pope, and emerge at some point when the smoke appeared with a winner in place.

We did it our own way, by adding a bit of science and a touch of attitude. We developed some objectivity, and our first judging panel included, among others, ad world creative superstar David Abbott, the incomparable CBC journalist and broadcaster Peter Gzowski and, to round out the metaphor, two rocket scientists and a brain surgeon. [He’s not joking: the director of mechanical technology and a rocket propulsion consultant at Bristol Aerospace in Winnipeg, as well as a pediatric neurosurgeon at Chedoke/McMaster Hospital in Hamilton, all weighed in. –Ed.]  The exercise was a huge hit and flourishes to this day.

As I have learned from so many experiences and from so many people, attitude is more often than not the differentiator in this business.

I remember, in my earliest days of reporting on advertising, feeling quite bewildered when ad agency presidents would admit to me in private that their preference was to be low profile and for their agencies to be a “best-kept secret.” Such an attitude seemed to me so clearly incompatible with the day job that I had to wonder how the two could possibly co-exist.

Attitude is really the difference between a glass being half empty or half full, or looking at the door in front of you as something to be kicked open or a barrier to entry.

A few years after the launch of strategy, our spirited group at Brunico decided to reach beyond our borders, and we launched another industry publication, this one aimed at businesses targeting the kids demographic. KidScreen’s market was the world, and we conquered it.

Two more international magazines followed – RealScreen and ’Boards  – along with an international awards show in New York for advertising aimed at kids called The Golden Marbles, and an events and conference division to support it all.

Lots of attitude, once again.

What I have learned from all of this is that our fate is more in our own hands than we realize, and that’s what I love about the industry I’m in. Unlike, say, a manufacturing business where you need machines and raw resources and supply lines and distribution networks and all kinds of other “stuff,” advertising is dependent entirely on the quality of the thinking.

It’s a world of ideas, and therefore a world of infinite opportunity. Many of us are dreamers. We accept that the only limitation we face is the quality of our thinking. The quality of our people.

Our required resource is people who have a way of looking at the world that is original and unexpected. And so, for me, the excitement is never-ending and the glass is always half full.

What was that about a recession?

Mark Smyka is director of communications for Cossette. But we still get some mail here with his name on it, and he’ll always be on strategy’s speed dial.