Remembering John Burghardt

Former strategy editor Mark Smyka remembers the adman and columnist, before looking back on some of his writing.

By Mark Smyka

John Burghardt, an advertising executive that was also a regular columnist for strategy in the early days of the magazine, died on Jan. 30 at the age of 80 years old. Burghardt’s “checkered resume” – as the bio that ran under his columns referred to it – included stops in Milan, Madison Avenue before co-founding and running the agency that would eventually become BWCK in Toronto, not to mention Cannes Lions wins and co-creating a character that would inspire Cookie Monster with Jim Henson for a Lay’s ad. Below, former strategy editor Mark Smyka remembers what made Burghardt both an effective advertiser and an insightful, entertaining writer.

John Burghardt was a brilliant adman. Among the best I’ve ever known. He was an incredible practitioner of the trade. Yet I think he was an even greater observer and critic of it.

John was among the first people I turned to when we launched Strategy magazine more than 30 years ago. We needed to make a big statement right from the start and I could think of no better way than to have John’s wit and insight as a columnist. He agreed, and, he delivered. It never ceased to amaze me how John would somehow find a new angle or fresh perspective for each column. Always smart, inspiring and uniquely John. To say nothing of how beautifully and elegantly he wrote every piece.

One column in particular has remained with me. John was writing about a TV commercial he did with Bert Lahr for Lay’s potato chips. Lahr was famous not just for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, but also as a perfectionist. They had been shooting take after take of Lahr chomping at the chips when the director finally called “cut” and said he was happy with the footage. Lahr intervened and said, “No, I can do better.” So, they kept going and the commercial got better – and Frito-Lay ended up selling a ton of potato chips.

The title of John’s column was “The Final Inch.” He talked about how the real pros in this business don’t stop with just good enough. They push and they push, right through to the final inch, which is often where brilliance is achieved. John Burghardt always went the final inch.

Editor’s Note: Try as we might, we could not track down “The Final Inch” in our archives, so to remember Burghardt, we are instead re-running one of his last columns for the magazine.

This column originally appeared in the May 31, 2004 issue of strategy:

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’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, 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.