Syd Kessler passes away at 74

The radio heavyweight and NABS co-founder was also one of Canada's earliest proponents of digital advertising and ecommerce.

Syd Kessler, who was a dominant business force in radio and commercial production before becoming a pioneer in the early days of ecommerce, passed away on March 7. He was 74 years old.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Kessler entered the workforce in the mid-60s. Between gigs writing for shows like Laugh-In and Wayne and Schuster, creating the game show The Crosswits and a brief stint as a CNR train conductor, Kessler also worked in radio advertising, first for Chuck Blore Creative Services in Los Angeles and later for Cockfield Brown in Toronto. After leaving Cockfield Brown, Kessler started his own agency, Words and Music Organization, in 1974. It would later be renamed Kessler, Morrison, Meteskey and Giacomelli, and then again to Kessler Music.

In 1981, Kessler acquired Berryman Studios and Sounds Interchange to form The Air Company. The Kessler Music Group became a dominant advertising agency and a go-to for radio ads for companies including Coca-Cola, Esso, Air Canada and McDonald’s.

In 1988, Labatt bought Kessler Music, with its founder helping to launch and run a joint venture called Supercorp, a new commercial production entity. Supercorp would make a series of other acquisitions in short order, with holdings including media agency HYPN (now known as PHD Canada) and Partners Film. At its peak, Supercorp reportedly controlled 68% of all commercial production in Canada, and also had a role in TV production, producing series including the RoboCop TV adaptation.

A “change in corporate direction” regarding the importance of media to Labatt’s overall business led Kessler to sell his stake in Supercorp in 1994, one of several departures and buybacks from the venture. The following year, Labatt was forced to sell off Supercorp, as well as all of its other remaining media and communications holdings, to clear regulatory approvals for its acquisition by Interbrew, now AB InBev.

While his roots in the industry and most sizeable business successes were tied to broadcast, Kessler also had an undeniable role in where advertising was headed.

He used the sale of his Supercorp shares to start The Kessler Group, which had the stated mission of helping advertising move away from its broadcast-first approach, an urgent need he identified as broadcast was less measurable and the world became increasingly digitized. Though it was then referred to the now-outdated term “narrowcasting,” the new mindset proved prescient about where advertising was heading: using digital technology to tailor messages to individuals, producing improved results, cost savings and measurability.

Kessler’s time on the leading edge of digital business combined well with new experience he picked up during his time running Supercorp, when he became more familiar with the retail sector and acted as a consultant for several clients. In 1997, Kessler became co-director of KPMG’s fledgling ecommerce practice, helping clients understand and develop their earliest “bricks and clicks” approaches.

Though he retired in 2000, Kessler still invested in new businesses and mentored their leadership. It was in this capacity that he became co-founder of strategic insights consultancy Scientific Intelligence and advertising and design firm Wunderkind, both of which came together with Bleublancrouge to create strategic think-tank L’Institut Idée in 2013. Scientific Intelligence became known for its Structural Mapping strategic process, while Wunderkind’s notable work included the “Because I’m A Girl” campaign for Plan Canada.

Outside of his business ventures, in 1983, Kessler was one of the co-founders of NABS, establishing a group to help people through job and mental health struggles in the high-pressure world of advertising and media. He was also a founding member of Kids Help Phone in 1989. He was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Legends in 2014.