There has to be a beginning and, for V&B, that was in November of 1924. Rex Vickers and Don Benson borrowed $500 from the Bank of Montreal, and opened the doors of what was going to become 75 plus years of a magical place. Rex was the hard-nosed, take-no-prisoners business man, and Don was the gentle, kind, considerate creative person. Don brought with him their first piece of business, Canada Starch. It was through a family connection.
In the days I knew him, Rex looked like Alfred Hitchcock. Short, round and jowly. He had a personal attendant, an account person named Blake Dennis, who looked like a handsome, greying and fading soap opera star. It was Blake’s job to get Mr. Vickers to and from the office. Rex was of such a shape he couldn’t bend over to get his galoshes on. I was an impressionable twenty-something when I saw this stylish tall man in a beautiful blue suit kneeling in the reception area attempting to get a pair of zippered boots on the short squat man who was the agency tyrant.
Rex wasn’t one who handed out praise. On Mondays, he’d have a meeting in his office of the department heads. This would come after he’d had a couple of tumblers of Seagram’s 83, his favourite from his favourite client. Even if there’d been a successful week, Rex would chew everyone out and challenge them to do better this time.
I saw him go toe to toe with Sam Bronfman, the legendary Mr. Sam, in a meeting. They were arguing over a campaign which Mr. Sam had questioned. Rex threatened to have all Seagram’s products “blacklisted” in the media which he said he controlled. The resolve? They went up to the Bronfman retreat outside Montreal and created this really terrible campaign together. Of course, it ran. They thought it was great.
Rex had a wife, a dog and a far-removed niece. In almost rapid fashion, Mrs. Vickers passed away. Then the dog. And then Mr. Vickers. Everything went to the niece.
In the short time I knew him, he was nice to me. When the Expos launched mainly through Bronfman efforts, he was given a Baseball Encyclopedia. He may as well have been given poison. Knowing my passion for the sport, he gave it to me. It still have it.
Don was Tony Randall to Rex’s Jack Klugman. He was the calming influence. When more and more opportunity was revealing itself in Toronto, it was Don who was dispatched to open the office on Church St. He did well and built a strong and reputable firm. Although Don was heavily involved in the day-to-day, his real passion was art. He became a patron of many of Canada’s most famous painters. Some in the Group of Seven and then their successors. An A. J. Casson hung in the office for years. Don would hand off small assignments to these artists to keep them solvent. I think their main source of revenue was the Christmas cards Mr. Benson had them originate. When I knew him, he had abdicated almost all of his responsibility to Bryan Vaughan and adopted mainly a social role on behalf of V&B. His son and granddaughter subsequently worked at the agency. Mr. V and Mr. B, two of the original giants in Canadian advertising.
During one of our new business hot streaks, Bill and I went out to make a pitch to the president of a then major food and restaurant company called Versafood. We were very confident with the agency at the time and had a lot to sell. Bill never let up. He even went over the top with his usual enhancement of my abilities. Before heading out, Bill had discovered that this man’s son was into fencing. So we’re into marketing and ad talk when all of a sudden Bill segues into informing the man that I had not only gone to Harvard, but I was “captain of the fencing team”. I wasn’t that but, thankfully, I did play hockey because I really had to skate at that point. Then came the big finish. Suitably impressed, the president announced we had the business. Handshakes, gratitude, promises, etc., and then Bill turned to leave the office. There were two closed doors. The one he chose was the janitorial closet with mops, brooms, pails and a big sink. Since he was looking back saying goodbye, he actually entered this room and virtually closed the door. He came out and, not flustered said, “humble beginning”.
One of the great joys, thrills, pressures and responsibility was working on so many political campaigns through our involvement in Red Leaf, the consortium put together to create strategy and advertising on behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada. In 1971, after having lost to Joe Clark in ’69, Pierre Trudeau was back in the battle after Clark’s tactical error in Parliament triggered an election. This was what became the “peek-a-boo” campaign. Trudeau was on camera for posts dealing with a variety of issues, but he didn’t speak. He simply was part of the visual with a voice over carrying the message. In one instance, we were shooting in the home of a young family in Scarborough. The father, mother and daughter were in a living room setting, with Mr. Trudeau seated nearby. The subject was energy and home heating. The daughter, whose name I believe was Linda, was home from school for the morning to participate. Jerry Grafstein, now a Senator, was the campaign manager. During a break in the shoot, I had an idea to get Mr. Trudeau to write a note to Linda’s teacher along the lines of “Please excuse Linda from school this morning, as she was helping me to be elected Prime Minister”. I motioned for Grafstein to come over, told him my idea, and he loved it. He then worked his way through the cameras and crew to the other side of the room until he got to Mr. Trudeau. He leaned over and talked into Mr. Trudeau’s ear. Then he stood up and gestured to me with his hands palm up and said, “He’s already done it!” Mr. Trudeau didn’t miss anything.
Bobby Thomson was one of my favourite account people. We had worked together at Maclaren on GM when I stated in 1960 (the Mad Men era). So when we had the opportunity to hire him, there was no hesitation. He was always on top of everything and as they say, “buttoned down”. Each TV season, the networks would screen their upcoming shows for agencies. This time it was the CBC, and Bobby was among those who attended. He came back raving about a great new show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And he was convinced it would be perfect for our client, Gulf Oil. The ad director for Gulf at the time was a big, blustery, hard drinking ex-Maclaren guy named Cam Jones. We called Cam and his message was, “If you think it’s so right, go ahead and buy it”. We did. Several months went by and finally the show got to air. When I got in the next morning there were two messages from Cam. Call me immediately. I called back and the first words I heard were, “Where the fuck are the elephants?” I did a lot of explaining but I don’t think I was too reassuring. Then over the next period of time, the show was pre-empted three times, it must have been NHL playoffs, and there was a huge outcry from the cult that had become the audience for the show. When it came back, I believe they ran four half hour shows back to back, and the ratings were huge. Cam was happy and we never spoke of animal acts again.
Kathy Bertrand and Paul Royko; Mike Langmuir and Angel Lenzi; Paul Carder and Kathy Kamping; Bob Topping and Babs Cronyn; Harry Peckham and Jane Gallatley; Al Massey and Michelle Lovatt; Shelley Quinn and Wayne Emerson; Eileen MacDonald and Al Nelson; Mike Collins and Linda Lakin; Terry Bell and Victoria McLean; Jocelyn Hill and Darren Clarke; Ron Bremner and Katherine _____; Vince Belanger and Rita Valnian; Dick Amedeo and Joanne Lehman; etc. For the record, Barbara Wilson and I met at the YMCA.
Two of the most special people that walked the halls of V&B were Gabor Apor and John Alexander. Gabor was stylish, sophisticated, worldy and had the great laugh. John was of the streets. With regard to fashion, some said John was awaiting the return of button flies. I refer to them here for quirks in their eating habits. Every day at approximately 1:00 p.m., Sheila Moen picked up a freshly made butter tart for Gabor. And every day at noon, John went to Swiss Chalet for a quarter chicken. We said he was mainlining the sauce. One of the great lines re Gabor came from Mike Koskie. Gabor was asked to go to Saskatchewan to work on Tony Merchant’s campaign for premier. When someone queried Mike about how it went, Mike responded, “Gabor went to Regina but he didn’t touch anything”.
One of the most effective and famous campaigns created by Vickers and Benson was for the Construction Safety Association of Ontario. The purpose was to make workers and, for that matter, Ontarians, aware of the dangers of the workplace and to heighten safety awareness. We knew what we wanted to do visually, and we had the legendary cameraman-director Bill Gimmi set for the shoot. But we needed something truly special and impactful to elevate the messages. While we were working on our assignment, CBC was shooting an acclaimed version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Jack Palance. During one of the sessions, Palance seriously injured his knee and after treatment was convalescing at the Park Plaza. I thought wouldn’t that voice add the drama we were looking for. Again, David Himelfarb and Ken Burgess somehow got through to him. At first, he was clearly not interested and, in fact, was the bristly character the public knew. When we explained to him these were not commercials to sell product of any kind, but were hoping to save lives, he conceded to at least read the scripts and think about it. It didn’t take long for him to say yes, and a very special campaign went on the air. As it unfolded, Palance healed, we wrote new spots, and Jack Bush and Ken Burgess went to Italy where Palance was doing spaghetti westerns to do more voice-overs. One spot, called “Bucket”, won awards all over the world. It followed the fall of a large bucket of ingots that hat been knocked form the construction platform on the 40th floor and its journey to earth, freezing frame just before it hit, and Palance saying, “The Construction Safety Association of Ontario. We worry.” Very powerful.
One of the great men in my life and certainly one of my most special mentors is Senator Keith Davey. There are just too many instances to talk about that would even begin to detail what he did for me and my career. The following will show I wasn’t the only beneficiary. A few months after the world famous Iranian hostage crisis and the heroics of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees wanted to commemorate the event with a special night at Yankee Stadium with the Yankees playing Toronto. During the planning, Prime Minister Trudeau was invited but had other commitments so, knowing Keith’s passion for baseball, he said to the Senator, “You go as my representative and take someone with you who would really appreciate it.” That someone became me. So the Senator and I found ourselves in a stretch limo, surrounded by police on motorcycles, flags on the fenders heading from LaGuardia to the ball park. To assure the event was non-partisan, Conservative Flora Macdonald was with me, as well as an NDP representative. Former PM Joe Clark joined us later in Steinbrenner’s office. We were met by the Canadian Consulate representative, a very bright, totally in charge, confident young man whom we thought was our Consul General but, in fact, was his assistant. The whole evening was too much to relate here, particularly for a lifelong, the-day-hinges-on-the-score Yankee fan, and baseball is not the point of this story. The young man from the Consulate guided us through the dinner, the reception, the protocol and next day’s luncheon-reception-press conference, etc., involving the Ambassador. I’m sure it was at the Waldorf. The entire adventure is a treasured lifelong memory. Months later, while working with the soon-to-be-leader of the Ontario Liberal party and next premier David Peterson, one of our hopes was to find the perfect executive assistant for David. At lunch one summer day, in the courtyard of the venerable York Club at Bloor and St. George, Keith, my partner Bill Bremner and I discussed some prospects. Somehow we got on to our NY trip and then I had the “that’s it!” moment. I said to Keith, “What about the executive assistant from the Consulate?” He relished the thought, and scribbled a couple of notes in that very tiny handwriting of his and said, “Let me look into it.” The young man’s name was Hershel Ezrin, who was experiencing a successful career in Canada’s diplomatic service. Keith arranged for a series of meetings, interviews, discussions and possibilities. Hershel and David were a perfect fit. The election was won, the Peterson government went on to many achievements and, as time unfolded, Hershel became a prominent Canadian businessman as a senior executive at Midas and then taking on the top job at Molson. The only bad news for me was the Blue Jays won the game that night in New York.
In late 1966, we had been awarded the advertising and promotion account for the upcoming Centennial year of 1967. The strategy was simple: make this the best Centennial possible for all Canadians. We were at 980 Yonge St. at the time, and rented space in the adjoining All-Canada building at the corner of Belmont and Yonge. There we set up an alternate agency that became the home of all Centennial activities coming through V&B. One thing happened we could never have predicted. Bill Bremner was a man of many relationships due to his previous senior PR role at Eaton’s. One acquaintance he had made was with a Happy Gang member and musician named Bobby Gimby. Bobby called Bill one day saying he had created a song for the Centennial, and could he come in and play it for us. Bobby was a diminutive, Randy Newman-type, bespectacled, totally uninhibited character with great personality and talent. He arrived wearing a cape and carrying a long staff with a sort of crown on it. He explained what he wanted to do with the song, and then we heard CAN-AH-DA one little two little three Canadians for the first time. It was instantly infectious. We went across to the Centennial office and played it for them. Eventually, the entire agency was ready to follow Gimby anywhere. And that’s what happened for the entire year. He went everywhere and brought so much joy and happiness to all he touched. It was truly magical and the song lives on as a sort of alternative pop anthem.
If there was one campaign that changed the face of V&B and contributed to its long run of creative excellence, it was the one for Carling Red Cap. I believe the account had been at McKim, and had been chugging along with ads built on the line “Snappa Cappa Red Cap”, featuring a jockey with a short-brimmed red cap. It was decided the account would be placed in review and several agencies were called upon to pitch. We were one of the few to make a short list. In an enlightened approach for the time, Ross Downey, Carling’s marketing director, and his people gave $5000 to the competing agencies to help offset any costs in developing a spec presentation. We got the briefing in our tiny screening room at 980 Yonge, and we were pumped. Jack Bush and I went back to my office, and as I sat behind my desk, Jack was on the other side and I remember him putting his feet on the spot where I didn’t have a pile of previous stuff. He said, “Well Chief (his personal name for me), what do you want to do?” I’m not sure where the thought came from because I hadn’t been tucking away campaign ideas, but I said, “The beer is shrinking in popularity. There are fewer and fewer drinkers, so I think we should make them the heroes. I’m thinking that we make it so others want to join them. And I see an anthem, a salute and some kind of association.” Now those aren’t the exact words, but they convey the exact meaning. Jack loved it. That was good enough for me because I thought he was the finest creative mind in the country. He said, “So what’s the theme?” I had written it on a piece of paper on my desk, and I held it up so Jack could see the words: Carling Red Cap. Forever. We were off. We didn’t do any alternatives. It was as though it had a life of its own. The first spot would be the launch, and would be the initial gathering of Red Cap drinkers, a speech from the president, the singing of the anthem, and the concluding salute, an extended right arm, thumb up, with the left hand over the heart. We used Al Guest’s production company and the very hot young director-cameraman team of Doug Cowan and George Morita. We took about half the office staff down to Maple Leaf Stadium and, through George’s camera trickery, made the stadium appear full. I forgot, this was also the unveiling of the Carling Red Cap Forever Association and its Red Cap flag. Nick Nichols, whom we had made the President, spoke from the pitcher’s mound in rousing political style. The song was sung and, as the ending “we are drinkers true” drifted away, everyone knew we had something very, very special. Fortunately, the client agreed, and we were named the Red Cap agency.
That began a series of groundbreaking commercials both on television and radio. Our “Boxing” spot featured Rocky Graziano, Earl Walls (Canadian champion and world ranked #4 heavyweight), Yvon Durelle, Horace McMahon of Naked City, Dick Beddoes from the Globe and Mail, my partner and pal Jack Bush, the great boxing announcer Don Dunphy, and yours truly, as Nick’s voice-over said, “What a night!” Over time, we created spots using golfer George Knudson, football legend John Barrow, most of the Tiger Cats (Angelo Mosca, Joe Zuger, etc.), Tom Ewell fresh from The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe, Eddie Shack, and others. On radio, we carefully selected voices to complement our messages. My favourites were Arnold Stang, Renee Taylor and, of course, Graziano. Throughout the province, university students gave the salute and sang the anthem at football games. Articles appeared in Maclean’s, Star Weekly and elsewhere. There were all kinds of demonstrations of support. It was fun. We explored a second major series of TV ads called vignettes, inspired by what ordinary people were actually doing with the song and salute. We created members of the association and what their show of loyalty involved. I even put my dad in one, acting as a sailor who had taught his parrot the Red Cap song. Others had Leo Gorcey of the Bowery Boys putting the emblem on his bi-plane; a dog who howled the song at midnight, and so on. The voice-over for these commercials fulfilled a life-long dream for me. On Sunday afternoons when I was a child, there was a famous and popular program called The March of Time. It was sponsored by Time Magazine, and voiced by the authoritarian sound of Westbrook Von Voorhies. I wanted him to do the vignettes. When we tracked him down, we found him seriously ill in a New York hospital. We felt badly and, while thinking of alternatives, his wife called and said he would love to do the commercials if we could get a way to record them in the hospital. She said it was so meaningful to him to be wanted, and to put a signature on his career. John Lyons, our producer, and I went to New York and did all the spots with Westbrook propped up on a pillow in a private room speaking with that still powerful voice into our Nagra. The secondary spin on this trip is that I ended up being treated in the ER for stress. As we ran the vignettes, we did a very unique media concept. The most popular and abrasive talk show host of the time was Larry Solway. We brought Larry into the studio without scripts, and then used performers to call in and either praise or complain about the various clips, i.e., the dog wakes me up and I’m going to have to move. And then Solway would belittle the callers and so on. The idea was to run the TV and radio simultaneously, so there was a sense of being current about them. It was wonderful to see and hear it together. So research said the campaign tested four times higher in awareness than the previous high. Sales were good and it seemed all was well. Trial was way up. The sales force was popular. And then we found there had been brewing errors at the plant, and the actual product in many instances was mediocre in taste not measuring up to Red Cap standards. I guess they felt they could solve it without a lot of damage, but the harm had been done and sales drifted downward. But what a ride. Red Cap and Construction Safety and Centennial all running at the same time meant this agency wasn’t hot, it was steaming, and we were on all the lists.
When Jack Bush and I were working on bringing the Red Cap campaign to air, we had created the Carling Red Cap Forever Association, and now we needed a leader for that group. There were many obvious considerations, but we wanted someone who hadn’t been seen, who could make public appearances, who would be a guy’s guy and who had a sense of humour. One of our treats at the time was Amateur Night at the Casino Theatre on Spadina. A variety of girls would strip in the quest to win the contest, get some cash and shock their friends. It was always a great laugh. On this particular night, the MC was a comedian-musician named Nick Nichols. He was very entertaining, treated the girls respectfully and, as we noted, was so funny and original that they guys in the band were laughing at his stuff. We thought these guys work about six shows a day, so Nick is creating this stuff on the go. And, of course, we had the eureka moment, this is the person to be the “president”. The next day, we had one of our producers, David Himelfarb, track Nick down and arrange an interview. At the time, Nick was living with a dancer named Fonda Lovin, and he was in his leather-jacketed On the Waterfront Marlon Brando stage. It took us a while to make it clear to him that we wanted him for this commercial role. He was convinced we were looking for strippers and he wouldn’t let go of that notion. We got it resolved, Nick went on to make several spots, tour the province as the President and his men, act in television plays and, ultimately he played many character roles in movies made in Toronto. He assured us the girls were legitimate amateurs.
7-Up was a unique business at its outset. It had been a purely distribution and warehousing operation primarily run by the janitor. As it grew, the janitor became the head of the company and we began advertising for them in a serious way. We put the bulk of the money into radio and tailored commercials to fit three segments: rock stations, mainstream daytime and drive home. We then matched style and tone to each. I selected my 75-year-old grandmother, Minnie Miller, to be the voice of the Chum’s of the world. Our strategy was to juxtapose her voice and language against the canvas of the station. She clearly stood out. On the CFRB’s, we used Tom Bosley, more famous for his “Happy Days” role, but also a great voice and a delight to work with. On drive home, our voice was the unique Eartha Kitt. We wrote for her in very feline ways, and the results were special. This was her only commercial venture. She knew it was Canada only, and she used the compensation for an education fund for her daughter, oddly called Kit. Eartha would come to Toronto a couple of times a year, and record 8 to 10 spots. She could do that in an hour of studio time due to two things: she was a great natural talent, and the words were so right for her they just flowed. One item of interest that made the whole experience even more unique was that the president (former janitor) was a fanatical racehorse fan. In the afternoon, they used to televise the races live (as they do now in the evenings on Score), and he had to watch each one. This meant we would have meetings and presentations in twenty minute segments. We’d be meeting, then pause while the entries came up, talk some more, then he’d pick a horse, more talk; pause with the race, and start again. We won many awards for the commercials and business, but the races were always more important.
One of the finest clients, and friend, an agency could have was the very special Bruce Walker at the Ontario Jockey Club. With Bruce’s guidance, we created many great ads and our team of Jack Bush, John Alexander, Gary Alles and myself was devoted to the business. Each season, we would prepare an Opening Day ad detailing what was going to occur at the track on that special day. In one of these ads, a mistake hadn’t been corrected, and it promised that a feature of the day would be an appearance by the 48th Highlanders. Obviously, we were in a great panic. Bruce suggested he knew a Highlander, and he’d put in a call. Both Gary and John said they also knew a Highlander, and they’d call, and we’d gather at the track and see what would happen. When we arrived, there was one lonely Highlander who, while waiting, had had a few beers and really wasn’t in marching shape. As we talked, we realized in some bizarre way the three had called the same Highlander. So now it’s about an hour before the opening events, and the dilemma still existed. And then we received a gift from above. There was a short but heavy storm that turned the track into mud. That allowed the track announcer, I think it was Darryl Wells, to inform the fans that due to track conditions the 48th Highlanders would be unable to do a march past, and we would invite them (at least more than one) back on another occasion. We carefully proofed every ad after that.
Also for the OJC, we created one of the most novel campaigns of the time. Working with animator Jack White, who later went to Disney, we put together six spots. They featured six horses and there were six different winners according to the odds -- the favourite winning more often than the long shot, etc. Without knowing, we had initiated the first interactive use of TV. They became instantly popular, particularly with students in college pubs. Best of all, they boosted interest in racing and attendance at the track. The horses were named after the six of us who worked on the account. Oddly enough, my horse was called The King!
Primarily because of Bill Bremner and myself, we could not resist ongoing involvements in sports. Here is just a sampling. In the late 60’s, the government amalgamated the Army, Navy and Air Force into the Canadian Armed Forces. It was our task to help steer this unification through. Recruitment was obviously important. As one of our approaches, we went to the Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union and put together a Saturday afternoon TV sports package for CHCH-TV. The main feature of course was football, but other sports were included. This helped expose our message to the age category we were seeking. The package still exists, but after decades has landed at The Score. The football presentation led to the College Bowl crowning a national champion for the first time, and ultimately to the current Vanier Cup.
In baseball trivia, there is probably one question that only a tiny minority would know the answer. Who was the first agency for the Blue Jays? You may have guessed. V&B. J. Walter Thompson and Labatt’s had been instrumental in garnering the franchise. And even though several other agencies showed an interest in the account, it was assumed that JWT was an automatic selection. I was one who felt that way. Until one day my phone rang and a voice said, “This is Peter Bavasi from the Blue Jays. I’m told your company knows more about sport marketing than anyone, yet I’ve never heard from you.” I told him my JWT thought and their connection with Labatt management, etc. He said “they run the brewery, and I run the ball team – get your people together and come down to see me”. We started to work almost immediately, and had a giddy two to three weeks enjoying him and his sparkling personality. The initial work was on log design. Some were outstanding (I still have a couple in my closet). In fact, there were at least two that the current mark resembles. The phone rings again. The same voice says, “This is Peter Bavasi and they run the ball team. I’m sorry.” He said he’d make it up to me and he did, by getting me two tickets to the great Kansas City-Yankee playoff game decided by Chris Chambliss’ walk off homer that sent New York to the World Series.
There’s an interesting side story in this relationship. Peter knew how fanatical I was (and am) about baseball, that he quizzed me as to whom should be the Jays number one selection in the expansion draft (I wasn’t allowed to pick a pitcher). Without hesitation I said, “Tony Solaita, the sweet swinging Samoan.” Tony was a young fist baseman in the Yankee chain, and had a season in which he hit over 50 home runs. Needless to say, the Jays went in another direction (Bob Bailor, I think). About four years later, the phone rings in my office and after all this time, it’s Bavasi. Without hesitation, he says, “I know there at least two people that are happy today. There’s you, and Tony Solaita’s mother, because we just got him in a trade with the Expos”. I was thrilled, not by the transaction, but that he had remembered that through all that time.
We were partners, along with the late Johnny Bassett and George Cohon among others, in the WHA Toronto Toros. We not only named the team, but Don Murphy designed the logo, which still exists in Toronto minor hockey. We were responsible for the Sunday night hockey telecasts and all the promotions, including the memorable Wide World of Sports Evel Knievel appearance. Joe Warwick and Pete McAskile observed that Evil had played hockey in Montana, and was quite capable. He came to the Toros to take five shots on Les Binkley, our goalie, with each goal raising money for charity. It was covered nationally by Frank Gifford on ABC and embarrassingly enough, Evel scored three times. It taught us as much about our goaltending as it did about a successful promotion. We also performed the same duties with one of Toronto’s first attempts at a major soccer franchise. The Blizzard had a great deal of notoriety for a couple of seasons in the city. Bruce Dowad, now an internationally renowned commercial film director, created one of the most memorable sport spots ever for the team, while still an art director at the agency.
For a period of time, we sponsored a group of NHL Oldtimers. They had been abandoned by their previous sponsor, and were approached by Brian McFarlane and Pat Conacher to see if any clients were interested. As usual, we said we would help, and it occurred to me that we would be the best sponsor. They toured the province playing charity games against local teams that we helped arrange on behalf of our clients such as Gulf and their dealers, and Ford and their community reps. It was perfect PR for us, our clients, and the players. Great guys doing great things.
Without doubt, our biggest sport story was also our country’s, Team Canada ’72. Our corporate lawyer at the time was none other than Alan Eagleson. For years, Al had been trying to satisfy a dream of his by having a team of NHL All-Stars play a team of Russian stars. The prize would not only be hockey supremacy, but lots and lots of revenue for all concerned. We had been alerted that if this were ever to happen, we would be totally involved. It was a long time coming to fruition. Once Al would get close, there would be further demands by the Russians and negotiations would begin all over again. Then one summer morning, we got a call from him saying, “It looks like a go!” His strategy was simple. Move quickly and act on every demand by the Russians immediately and give them no breathing room. It was a whirlwind ride. Once Al announced the series to the world, the Russians couldn’t back down. I think the last concession was they would get the final four games in Russia. In no particular order, dates were set, rinks were booked, personnel were selected, training camp was set up and on and on. Our role started to take shape. Al wanted to call the team the NHL All-Stars. We tried to convince him this was not a series between Russian and the NHL, but Russia and Canada. This was for, remember, hockey supremacy and national pride. He agreed. We created several possible names but ultimately picked one from creative director Terry Hill’s list: Team Canada. Sounds simple now, but it wasn’t then. As an aside, Terry was a transplanted American from Detroit.
We needed a sweater. I was working closely at this point with an amazing art director named John Lloyd, a transplanted Brit, whose visual sensitivity was brilliant. As I mentioned, everything was moving at warp speed. We not only required the sweater, but we needed home and away versions by, you guessed it, tomorrow. They also needed a song to kick off the press conference at Sutton Place that next day that would unveil the team, the sweater, the dates, the whole package. I wrote the lyrics for the song, something like “The Russians are good, but we’ll be better, get behind the guys in the Canada sweater, come on Canada, let’s go Canada”, etc. Terry Bush, a brilliant musician who had done so much stellar work for us over the years, wrote and recorded everything overnight. Meanwhile, the incredible John Lloyd had bought two large red and two large white sweaters. He cut out the now famous stylized maple leaf in red and in white. He then stitched the red on the white jersey for home and reversed the process for the away. Simply brilliant. The press conference went off as if planned for months, and for all intents and purposes it was game on.
The question of the rights value and who would produce the series for television was to be addressed. There was a universal assumption that Hockey Night in Canada would do the show, and I believe they offered in the range of $400,000 to $500,000. Al listened to the offer and then asked Ron Bremner, Bill’s brother and our media director, to step out of the room with him. They huddled along with a couple of us, and Al said to Ron, “Tell me what you feel the value of this series is.” Ron had done a lot of preparation and said, without hesitation, “$750,000.” Al returned to the meeting and announced that the package had been sold to a new production entity called Orr-Ballard Productions. I’m not sure how this happened, what the structure was or would be, and just who was involved, but HNIC was not happy. Sponsors had to be found quickly. Ron divided the event into sixths. Without asking, V&B committed our clients Ford for one-third, CCM for one-sixth, and the same for Standard Brands. We went out to Ford to meet with Ford’s head man at the time, the smart, debonair and tough Bill Hawkins, known as “The Hawk”. We explained the whole adventure to him and then confessed what we had done. He very calmly looked across his desk at us and said, “Well boys, you know the consequences.” Meaning if this was a bomb, we were out our largest account.
Fast forward for a moment. Game one is in Montreal, the anticipation is high. All the pundits had weighed in and, of course, this would be a major blow-out and no one would care after a game or two. First period, I think it was Phil Esposito who scored on a bit of a fluke. Then Ron Ellis gets one home and, by late in the period, it’s 3-0 and Bill and I are looking at each other as though we are about to experience the end of our world. What had we been thinking? Then everything began to turn. The Russians began to come back and then to completely dominate. We had another fleeting thought…What if they continued to do this, and Canadians would not be pleased watching their heroes be blown away. As you know, it became possibly the greatest hockey series of all time. In the world of media measurements, cost per thousand of audience was how things were judged. Ron estimated that for game eight and the Henderson goal, we had the largest audience in Canadian history. If you were around at the time, you’ll remember the streets were empty during the telecast. The CPM was about 10 cents. The entire duration of the rivalry was full of drama and stories. It was a coming out party for Canada. It was an adventure.
One human interest story you may appreciate involved John Alexander. John was possibly our best account man, and certainly our best people person. Also, he had very little concern for professional sport, so he became our choice to run out side of the series. We knew he wouldn’t be mesmerized by the players and the proximity to their stardom. Initially, while we were making commercials, selling sponsorships, and everything else, John set out to the venues in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vancouver to set up accommodations, media relations, and all the things it would take to make it a smooth, organized trip across Canada for both teams. Everything would be in place when the real travel began. He even went to Russia. As a side bar, while at the Canadian Embassy in Moscow, he was introduced to a Canadian diplomat who asked what agency he was with. John said V&B, and the man asked, “Is Terry O’Malley still there?” It turned out to be a high school classmate and friend from St. Catharines named Peter Hancock. John’s efforts were flawless, and I don’t think he ever got proper recognition. But that would never bother him. When it was all over, we were in my office talking about the experience, and I asked him what he liked or disliked most about the whole thing. He said, “You know, I met this really great guy and we had some great conversations.” I asked who it was and he responded, “I’m not sure; a big, tall guy with glasses and really smart. I think his name is Ken.” I told him the big, tall guy was Ken Dryden, and that any Canadian would have given anything to even be in his shadow. So much for proof that John was not mesmerized by stardom. So much has been said, written, filmed and discussed about this major event in Canadian history. But let me say, regardless of what now may be said about Al Eagleson, no one, no other person could have made the Summit Series happen than him. There were so many sub plots to those few weeks, too numerous to detail here.
When I first arrived at the agency, Bryan Vaughan was the president, CEO and major shareholder. Bryan was not an advertising guy, but was a truly talented PR man. I learned a lot about PR from him, and I learned three little tricks of his PR world. When he bought a suit, he would get an extra jacket, so when you passed his office, where his desk was located so that you could see in from the hall, there would be a jacket over the back of his chair, and his (also extra) pair of glasses would be on the desk. They were always facing out, as though he had just jumped up to attend to something important. Fooled me -- I thought he was always there. When he traveled, which was a lot, particularly back and forth to Montreal (where he always lunched at his table in the Beaver Room of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel on steak tartar), he would sit in the aisle seat in row one. This allowed him to be last on and first off. It worked. When Bryan had to attend an evening function, his objective was to see and be seen, and then get the hell out. He would find out the venue and, during the day, he would go there and find a back exit. (If there wasn’t one, he’d find a hotel employee and arrange with him to have a note delivered during the dinner or whatever, calling him away for some more important thing.) He would come to the room, work it, shake many hands, drift toward the exit and then be gone. Someone would ask, “Where’s Bryan?” Response: “He was here a minute ago, I just talked with him.” Mission always accomplished.
One of our clients for many years was Whitehall Laboratories, the makers of the then popular Resdan, Anacin, Dristan, and so on. Our main client was an ex-Y&R senior account man named Bud McAnerny. A new creative team, the amazing Barry Stringer and the talented Kathy Doherty, were assigned to the business and the account team had taken their first pieces of work out to show Bud. When they got back, Barry rushed to meet them and asked, “How’d they like it?” “They?” said one of the agency guys. And Barry responded, “You know, Bud, Mack and Ernie.” They had to explain there was just one man. It became part of the V&B folklore.
We were involved with a fledgling pro lacrosse league that included Toronto, Rochester, Syracuse et al. Again, Don Murphy did the logo for our team, the Toronto Tomahawks, again another of our names. We played our games in a sweltering Maple Leaf Gardens, and telecast the games on CH with our own account man, Jim Webb, doing the colour commentary.
In 1973, V&B opened what is believed to be the first self-standing Direct Marketing agency called March Chait. The legendary Larry Chait split his time between New York and Toronto, while mentoring Ross Downey who ultimately ran the firm. We later folded it into V&B as, oddly enough, V&B Direct.
In 1952, V&B produced the first television spot to go on the CBC. A 60-second commercial for a Montreal Ford dealer named Grenier Motors.
The candy pail that Don Curtis mentioned I always had in my office for the first few years contained only peppermints until we added to the mix. We went through over 1000 pounds a year of the mints. The purpose was to make one feel welcome in the president’s office. Looks as though it worked.
My clearest definition what V&B was came one late morning at 22 St. Clair. There were two elevators facing the receptionist. I happened to be passing through the area just as Senator Keith Davey got off one, and one of our Ronald McDonalds stepped into the other heading out on assignment. I said to myself, “That’s us!”
Often called but he never answered, Mr. Zeronovich. Whenever a client ventured into the creative department, a page went out from reception for Mr. Zeronovich, which was code for “Stop acting goofy and look as though you’re working”.
At one point, an entrepreneur named Emil Solomon came in with thousands of pairs of running shoes that he felt were destined for success as they had a four-stripe design, as opposed to three for Adidas. After a great deal of work, the new shoe was born and became Pony Shoes. Art Director John Lloyd designed the new logo and shoe box in one of the more impactful marks of the time. The name has recently been purchased by an extreme sports group, and it often shows up in professional boxing. The 4-stripe shoes were eventually sold to the penal system.
John Alexander was always talking about grass roots. Grass roots marketing, grass roots ideas, etc.
One Monday, John arrived to find his entire office, on the fifth floor, completely sodded with real grass. Glenn Arscott and friends came in on a weekend, removed all the furniture, covered the floor with plastic, carried rolls of sod up, and sodded the floor, then put all the furniture back. A huge job.
John loved it. Left if for about a week. Took it up, lugged it home to Orangeville, and used it. The story became legend and Glenn denied any involvement.
“If you’re gonna sell tap dance toys, you had better be prepared to tap dance.” -- Scott Irwin.
Scott Irwin of Irwin Toy had come into the agency to present a number of toys he thought would be good for McDonald’s promotions. One of the items was little plastic shoe clip-ons that emulated tap dancing. “Do they work?” we asked. Scott got up on our boardroom table, put on the clips, tap danced up and down, and said…the quote above. Terrific.
The spokesperson for The Insurance Bureau of Canada was Arthur Hill, a famous TV and movie actor. You would think an actor would be able to memorize his lines. He couldn’t. Not one word.
There were cue cards on walls, hand held, on ceilings, anywhere Arthur looked. Amazing. And he always pulled it off. How he did movies is a wonder.
Amidst all the commotion when the McDonald’s people came to the agency to tell V&B we had won the account, Ron Bremner approached Ronald McDonald and, in all sincerity, said to him, “My name is Ronald, too.” We teased him about it for years.
We were in Boston at Harvard University conducting focus groups on Labatt’s beer. We were sitting behind the two way mirror, when the next group of college students entered. One of the boys weighed well over 300 pounds. The moderator asked what kind of beer they consumed. The heavy fellow said he only drank light beer because he had a weight problem. So far so good. The moderator then asked how much beer they consumed in a typical week. The first boy said about two beers a night, the next about 10 a week, and so it went around the table until it got to the big fellow. “Well, let’s see, I guess about ten cases a week.” We went nuts. The Labbatt’s client said, “My God, he is consuming about 10,000 calories of beer a week, and he thinks that switching to light beer helped.” Wow.
Along the way we got to work with some amazing and famous people…William “Beam me up” Shatner, Frank Converse, Darryl “They’re Off” Wells, Arnold Stang, Eddie Shack, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Paul Henderson, Rod Gilbert, Marcel Dionne, Frank Mahovolich, Gary Smith, Darryl Sittler, Tom Ewell, Horace McMahon, Earl Wells, Rocky “Somebody up there likes me” Graziano, Dick Beddoes, Don Dunphy, Arthur Hill, Eartha “Santa Baby” Kitt, Tom Bosley, Bjorn Borg, Ulf Nielson, Dave Nichol, John Barrow, Angelo Mosca, Joe Zuger, Garney Henley, Dick “The Bull Dog” Brower, Bowery Boys Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, Renee Taylor, Selma Diamond, Jockey Sandy Hawley, Henny “Take my wife -- Please” Youngman, Alex Trebek, Rick Bosetti, Richard Williams, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Premier David Peterson, Mayor Mel Lastman, Mayor David Crombie, Mayor Art Eggleton, Larry Solway, Tommy Ambrose, Diane Brooks, Johnny Wayne & Frank Shuster, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Gary Lautens, Jack Crealey, William Hutt, Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis (Bob & Doug McKenzie), Jack Palance, George Knudson, Mike Kellin, Peter Gzowski, Ronald McDonald, Alan Eagleson, George Cohon, artist Ken Danby, Ken Dryden, Kenny McLean, Junkyard Dog, Ian Miller & Big Ben, Tony Dorsett, Don Cherry, Prime Minister John Turner, Northern Dancer, Andy Devine, Senator Keith Davey, Chief Dan George, Martin Goldfarb, Doug Riley (Dr. Music), Moe Koffman, Oscar Peterson, Stanley Burke, Nick Nichols, Patrick Roy, Eddie Balfour, Eric Lindros, Pavel Burre, Rick “The Man in Motion” Hansen, Larry Mann, Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, Olympic Sprinter Jesse Owens.