Throughout the 1960s and early 70s, Dominion Stores ruled the food retailing roost. Loblaws was a distant number-two, but perceived as pricey. The stores looked tired, the service was inconsistent, and the prospects for the future were bleak.
Loblaws needed a makeover, and imported a management team from Weston’s U.K. Operation to execute the change. The plan called for Loblaws to literally reposition itself overnight, with employees working round the clock to reduce the pricing on every article, restock with fresh produce, and spruce up each store’s appearance. The staff were given new uniforms and assigned a new upbeat attitude.
V&B’s role was to provide the advertising and promotional support. We developed a campaign, built around 10 promises that Loblaws would make to its customers -– lowest prices, cleanest stores, freshest produce, etc. Some things would take time, so we needed customers to know that Loblaws understood their needs and was moving forward to satisfy them.
The promise platform needed a pitch man -- someone with energy, enthusiasm and credibility. We thought Bill Shatner was the right guy for the job.
Many weeks before D-day, the agency and Loblaws U.K. management team assembled in our boardroom at 980 Yonge Street. Our job that day was to present the ad campaign. Television would be our primary medium, backed up by radio and newspaper. The weight levels would be unprecedented and, in time, set a new standard for television. But the crown jewel in the campaign was the television creative. We believed we had hit a homerun before we entered that room, but it takes two to tango and our principal client -– an inscrutable Englishman -- had to believe in it, too. We built to the moment when we would unveil the signature line, the statement that would reposition Loblaws in the minds of its customers, the words that Shatner would deliver at the close of every spot:
“At Loblaws, more that the price is right.”
Until that moment, the feeling in the room had been reserved, but quietly accepting. These were conservative Englishmen, after all, so we weren’t too worried. But when that line was presented the room suddenly took on an eerie silence…nothing. We waited…nothing. Then that Englishman, that staunch, stiff upper lipped Englishman, broke the silence:
“More than the price is right, but by gosh the price is right.”
We were too invested in this campaign to allow someone, anyone, even a major client, to tamper with it, but in an instant a great signature line had been made that much greater. In a hare’s breath, Bremner and O’Malley acknowledged the contribution.
The promise platform, Shatner’s performance, the signature line, the breakthrough media strategy, Loblaws commitment to live up to their promises, eventually vaulted Loblaws above Dominion Stores and made the Loblaws campaign arguably the greatest and most memorable Canadian retail campaign of all time.
One of V&B’s clients in the 1970s was CCM. We loved CCM because we loved hockey, passionately.
CCM was synonymous with hockey. Summer after summer, generations of aspiring young hockey players would count the days until the Eaton’s winter catalogue arrived. Then, they would sneak those glossy pages out of the house and sit on some curb or in some empty field with their buddies and ogle the new line of CCM hockey equipment. Oh, to own a pair of CCM Tacks with their Kangaroo skin leather. CCM equipment was the stuff that dreams were made of.
To assist CCM with product development and promote the brand, V&B formed the CCM Advisory Board. The members were the legends of hockey, players like Frank Mahovlich and Bobby Hull.
Whenever the group met, those of us who worked on the business made sure we were on hand to observe the process.
In those days, V&B was flying high and making major investments in people. One of those individuals was Jerry Friedland, an outstanding Research Director from Chicago. Growing up in Chicago, Jerry had become an inveterate Blackhawk fan. A female acquaintance of mine turned out to be a good friend of Jerry’s wife, Maryanne, so I had the opportunity to meet the whole family, including Jerry’s ten-year old son, Mark (I believe), who loved hockey even more than Jerry.
Not long after Jerry joined the agency, he suffered a stroke while attending a client meeting. Fortunately, Jerry survived, but he was in very rough shape. A month or so later, I received a call from Maryanne. She told me that Mark was taking his dad’s illness very hard, and was wondering if I could think of anything that might lift his spirits. As luck would have it, the CCM Advisory Board was scheduled to meet the following week, so I suggested having Mark join me that day. Maryanne jumped at the idea, and the arrangements were made.
When we entered the Advisory Board meeting, all decked out in new equipment, the players were preoccupied with a discussion at the far end of the room, and didn’t even notice us. Joanne Hull, Bobby’s wife, had accompanied him that day, and was close by. I went over to her, introduced myself and told her why I was there and who my young friend was. Joanne smiled at me. Then she went over to Bobby, took him aside and explained the situation. After a minute or so, Bobby came over and greeted me. He said he knew just what to do and then went over to Mark to say hello. I will never forget the look on Mark’s face, standing there with the greatest Chicago Blackhawk player in history. Bobby took Mark over to meet the rest of the players, introducing them one at a time.
Joanne quietly took each of the players aside and briefed them on the situation. Bobby and Joanne treated Mark like a son that day. And the rest of the players were great, too -– inviting Mark into the discussion, treating him like an equal. Mark’s spirits soared.
Bobby Hull was a great hockey player, but he was never a greater man than he was that day.
Like most agencies, V&B was full of all kinds of people. At one end of the spectrum were flamboyant personalities like Al Massey or, as we used to call him, “Gucci Al”. Al had a swagger and knew how to spend money. At the other end of the spectrum were the quiet unassuming people like Ken McRitchie, a print production specialist who toiled in the trenches, but did an outstanding job for us and for our clients.
Bob Strutt ran the Ford business at V&B, ably assisted by Don Murphy, the creative head on the account. Don was also a terrific artist and one of the funniest guys you could ever have worked with. One day, Bob and Don were returning from a client meeting at Ford, in Oakville, when they became involved in a horrendous car accident. Their car was completely demolished, but fortunately they were not injured. News of the accident spread like wildfire throughout the agency, putting everyone on edge. Later that day, Bob and Don returned, entering the agency like conquering heroes. They were immediately met by a throng of people anxious to know all the details.
Bob told his side of the story. Then it was Don’s turn. He described how a truck had appeared out of nowhere and knocked Strutt’s car into the middle of next week. Then Don turned to everyone and said, “But you know the worst part?” (You could have heard a pin drop.) “As we hurtled through the air and I heard the sound of breaking metal, Ken McRitchie’s life that passed before my eyes.”
Through our long-standing association with Al Eagleson, V&B became involved in the 1972 Canada Russia Series. Our role was to organize the television broadcast, which included arranging the telecast time with CTV and CBC, estimating the television audience, and determining the cost of television sponsorship. Two of our clients, Ford and CCM, seemed like natural sponsors. Ford had a long association with Hockey Night in Canada, and CCM owned the hockey equipment market.
A meeting was arranged with Bill Hawkins, the Vice President of Marketing at Ford to pitch Ford’s involvement in the Series. We met with “the Hawk”, as we called him. He was a terrific guy, about 6’ 2” with grey hair and a physical presence that commanded great respect. After hearing the story, how we had arrived at the audience estimates, the cost of sponsorship, and the projected cost per thousand, he paused and said, “Okay, we’re in, but if you’re wrong, you’ll lose our business.” Perhaps he was testing our resolve, maybe he was pulling our leg, or possibly he was serious…we’ll never know. Fortunately, we never had to find out. The Series generated the largest television audiences in recorded history -– coming within 1% of projections and delivering outstanding advertising value.
If you wanted to see Bill Bremner, V&B's chairman, his office door was always open. However, there was a very good chance that any face-to-face discussion would be interrupted by an incoming phone call. One day, I decided to have a little fun with Bill. I put my hands on an orphaned telephone receiver that had been used by a long-departed media estimator who had been hearing impaired. I stuffed the receiver into the inside pocket of my suit jacket. Then I went to Nadia Ostapchuk, Bill's assistant, and asked her to interrupt my meeting with Bill by dialing his number and letting the phone ring twice before hanging up.
About 5 minutes into my meeting with Bill, his phone rang right on cue. As Bill got up to answer it, I pulled the concealed receiver from my inside pocket, put the receiver to my ear, and said, "Bill, I believe this call is for me." Bill usually had a comeback, but not that time. He just laughed.
This is just a small example of how loose and relaxed we were in those days. We kidded each other, and no one took themselves too seriously.