I looked on Google the other day for anything on V&B, but could not find much. I googled Terry O’Malley and found his archives, donated to Brock University. I googled Bill Bremner and John Alexander…Nothing. What a shame. Some of the greatest guys in the business, and one of the greatest agencies of its time, all but forgotten…
I decided to put down a few of my own stories on the internet, and hope that others of our era will add theirs.
V&B was an amazing place. It deserves to be remembered.
John Alexander was the first V&B person I met. It was 1970 and I was working for another agency. I needed a theme for a Monsanto sales meeting, and decided to use horse racing. I called V&B, as they had the Jockey Club account, and was directed to John. “Come right up,” he said, “whatever you need.” John was the most enthusiastic guy I ever met; he provided everything and more, and it gave me a taste of V&B. In the many years we worked together at V&B before his untimely death from cancer, he became my best friend. His boisterous laugh echoed down the hall. He burst through closed doors unabandoned. He loved his job and he loved life, and his clients thought he could do no wrong. They were right. John was not your typical ad guy -- he didn’t know a strategy or a marketing plan from a hole in the ground, but his intuition and care for the client’s success were centenary. If you wanted something done, all you had to do was ask John. He never let anyone down. If you wanted to talk to him, it was simply a matter of shutting your door and counting to ten.
We put him in charge of the very large and prestigious McDonald’s business, and it took them about one meeting to know why. “What do you need?” Done. Next. There were at least a hundred McDonald’s jobs going through the agency at any one time -- this before computers and blackberries -- and John knew absolutely where everyone stood. No problemo. In his spare time he was a very active council member for Orangeville, and a tireless advocate to save the Niagara Escarpment from urban sprawl.
I should mention the Jockey Club Queen’s plate lunch. John knew I was a horse nut and invited me to the Queen’s Plate barbeque. It was amazing. It was held outside in a paddock, all the owners and media were there, and one by one they paraded the horses entered in the Plate past the crowd. It was terrific. I insisted each year that John invite me back.
John and fashion advice…
John was not a fashion plate. His suits were usually rumpled and his tie askew. (It’s important to know this for the story.) John was helping Mel Lastman with his campaign for North York mayor, and also Marilyn Lastman with hers, as she had decided to run for North York Council. We were in our boardroom and John had asked me to sit in. Mel and Marilyn are hilarious together. Anyway, at one point in time John started talking about a brochure for Marilyn. He said, “We will need a photo, wear something simple like –” That’s as far as he got. Marilyn, who had a reputation as a champion shopper and who always dressed to the nines, leveled her gaze at John and said, “You’re not seriously giving ME fashion advice are you? It takes $10,000 dollars to look this good.” John was about to try and get out of his predicament, when Marilyn broke up and so did Mel.
The second person I met in 1972, Bill Bremner. I got a call from a headhunter telling me that there were three senior account positions available, one of which was V&B. I said, “Stop right there. That is where I want to be.” I was to meet with Bill, then President of the agency. A powerhouse of a personality, Bill, thank goodness, hired me and became my mentor for the next 17 years. Bill was the first agency guy to see the advantages of bringing all services (PR, Promotion, Direct Marketing, etc.) under one banner. He gave a chance to anybody with a good idea.
Oddly, he didn’t have a desk. And he had no paper in his office.
The day I was hired, Bill asked if I was busy that afternoon. (Remember that I had not even resigned or given any notice to my current employer.) “Heinz are coming in to brief us for their shortlist. Why don’t you sit in.” I did. As we were leaving the boardroom, Bill said to me over his shoulder, “This is important, Don, you’d better get it.” “What?” He wasn’t kidding.
I went back to the other agency, resigned, gave two weeks notice, and then spent every night for the next two weeks working at V&B on the pitch. My first official day was the pitch day and we won. That was the kind of faith Bill put in me from day one, and I would have walked through fire for him. Some of my fondest memories of V&B are the hours spent in Bill’s office discussing business.
One of the senior creative people also ran a t-shirt business from his garage. One night it burned down and he lost all his stock and supplies. He was very upset and didn’t think the bank would loan him the money to start again. I suggested he ask Bill if the company could loan him the money. He was reluctant to ask, so I walked down the hall, explained the problem to Bill, and asked if we could loan the employee $10,000.
“No, that’s kind of tough,” Bill said, “but have him come and see me.” Bill wrote him a personal check for the money. Through fire.
A presentation to the Board of the Toronto Toros of the new WHA.
Bill and Terry were part owners of the team, along with about a dozen business guys including John Eaton, Doug Bassett and George Cohon (this was before we were McDonald’s agency.) The agency had developed the name, team logo and jersey design, and we were to present it all to the board. Don Murphy had done the design, and he and I and Ron Bremner were to present. Now Bill was the coolest guy on earth. But not that day. He was incredibly nervous about the meeting. “When you guys come in and present, no silliness (he knew us well). Just come in and present the stuff and leave.” “Sure,” we said. Ten minutes later he added, “When you come in, just acknowledge the group, present the name, logo and shirt. NO jokes.” He told us three more times in the car on the way to Eaton’s boardroom. We sat quietly in the hall as the meeting came to order. About a half hour later, Bill came out of the room. “OK, you’re on. Remember, in and out, no fooling.”
We entered the room. You could smell the money. I introduced our group, and was just about to tell them what we were going to present when Gary Reinblatt (Director of Marketing of McDonald’s) and Ronald McDonald burst in the door. Ronald was blowing up balloons, dropping fake milkshakes on their laps, etc. Then Gary read a message from George. They left, and Ron, Murph and I were still standing at the front of the room. Our instructions at least ten times had been not to fool around, but we had been usurped by a clown. Advertising, you gotta love it.
About a year after I left the agency in 1989 (which was the hardest decision of my life), I was invited to be a partner in my own agency. The second hardest decision. I needed advice…I needed Bill’s advice. I called V&B and got him on the line. I said. “Bill, I need to talk to you. Can I come down sometime?” “Of course,” he said. “I’ve got two meetings this afternoon here, then I have another uptown. How about Monday at 10?” “Fine, thanks, see you then.”
I didn’t get ten paces from the phone when it rang. “Don, it’s Nadia. Bill wants to talk to you.” He asked, “It’s important, isn’t it?” “Yes,” I said. “Come right now; I’m cancelling all the other meetings.” I repeat, I would have walked through fire for the guy. Bill passed away in xxxx from diabetes. And there have been a hundred times since that wish I could still talk to him.
The Third Character in the play was Terry O’Malley. The most creative guy I ever met, the greatest jock, and the best copywriter in Canada. Bar none. Ask Terry for an idea and get 50. And they always came in multiples of 5. If he had 50 and got one more, then he worked until he had 55. Discipline. And there was always a red herring in the list just to make me laugh. Terry created some of the most famous and memorable advertising in Canada and is still doing it.
“Curt, we’re having a brainstorming, come on in.” “Curt, we’re working on a new campaign, run on down.” He was the first creative person to invite me into the creative circle and I loved it. It was one of the magic things about the agency. There were no boundaries; we all just did good work together. Terry kept a children’s tin sand pail on his coffee table, full of candies to encourage people to come in and talk. Not being able to resist jujubes, I drained the tin on many occasions. When I left the agency, Terry gave me the pail, full of jujubes. It was a huge and meaningful gesture to both of us. I kept the pail in a place of honour for 17 years, and recently gave it back to him with the proviso that he return it to me in another 17 years. Heck, I’ll only be 84 and jujubes will probably be the only thing I can chew.
First day on the job. I was in Terry’s office and a hockey game broke out. I was to learn later that this was a common practice, as Terry’s office was filled with hockey sticks, baseball bats, etc. I assumed goal against a glass partition wall, Terry and John would take shots at me, the orange road hockey ball ricocheting off the glass. At that point in time, Bill Bremner walked around the corner, and I felt like a kid playing road hockey when the police drove down your street -- you want to run. I thought my career at V&B was over. Bill simply took the goalie stick, pushed me aside, and said, “You call that goaltending? Let me show you how it’s done.” I had found a home.
Terry O’ Malley had a running joke about a book he would one day write about his life in advertising. The book title changed with silly comments from clients. They would make a statement and I would see Terry writing it down on a corner of his notepad. My two favourite titles came about as follows.
We had been developing ads for a detergent and had tried a zillion ideas, all of which were rejected by a client who was afraid to make a decision for fear of criticism from his boss. Terry presented a commercial in which Don Burwash, then the Ontario Tennis Champion, would serve fresh, pristine white tennis balls on a grass court. The grass stains pounded in at 100 miles per hour, then the tennis balls would be washed in the new detergent. The client mulled it over for what seemed like forever and then said, and I quote, “Terry, can you really wash a tennis ball sincerely?” Title number one.
We had been in a meeting with a brewery and the chairman, a rather blustery individual, said to Terry, “Say Terry, I have been thinking we need one of those corporate campaigns.” “OK. What do you want to say about the company?” Terry asked. The chairman’s answer led to the new book title: “You know, integrity and all that shit.”
There are two corollaries to the tennis ball quote. Years later, Terry and I were walking down Yonge Street and ran into the marketing guy who had made the comment. We stopped and chatted for a minute. “Good to see you guys,” he said, “I often think of the good old days when we worked together.” We are still wondering what good old days he was referring to. Many, many years later, Strategy Magazine did a special tribute issue to Terry’s career. And they invited anyone who wanted to run an ad in support of him in the issue. I ran an ad that said, “Congratulations Terry -- can you really wash a tennis ball, sincerely?” I knew he would get it immediately. And he did.
Character #4: Ron Bremner, Bill’s brother and agency media director. Nepotism? So? Ron was really good at his job and is still doing it all these years later at BBM. Media is intensely time and deadline driven, and I never saw Ron in a flap. He just got it done, everyday.
I was walking through the media department once, and saw Ron standing with a baseball bat. OK, it happens. I picked a piece of paper off a desk as I was going by, scrunched it up and threw a perfect strike. He swung and put the bat right through the wall. We looked at each other and Ron said, “Let’s cheese it before the cops come.” Just another day at V&B.
I called Ron last year, after many years of no contact in my retirement. “Hey, Ron. Don Curtis. How you doing?” We had a terrific conversation, and I asked if he could send me an old copy of Canadian Rates and Data. “I’ll drive it right down.” he said. “Ron, I’m in Kingston now.” “I know, but I’m leaving right now, see you in a couple of hours.” And he did.
Bryan Vaughan. Gentleman, owner of V&B after Rex Vickers and Don Benson, Chairman of the Board, major player in the Liberal Government, PR man, journalist. Best connected guy I ever met. Never forgot a name. I had the pleasure of sitting in the office next to Bryan’s for a couple of years, and saw his discipline -- the first 20 minutes of his day always began with contact phone calls. Take the plane to Ottawa with Bryan, and everyone on the plane addressed him by name as we went down the aisle. I was at the V&B table at the PM’s dinner at the Sheraton Centre, the guest of honour, Pierre Trudeau. As the procession passed our table, Pierre jumped out of the line and ran over to speak with Bryan. Well connected.
I was sitting in the boardroom with the folks from Heinz. Tom Smyth, the President of Heinz, pulled out a letter they had received from Beryl Plumtree, head of the Federal Food Price Review Board. It was a big deal and Tom asked if we knew anything about what kind of presentation was required. I said that I did not, but that I would go and ask Bryan if he knew anything. I walked down the hall, knocked on his door and asked him. In his formal and often humble way, he asked if he could come down and talk to them. He put out his pipe, put on his suit jacket, and we went down the hall to the boardroom. Tom showed Bryan the letter and asked if he knew or could find out what was required. I’ll never forget the reply. “Oh, yes,” he said, “I’m on the Committee.” You could have knocked us all over with a feather.
Years after Bryan retired and when he was in his 80’s, I used to run into him at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair. His memory was always faultless. “Don, good to see you. How are Dianne, Greg and Daniel? How are things at Goodgoll Curtis, and how are the folks at Esso?” When Bryan died, the huge Timothy Eaton Church was full to the last seat, out of respect for this amazing guy.
One of our senior writers, Terry Hill, was a huge Elvis fan and was always going around singing Elvis songs or striking the famous Elvis end of show pose. The day Elvis died, Terry stuck his head in my door and said, “TODAY, Elvis wishes he was me.” I still think it was a brilliant line.
Don Murphy, Senior Creative Director on Ford, and one of the key builders of the agency. John Lyons, master organizer and TV producer. Glenn Arscott, Creative Director and scourge of the account executives. Paul Joyce, writer extraordinaire. Bob Strutt, account director, Ford. Peter Mills, best account guy ever, and Account Director on Gulf.
New Business Pitches...the lifeblood of an agency. And we had more than our share. Mostly good, but not all.
McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada. January 1979.
We had received a new business questionnaire from McDonald’s, informing us that they were doing an agency search. We filled out the questionnaire and sent it in. A few weeks later, Terry got a call from Gary Reinblatt, V.P. Marketing of McDonald’s, informing him that we were on the short list of six, and that they would cut it down to four for the final. Gary said that a group from McDonald’s would be visiting the agency – unannounced -- to look around, talk to people, etc. A week later, Terry got a call saying that they were on their way down. Now. We had about an hour. Terry sent a memo to the staff telling them of the visit, and asking everyone to welcome them. The response was amazing. Gary and group arrived, and were quickly running from office to office to see the results. “Look at this one.” “No. Wait. You have to see this one.” McDonald’s was always a great audience.
Glenn Arscott had covered his entire window with yellow paper, except for one three inch square cut out. He placed two yellow paper footprints at his door, and when you stood on the prints, the only thing you saw out the hole was the McDonald’s logo at the franchise up the street. Great. Tom Fenney ran up to McDonald’s to get a bunch of cups and fry containers, and made an elaborate mobile which hung from his ceiling. Bill (by then Chairman) put a sign on his door in McDonald’s colours proclaiming that, “The McBuck Stops Here.” At that time, there was a McDonald’s commercial on the air with an old crossing guard named Mr. Quigley. I put a sign on my door that read, “I helped Mr. Quigley across the street.” Needless to say, the messages propelled us onto the short list of four.
The briefing was all four agencies in the room, questions had to be asked, and no contact with any McDonald’s person was allowed after that. We had two weeks to prepare a credentials presentation. We were to go third, the morning of the second day. McDonald’s had rented two huge rooms in the Sheraton Hotel to allow each group time to prepare. The audience included over 100 people from head office, and all the licencees from Ontario. It was a busy 2 weeks.
Our presentation went well. The questions at the end, good. We left pumped, but nervous, as we were told it would take several days for them to make a decision.
The next day, I was in Mississauga filming a Heinz TV spot when Bill called. George Cohon (President of McDonald’s) was on his way down to ask us a few more questions, and he wanted to talk to the whole team. “Can you get back here right away?” We all assembled in Bill’s office, wondering what we had forgotten to say, what possibly George needed to ask. At the appointed time, there was a huge noise from the lobby. I jumped up from Bill’s office and rounded the corner to find 100 people, every McDonald’s person from the day before. They all headed into the boardroom. George got on our PA and asked all staff to come to the boardroom, too. The room holds about 20, but there were 100 of them and 180 of us.
George announced that we had won and were the new agency for McDonald’s! Overnight, they had printed T-shirts that read “V&B and McDonald’s” in our respective logos. They had brought hundreds of Big Macs and milkshakes, etc. The party lasted for an hour, and then George announced that both they and we had work to do. As the McDonald’s people were leaving, crew kids arrived to clean our boardroom. It was like a military operation and gave you a sense of how disciplined (and crazy) these guys were.
We sat there stunned. “What can we do right away to respond?” asked Bill. It was agreed we would run a full page ad in the Globe & Mail the next morning. Terry went off to write it, Ron called the paper to book the space. But it was going to be close in order to get the artwork to the paper on time. When McDonald’s opened the Globe the next day, a full page ad greeted them saying, “We Really Believe in What You Do, too.” A play on our agency theme. Ta Da!
My favourite McDonald’s commercial? "Gallagher", written by Terry O’Malley.
The commercial opens on a young boy about 11, sitting in a school classroom. The lunch bell rings. One of the other boys says to the young boy, “Hey, Gallagher! Coming to lunch?” The boy replies, “No. Got something I have to do.” His reply was delivered in such a tone that the viewer knew something important awaited. The boy scrunches up a piece of paper and tosses it across the class into the garbage pail. The next scene, we see the boy walking down the street; it was shot low, so that the boy is dwarfed by the adults on the street. The boy turns into a McDonald’s. All we see is the sign and then a close up of a McDonald’s bag. Then the boy back on the street. The next scene, the boy is sitting in an office reception area, the bag at his feet. Three men in shirt sleeves enter a door, they are in conversation. One, who is the boy’s father, sees his son and is somewhat surprised. The next scene, the father and son are walking down the hall and turn the corner out of sight of the camera. The receptionist says, “Mr. Gallagher, you’re needed in production.” The father leans back around the wall to camera view and says, “No, Mr. Gallagher is needed right here.” It always gave me a chill. The last scene, we see the boy and his father sitting in the father’s office talking and eating lunch. It is shot from across the room with no focus on the food. The father scrunches up the bag and tosses it across the room into his garbage pail. You never know the reason for the visit.
Now the results. McDonald’s measures everything. Best restaurant, best for hot food, best for service, best for friendly staff, best for value, etc. The commercial showed no food, no service, no staff. Yet, when the commercial ran, all the ratings went through the roof. Why? Because people loved the story and accepted it without question. McDonald’s was part of everyday life.
The story goes that Bill and Terry went to pitch the Canadian Dairy Bureau. The audience, 12 dairy farmers, uncomfortable in their ill-fitting city suits, large hands rough and calloused. Bill and Terry began their pitch, the audience showed no expression, asked no questions, had no comments. Midway through his presentation, Terry (who was sweating) took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and carried on. He didn’t think about it or plan it. On the drive back to the agency, Bill remarked how badly it had gone, that the farmers had not reacted to anything and didn’t seem even interested in the case histories. Oh, well, can’t win ‘em all.
The next day, the Marketing Manager phoned to award V&B the business. “The Board absolutely loved you guys. They all commented that when that young man took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, he was the kind of guy they wanted to work with.” You just never know.
We had flown down to Montreal to pitch Air Canada. We had done a fair amount of research with travellers, and began our presentation with the results. We reported that travelers didn’t like AC food and service. The audience reacted with extreme anger: “Who said that? How dare you criticize our business.” They literally threw us out.
We had gone out to pitch Parker Brothers Toys. The assignment was to develop creative for a board game called Gambler. At the start of the presentation, we handed out gambler shirt arm bands and eye shades. They didn’t hear a thing we said, they just played with their arm bands and shades, and we won the business. Schtick works.
Canada’s Wonderland. When you’re hot, you’re hot.
Bill called Wonderland, hearing that they were looking for an agency, this even before the Park was built. “We have seen over 50 agencies and we don’t need to see anymore. In fact, we have decided on our top three.” Bill asked for one hour. “No.”
Somehow he talked them into a one hour meeting. As we drove up the drive to a rough office, Terry said, “Look, they have the bulldozer ride in already.”
We spent an hour talking about the agency and a few clients, and made the short list of three. Just like that, and we won the account in the subsequent pitch. Hot. Hot. Hot.
We arrived at the Star for the pitch to find a very nervous bunch of Star employees. They announced that Beland Honderich was coming to the meeting, and it obviously completely threw them. We went through the pitch, asked for questions, and only Beland spoke. As we were leaving, he stood at the door and shook hands with each of us. When I got to him, I said, “Mr. Honderich, I would like you to know that I have more seniority here at the Star than you do.” “How is that young man?” he replied. “My father worked here for 43 years and my uncle for 52, so that makes 95 years,” I said. “Who were they?” he asked, and I told him. He shook my hand again: “I knew them both well, fine men, fine men. You do have more seniority, young man.”
I don’t know if my statement helped, you never know, but we won the account and I handled the Star’s advertising for 10 years, so I claim a hundred and five years history at the Star.
Worst client? Hands down, Beecham.
They were vicious and rude. Treated their own people and the agency people like dirt. Bill called us all into his office. “What do you want to do about Beecham?” he said. Our unanimous reply: “Fire them!” He called the president and told them that we were no longer willing to work with them, given their behaviour and complete lack of respect for our people. They were incensed. How dare we! Ten points for Bill. Great day. Believe it or not, about six months later I had a call from the VP Marketing of Beecham. “Don, I have left Beecham and was wondering if you know of any marketing jobs and if you could put a good word in for me.” Yeah, Right.
Corollary. Years later, Marketing Magazine called Terry. They were doing a story on best and worst clients and wanted Terry to name three of each.” But you can’t pick Beecham as the worst, because everybody else already has. Great reputation to have.
Second worse client -- Bristol Myers. They ran on fear and nothing got done.
Best Client? McDonald’s. For a hundred reasons. Here’s one. After 30 some years as a V&B client, Ford decided to consolidate their business worldwide with Y&R. A huge blow to the agency and completely out of our control. Several days after the announcement, George Cohon called me. “Don, we have a new breakfast sandwich, can we come down tomorrow morning and have the staff sample it?” I said of course, and George suggested we have the entire staff assembled in the (two-storey) lobby at 9 a.m. George and all the senior McDonald’s people arrived by bus with food for two hundred people. The food was passed out, then George addressed us all. “We wanted to take this opportunity to tell you how much we appreciate all the great work you do for us.” He spoke for about five minutes, talking about the agency. The visit and the sampling had, of course, nothing to do with the sandwich. It was McDonald’s way of trying to cheer us up at a tough time. Best client for 99 other reasons as well.
And they were best friends on a personal level. A personal story. Seven years after I had stopped working on the account and now had my own business, I was in hospital with a serious operation. The day after the operation, two people showed up at my room with a letter from George and two huge hampers of food. The note said, “Hope you are feeling better. Throw a party for the hospital staff. George.” My son, Daniel, went down to the nurses’ station and they broadcast a message on the PA. Within minutes, nurses, doctors, and orderlies flooded the floor and the food disappeared. The attention I got for the rest of my stay was overwhelming. How smart is George?
Second story. Richmond Chandler, the former licensee from Milton, happened to phone the agency and ask for me. He was told I away for two months. “Where is he?” Rich asked. “We not at liberty to say,” was the reply. He threatened to tear the place down if he wasn’t told. They did, and he was at my house in an hour.
Terry had set up a scholarship for students of the Irish Advertising Association. Each year, the Association picked the top student and their reward was to come to Canada for a week and work at V&B. It was a huge deal for them. The top three received special diplomas from V&B. They were a big deal, too. Terry walked into my office one day and said, “How would you like to go to Ireland and present the diplomas?” My wife and I flew to Shannon, and drove across to Dublin and the agency that we worked through. It was 1 p.m. when we got there. It was locked up. I knocked on the door repeatedly, and an elderly lady finally came to the door and gently informed me that in Ireland, business shut down from noon to 2:00 every day for lunch. How civil.
That night, the ceremony was held at the agency, with the three winners in attendance and the Lord High Mayor of Dublin. A big deal. (My maternal grandmother was born in Ireland.) Terry had written lyrics to a song for the Irish Tourist Board, which I quoted in my presentation to the winners, and for some reason they stay in my head now some thirty years later.
Ireland is castles and linen and lace,
I know you’ll be struck by the charm of the place,
I can still see the girl who’s the Rose of Tralee,
and Irish eyes smiling in old Killarney.
We toured around for a week and it was terrific.
The father of Rubel and Schwab, Generations Research, and Day Advertising. I claim this title, but it really belongs to Bill and Terry. V&B gained the reputation of giving entrepreneurs a chance. Bill encouraged talent, and was willing to put money behind people with a good idea.
#1. Andy Day read an article by Terry that said V&B supported people with good ideas and called Terry to enquire about it. Terry confirmed that we did, and asked Andy to come in and talk to me. Andy had run a very successful agency in Britain that placed only classified employment ads. No such service existed in Canada. The idea made sense based on Andy’s numbers, and we subsequently met with Bill, who quickly decided to back the new company. Thirty-one years later, it is still a very successful company.
#2. We had been doing a lot of research with Goody Teachman (Gerner), and she asked me one day if we would be interested in helping her set up her own research company. We were, and again it proved to be a good investment.
#3. I had a call from Phil Rubel, who asked if it was true that V&B would back new young companies. I said yes, and he asked if he and Gord Schwab could come and see me. They had started a small pharmaceutical division at another agency, and felt that they were not being given any resources or encouragement. Phil proposed moving the company to V&B. The deal: office space, access to V&B services that they would pay for. The existing agency had no contract with them, and they moved in. Again, a very profitable move for V&B. Twenty-five years later, I was at a horse show at a friend’s farm, and who had a horse being trained there but Gord Schwab. Gord introduced me to his wife as “the father of our company.”
Bill was always being asked to sit on various committees, and would invariably assign (read shanghai) one of us into going in his place. “Don, there is some government committee meeting in Ottawa tonight at 5; can you get a plane and go?” “What is it?” I asked. “Something about wages. Keith (Davey) is chairing it; it’s in the Langevin building, right across from the Parliament.”
Sounded simple enough, but it became a series of meetings for several months, planes to Ottawa at 3 p.m., back at midnight. Off I went blindly to Ottawa, not knowing any more about the committee, its purpose or who was on it. A typical Bill assignment. I found the building and the room, walked in, and was confronted by the heads of some of the largest corporations in Canada, at least half of the Federal cabinet, and several Senators. “Holy crap, Batman!” The 6&5 Committee had been struck for business and government to devise ways of asking businesses to hold wages for the next two years to 6 & 5 percent, in order to control inflation. Hank Carpus and I were the only ad guys.
Cut to the final meeting. We arrived to find three TV sets in the room. The Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, was giving the last of three addresses to the country that evening at 9 p.m. We had the meeting, and at nine turned on the TV to watch the speech. At about 10, the meeting was winding up when the door burst open and in walked Pierre Trudeau. He filled the room instantly. His presence was amazing. He sat down beside Senator Davey and asked, “How was the speech?” Keith said he thought it was the weakest of the three nights. “Marc (Lalonde, Minister of Justice), what did you think?” Marc replied that he thought the PM looked tired, and that it was certainly not the best of the three nights. My instant impression was that you did not lie to Pierre, and that you did not patronize him. Pierre accepted the criticism and then switched gears to humour. “Are these TV’s just here to watch the speech?” he asked Keith. “Yes.” “Oh, is the meeting over?” “Yes.” “Are the fellows leaving?” “What do you want?” Keith asked, recognizing the PM was joking. Pierre replied, “The Canadiens are playing tonight, let’s watch the game.” The TV’s were tuned to the last of the third period. I sat there, five feet from Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, watching a hockey game. Wow! I got home around 1:30 that night, and woke my wife up to tell her that I watched a hockey game with the PM. I still think that it was cool.
He did it to me again a year later. “Don, Iona Campanola is having some meeting about food. They are meeting at 4 at the Laurier. Can you make it?” I flew to Ottawa, arrived at the hotel, and no one knew anything about the meeting. Nothing booked, nothing on the roster. “What is the name of the group?” asked the concierge. I didn’t know. “Who all is in the meeting?” I didn’t know. I called Bill, but he wasn’t in and Nadia had no information. I called Senator Davey’s secretary. She had no knowledge of the meeting. I was about to leave the hotel and fly back to Toronto, when Iona Campanola walked by the phone booth. The meeting consisted of about six people and was about world hunger -- not something I knew much about, but it was a typical Bill assignment.
A very personal story. My father was a terrific runner as a young man. His idol was Jesse Owens. When I was a kid, he often told me about how great Jesse Owens was, and how he won 5 gold medals at the 1938 Olympics. In 1976, the agency was working on the Olympic Coin Program, and the spokesperson was Jesse Owens, a man now in his late 60’s. I was heading through the production department to pick something up, and there stood Jesse Owens, the greatest sprinter of all time, my Dad’s idol. I walked over and said, “Mr. Owens, I wonder if I could shake your hand. You were my father’s idol, and he talked a lot about your accomplishments. It is such an honour to meet you.” By now I had tears in my eyes. It was such an emotional moment for me, as my father had passed away the year before. Jesse Owens shook my hand and said, “I think maybe the honour is mine.” A great, great moment for me.
I am walking down the hall one day. “Hey, Curt, come and meet a couple of guys,” Terry called from down the hall. The guys were Darryl Sittler and Lanny MacDonald. Geez.
Ok. How I met Michael Jordan. McDonald’s had huge conventions in Chicago with all of their agencies worldwide. The ground floor of the hotel was occupied by hundreds of vendors who came to peddle their wares to the agencies for McDonald’s promotions and giveaways. And you always came away with bags of stuff. One booth had a nerf basketball game. There was a tall, good looking young man at the nerf booth. “Want to shoot a few,” he said to me. I did, thanked him and walked on. I ran into one of the fellows from McDonald’s, who excitedly said to me, “Did you meet Michael Jordan?” I confessed ignorance. It was early in Michael’s career. “He is going to be the greatest basketball player in history,” he virtually yelled at me. I sheepishly returned to the booth and asked THE Michael Jordan for an autograph.
How Bill and I met Don Larson. We were returning from L.A., but I can’t remember why, and we had a 45-minute stopover in Las Vegas. I decided to get off and look around, but Bill decided to stay on the plane and read. I walked into the lobby, and there must have been a hundred slot machines. Bill had to see this. Then I noticed Don Larson standing there reading a newspaper. Don Larson -- the only guy to pitch a perfect game in the World Series (1956). Ever. I rushed back to the plane. “Bill, you gotta get off, there are a hundred slot machines right inside the door and Don Larson is in there.” “Don Larson,” he said, “is my favourite ballplayer of all time.” We went in and introduced ourselves. And Bill won 40 bucks in a slot machine. Lucky day!
Others I met along the way:
Pierre Trudeau and most of his Cabinet; Ontario Premier David Peterson; Lieutenant Governors Lincoln Alexander and Hillary Weston; Toronto Mayors Eggleton, Crombie and Lastman; Wayne & Shuster; artist Ken Danby; Robert MacNamara, Secretary of Defence in the Kennedy White House; Gerry Rice, the greatest NFL pass receiver of all time; singer Kenny Loggins; most of the members of the Canadian Olympic Ski Team and Canadian Olympic Gym Team; Hall of Fame Jockey Sandy Hawley; Brian Budd, greatest athlete in the world --three times running; Princess Anne. And many, many more. Advertising, you gotta love it.
OK, the funeral story. Two chapters. Maudlin? Maybe. Bad taste? No. It was terrific.
We had been to the funeral of a fellow employee, Ross Downey, who succumbed to a long battle with cancer. Bill, Terry, Mike Koskie and myself returned to Bill’s office. We discussed the day. Talked about our friend and someone remarked about the eulogy, which was great. I looked over at Bill and said, “I have this image of going to your funeral.” He looked at me like I was insane. “You will be in the coffin, and Nadia will come in and announce that the Senator is on the phone. You will get up, leave your glasses, and exit the room. Leaving us all sitting there, wondering if you will be back.” He started to laugh, and must have laughed for ten minutes, tears streaming down his face -- the room broke up. Being on a roll, I said to Terry, “At your funeral, we’ll all be there and of course you won’t be. Kathy will come in and announce that you are out jogging and will be about a half hour late.” By now, we were all giddy with laughter and Terry added, “OK, smart guy, we’ll be at yours and you’ll be lying in the coffin saying, ‘This is terrific, this is the best darn funeral I have ever been to.’” When we left the office, Nadia, Bill’s secretary, said, “What in heavens name were you guys doing in there?” We were just being V&B.
Bill passed away all too young. We were standing at the grave side, a dreadful day, and I said to Terry, “Do you remember the funeral story?” He smiled and nodded. Take it or leave it, I still cherish the moment…
Many years after most of us had all parted ways and gone off to separate agencies, I called a bunch of the old gang and suggested we all go to St. Catharines and take in a baseball game. Terry was an owner of the St. Catharines Stompers baseball team, the Jays farm club. I reserved the front row of tickets and got about a dozen guys to go. Terry walked in and couldn’t believe it. A good moment. I told everybody to bring a ball glove, and asked Terry if following the game we could go on the field and throw a ball around. He had the groundskeeper keep the big lights on for us. And so there we were, a bunch of 40-50 year olds living out a Kinsella moment. Paul Joyce hollered over to me, “Curt, this is one of the highlights of my life.” It was one of mine, too, as it was three months after my cancerous kidney had been removed. Three months and I’m playing ball on a pro field. Geez.
I wish I had written down all the great one liners. The two masters of the one liners? Don Murphy and Paul Joyce. They fired them out like machine gun bullets, and the lines were always incredibly funny and bang on.
The Bear in the Room. Bryan Vaughan had accumulated a number of beautiful Eskimo sculptures, one of which was a large bear that sat on a pedestal in the boardroom. Prior to a pitch, I always rubbed the bear’s nose for luck. It worked more often than not. And speaking of the boardroom...
When we moved to our new building at Summerhill, there was a large blank wall at the back of the room. I remembered a large painting that we had once, but that I hadn’t seen for years. I started asking around, and found it behind a bank of filing cabinets in accounting. It was there because no one liked it. But it was the right size for the wall so I decided to hang it. Later in the day, Bill walked into the boardroom, noticed the painting, and immediately stated his objection. “But it’s the right size,” I said. “It’s dull,” Bill said. “Go read the signature,” I said with glee. He did, then turned and said, “You know, I always loved this painting.” He laughed and walked out of the room. The signature of the large original oil painting read 'Lauren Harris'. Another of Bryan’s purchases many years before. It hung there for years.
Was it all fun and games? Yes, I think that it was, and we were flying. McDonald’s, Bank of Montreal, Heinz, Dairy Bureau, etc. From $35 million to $180 million in 17 years. The work was terrific, the pace exciting, and everyone was involved. Magic.
Thanks for the Memories. Don Curtis, 2008. V&B: 1972 to 1989.
(Hard to believe that it is 36 years since I joined the company.)
To Vickers and Benson. To Bill Bremner, Terry O’Malley, Don Murphy, John Alexander, Ron Bremner, Bryan Vaughan, John Lyons, Glenn Arscott, Stew Hood, Tom Fenney, Paul Joyce, Mike Koskie, Bob Strutt, Dave Rae, Tom Crawford, Pat McDougall, Richard Innes, Candace Innes, Scott Anderson, Joe Warwick, Mike Collins, Peter Mills, Peter Langmuir, Anna DiPede, Jim Coutts, Nadia Ostapchuk, Mary Jane Palmer, Dave Crichton, Joe Mullie, Yves GouGoux, Bill Durnan, Bruce Dowad, Laura Gaggi, Pete McAskile, Ross Downey, Helene Hall, Greg Ferris, Roger Harris, Ed Hershey, John Hickey, Charlie Smith, John Walsh, Kathy Bertrand, Tom Rose, Carl Tingley, Jim Larkin, Florence Leighton, John Lloyd, Bill Anderson, Gord Richards, Tom Horler, John MacFarlane, Bill Argus, Steve Mitchell, Steve Mamarchev, Bea McCullough, Harry Peckham, Martin Pinker, Andy Day, Ken Smith, John Milne, Peter Palmer, Bob Ramsey, Anne Rose, Gary Round, Paul Royco, Julio Sampaio, Phil Rubel and Gord Schwab, Jim Shaw, Ian Saville, Doug Woodside, Bob Topping, Barry Solway, Eric Thom, Bob Thomson, John Torella, Gary Alles, Ian Saville, Allan Gee and Norm Glowinsky, Chris Cathcart, Harry Tietelbaum, Mark Wicken, and a hundred other special people whose names elude me as I write this tribute.
A few more that made it happen...Jack Bush, Gabor Apor, Judy Samson, Chris Sanderson, Stan Furnival, Frank Collins, Bruce Scott, Serge Roncourt, Mike McLaughlin, Steve Creet, Liz Siebert, Terry Bell, Tom Allen, Ralph Draper, Bob Ramsey, Barb Wilson, Jamie Sifton, Heather Reid, Doug Moen, Ron Bertram, Ingrid Berzins, Chris Semple, John Williams, Shelley Quinn, Lise Frulla Hebert, Dave Chalmers, Candy Connacher, Anne Cousineau, John Clinton, Bob Wolowich, Bill Wylie, Dick Mathieu, Winston Fletcher, Ted Kober, Charlie King, Selby Boyd, Jack Reynolds, Andy Macaulay, Howard Glynn, Ritch Bremner, Ian Forsyth, Shiela Moen, Faye Fonslow, Richard Brightling, Alan Brodeur, Sheena MacDonald, Helene Hall, Pat Leech, Andy Gawenda, Marlene Hore, Rhoda Taft, Axel Letzin, Peter Harris, Eva Lim, Anne McConachie, Dave Allen, Thornley Stoker, Fred Auchterlonie, Louise Watt, Bobbie Wraith, Meg Pinto, Peter Palmer, Brian Love, Jim Beamish, Cathy Barr, Roy Hunter, Isobel Weldon, Dan Gilmartin, Marla Rae, Rick Madill, Laura Madill, Al Nelson, Peggy Jones, Bill Anderson, Wendy Fredericks, Jack Hume, Ilene Nelson, Lana Holmes, Blane Hogue, Sandy Johnson, Al Scott, Joan McCluskey, Dave Snell, Rita Burns, Elaine Carter, Ken Takasaki, Ken Burgess, Mike McCormick, Bev Cornish, Bruce Philp, Enoch Kent, June Kirkou, Jennifer Henricks, Eileen Smith, Jack Peppy, Ken McRitchie, Dawn Thompson,Len Knot, Martyn Weir, Cathy Creber, Sandy Kedy, Jean Barron, Drew Knox, Vick Knox, Tosca Gaser, Mike Furber, Mike Desousa, Kathy Doherty, Barb Rippon, Lorna Lambert, Mike Langmuir, Angel Lenzi, Babs Cronyn, Al Massey, Michelle Lovett, Al Nelson, Linda Lakin, Vince Belanger, Heather McPherson, Dennis Dinga, Vern Morgan, Carl Jones, Isobel Moutry, Ron Thomson, Stan Feldman, Mike McCormack, Lois Geller, Gary Duke, Ron McLeod, Mort Graham, Graham Cathlove, Mike McLean, Jeff Guliani, B.J. Milne, Pam Frostad, and a host of others.