Gary Prouk: A (Belated) Remembrance

Gary Prouk

It was 1995, and I was in my second interview at ad agency Lowe SMS, but my first interview with Gary Prouk, the Chairman and Creative Director.  He needed a new assistant and they’d been having trouble finding (or, more accurately, keeping) the right person.  I’d been warned by the VP HR, that the job wasn’t an easy one, but I didn’t care – I’d just moved to Toronto and wanted a job in advertising so badly I was willing to do just about anything.  

I was ushered into the largest, darkest, most art-filled corner office I’d ever seen. And there was Gary, ensconced in the corner of a huge green leather sofa like the Sultan of Brunei.  He told me to sit down.  The sofa didn’t seem big enough for the two of us, so I chose a chair.

“I didn’t want to do this today,” was his opening.  This seemed so transparently calculated to wrong-foot me that it seemed ridiculous to take the bait. I kept my mouth shut and waited.

“So, I see you grew up in Burlington,” he said, peering at my resume.  It was clear this wasn’t a point in my favour.  “What do your parents do for a living?”

“My father is an accountant and my mother is a teacher.”

“Hhmmph,” Gary grunted.  “Grew up in Burlington, father’s an accountant and mother’s a teacher.  You sound boring.”

I tried not to roll my eyes.  “Well, I can’t convince you I’m not boring in 5 minutes, I suppose.  But I don’t think I am.”

“Hhmmph,” he grunted again, as though this assertion was scarcely credible.

But I seemed to have passed the intimidation test, because the conversation turned to literature (Gary had a huge collection of rare books, and part of the reason I’d made the first cut was that I knew my Wodehouse from my Waugh) and art (about which I knew far less, but that didn’t matter – Gary was happy to discourse at length to a captive audience). It was an interesting conversation which involved no questions about my actual work-related skills.

Half an hour later, Gary got up to leave.  “Well, I don’t know,” he said, returning to curmudgeonly form.  “I’m interviewing a lot of people.  I guess someone will call you.” 

I started the following week.


Gary died on March 7 this year.  I had a baby a few days later, so it wasn’t until early April that I realized he’d gone, and started to read the obituaries in Marketing, Strategy and the Globe, and to read what others in the ad industry had to say about him.

If you’re a certain age and have spent a certain amount of time in Toronto ad agencies, you know who Gary was, and you probably know his (rebarbative) reputation.  If you’ve never heard of him, all you really need to know is that he’s the guy who invented the Caramilk Secret.  Reading the various articles marking his passing, a profile of a brilliant and difficult man emerges – but it’s a profile, not a fully-realized portrait.  There’s a lot about his work, but so little about his life.  Some of the commentary written by agency types in Marketing refer to Gary as “a friend”, but from what I saw during the time I worked with him, I feel like a better description would be “acquaintance I’ve had a few drinks/arguments/work parties with”.

I spent a year as Gary’s assistant, then worked with him and Susan Andrews when she brought him in to consult at DDB Anderson. Being a personal assistant to an interesting person is a privileged, if sometimes thankless, job: It’s not a 9-to-5 sort of position, so you end up seeing much more of your boss’ life than other co-workers do.  When Gary lost his wallet at 11pm on Christmas Eve, it was me he called; when one of his dogs needed her medication at 9pm on a Friday when he was out to dinner, it was me who went to the house to administer it; when he wanted print ad mockups delivered to New York City on a super-tight deadline, it was me who took them there.  There were quite a few Devil Wears Prada moments (the time he asked me to cut his fingernails stands out as a highlight), but in many ways it was the best job I ever had.  For a 25-year-old who’d spent her post-university career in real estate with Mennonites in Kitchener-Waterloo, it was all tremendously glamorous, and I learned more in those first 12 months with Gary than I learned in the next 5 years.  Not just about advertising, but about literature and rare books, about art and antiques, photography and film…

I learned a lot about Gary, too. I learned he was very smart, but that he knew himself to be less smart than he purported to be, and that he liked people better when they acknowledged this fact.  I learned that even though he could be almost boorishly sexist (“women shouldn’t work on beer campaigns” was a favourite mantra), he was more comfortable and trusting with women than men.  And I learned that he was an almost-textbook example of the kind of person who pushed people away before they ever got a chance to hurt him.

When I first arrived at Lowe SMS, the other assistants went out of their way to be helpful. “Here, let me show you how to work the phone,” said one, two minutes after I got to my desk on the first day.  “If you don’t pick it up before the second ring, Gary will start yelling at you, and then he’ll take it out on everyone.  The last assistant cried a lot.” His ability to reduce people – and not just juniors – to tears was legendary.  But that wasn’t the Gary I knew. If you didn’t react to his occasional goading, he stopped trying, and could be extraordinarily thoughtful and kind.  

One day he came into my office to find me rubbing my forehead, and was immediately solicitous.  “You should take the rest of the day off,” he insisted, when I said it was just a bit of a headache.  “Take my credit card and get yourself some of that soup from the place down the street, then go home and lie down.” Another day he came in with a first edition of a rare (and expensive) book by Mervyn Peake, who he knew I loved.  “I saw it on the weekend and thought you’d like it.”  He gave me my first Hermes scarf – and my second and third when he saw how much I liked the first one.  He never yelled at me, or reduced me to tears, and he came to my defense on a number of occasions when he felt someone else had not been as nice to me as he thought they should have been.  


As Gary’s employee (and the most junior one, at that) it would be presumptuous of me to claim that we were friends.  But we spent an awful lot of time together – I was his default shopping and dining companion, and he did a lot of shopping and dining – and I tend to think that when you spend enough time with someone, you inevitably get to know them, even if you aren’t having a whole lot of deep talks about your lives. And as an assistant, you see an unfiltered life:  It’s amazing how much you come to know about a person when you’re taking their calls, managing their correspondence, balancing their chequebook and organizing their schedule.  

It’s taken me a long time to write this post.  I wanted to create a more nuanced picture of Gary than the Mad Men-esque caricature drawn in the various industry articles about him (including most of the ones written before he died).  It’s just that without children, a large family, or even non-work-related friends to (publicly) eulogize him, it was as though he’d been one-dimensional (“Canadian ad biz legend”), and I, for one, didn’t find him to be so.

The thin line between ‘experienced’ and ‘jaded’

Or, how I have to start getting on board with mobile web development

Back in 2000, I was one of the dotcom-bubble people we joke about now:  After a few years of working in ad agencies, I’d been recruited to a big internet consulting firm to do ‘branding’.  I had the Aeron chair, the Hermann Miller cubicle (well, at least part of the time – the offices moved so often that sometimes I was working on a foldout banquet table in what amounted to a closet), and an enormous salary that was more than twice what I’d been making at my previous job.  

rolling my eyes about mobile advertising

Like so many dotcoms, we had hardly any clients.  But that was okay, since I knew hardly anything about the internet, and I spent my days learning the difference between ASPs and ISPs and hoping that one day I’d understand why a relational database was fundamentally better than a hierarchical one.  I got a cellphone, a Palm Pilot and an Apple G3 Powerbook (this was pre-iPod, so Macs were still niche, expensive, and more effective than black turtlenecks at announcing you were a ‘creative’).  

I also spent a lot of time listening to self-styled experts talk about The Future of the Internet.  Sometimes these experts were right on the money (I remember where I was when I first heard someone say that it wouldn’t be long before everyone had their music, PDA and cellphone in one single device); other times, they were flat-out delusional (“Within the next 2 years, all software will be thin-client, and no offices will use paper any more”).  I was so far ahead of the technology curve I was practically living in San Francisco.

If there was one thing I heard about more than any other, it was ‘mobile advertising’.  I can’t begin to tell you how many times I had to sit in a boardroom while some amped-up sales guy (and it was always a guy) presented yet another PowerPoint deck outlining how by 2002, you wouldn’t be able to walk by, say, a Subway store without receiving a coupon for said store, delivered right to your cellphone!  Automatically!

Given that at the time, typing a 5-word message on your (keyboard-free) cell took longer than actually calling the recipient (I knew precisely one person with a Blackberry, and he was a geeky coder type who didn’t have anyone to send messages to anyway), I thought this sounded a little far-fetched. But I was young and stupid(er), and since everyone else in the room was nodding sagely, I dutifully got on the bandwagon. “Mobile everything!”, I chorused.

And then 2001 arrived.  The dotcoms imploded, the amped-up sales guys went back to selling technology that actually worked, and we all agreed that maybe we’d all gotten a little ahead of ourselves. The mobile dreamtime was over, and it was okay to admit that some of this stuff was ridiculous (who the hell wants a mobile Subway coupon, really?).

Which is why I almost made a fool of myself in a meeting with a client last week.

I’m helping to develop their new website, and we were talking about technical specs.  “We definitely want it to work on all mobile devices,” the client said.  “It’s definitely got to work seamlessly on iPhones, Androids, iPads, Blackberrys – make sure you test it across every platform.”

“Well…” I said, “I don’t think – “.  And then I stopped.  Because I’d been about to say that it didn’t matter whether it worked on mobile devices.

Now, I’m not a Luddite.  I know that these days, almost everyone has a smartphone, and almost everyone under 50 has a tablet computer in the household.  I know that mobile browsing is ubiquitous, and I know that mobile advertising has finally started to deliver on the promises it made in 2000.  But in the post-dotbomb years, I’d become so used to putting the brakes on mobile-related stuff for B2B clients that I almost forgot, for a moment, that the marketplace really has changed in the past 12+ years.  Of course my client’s site needs to work on mobile devices – to advise them otherwise is practically a breach of fiduciary duty.

And therein lies a classic challenge for all marketers:  You need enough experience to enable you to accurately and critically assess the new ideas and technology that are being touted as The Next Big Thing, but when you get too jaded and cynical, you run the risk of looking like an out of touch dinosaur who proves the “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” adage – and that spells career suicide for marketing types, who are expected to live on the cutting edge all the time.

Luckily, I didn’t complete my sentence when I was speaking to the client.  And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read TechCrunch, in an effort to remind myself to be both jaded and credulous at the same time.

Nutella ad: Finally, not a weird European edit


The power of the home-grown commercial

You may remember my rant of a couple of weeks ago concerning that excruciating Veet ad which had been so poorly dubbed into English. What I didn’t mention was that my opinion doesn’t matter.

The truth is that from a strategic perspective, it doesn’t matter whether I – or anyone else – actually likes an ad.  What matters is whether it does what it’s supposed to do, which is usually to help drive sales.  

Marketing initiatives may drive sales directly (by using a call to action in direct mail piece, for example) or indirectly (by increasing brand awareness or equity in a tv ad, for example), but either way, a successful ad isn’t the one everyone ‘liked’ – it’s the one that got results.

Now, I have no way of knowing whether that Veet ad got results for Reckitt Benckiser.  It’s entirely possible that just by running any ad, they increased awareness and therefore increased sales.  But I’m positive that if they’d created a new, English-language spot, they’d have done better, and created more long-lasting brand equity.  As it is, the ad, with its obviously bad dubbing, just makes the viewer think “Oh, this must be some rinky-dink brand which couldn’t afford a proper English ad” or “It’s clear this was done in some other language – I guess Veet is some weird European brand.  Who knows what’s in that stuff?”  Either way, it’s not doing much for the brand.

How do I know this?  Because after years of running their own repurposed spots, Nutella has created a Canadian spot, and it works a treat:

[Nutella’s had some legal problems recently, because their previous ads tried to convince mothers that between all those hazelnuts, milk and cocoa, Nutella (“on whole wheat toast”) was practically a health food.  Someone sued (of course they did!) and now Nutella has to dial back the health talk, which has necessitated new ads in North American markets.]

This ad was created for the Canadian market:  A little more sentimental, a little less bright-white-o-scope, and a voiceover that sounds home-grown.  Heck, it even seems like a sister ad to that Maple Leaf Prime chicken spot that keeps turning up (and we know that one works, because it’s been around for more than 2 years).  Its seeming familiarity does a better job of resonating with the audience – and doesn’t confine itself to reaching mothers of young children.

Do I like this spot?  Well, I’m not going to be tweeting about how cool and creative it is, and it’s not going to go on my list of all-time favourite commercials.  But I’ve never been a big fan of Nutella – I could never understand why you’d want to spread the filling of a Ferrero Rocher chocolate on toast – and this ad got me thinking that maybe I should give it another try.  And that’s the mark of a successful commercial.

The Friendship Machine: It’s all fun and marketing til someone gets hurt


I kind of love this idea from Coke:

(Can’t be bothered to watch the video?  Here’s the recap:  Coke created an extra-large vending machine with the coin slot and buttons located too high for a person to reach on their own.  The idea was that you’d enlist a friend to help you reach the buttons, then you’d get 2 containers of a Coke product for the price of one.)

It’s a nicely art-directed and edited spot with a good soundtrack, and it’s got the typical Coke feel-good vibe, even if the punchline does make it clear that ultimately it was more about sales (“1074% more sales than a regular vending machine in the same time period!”) than about actually making the world a better place.

However, I found myself wondering how the hell this idea ever made it out of the brainstorming phase, given that vending machines kill more people annually than sharks do.  (Neither of them kill a lot of people in any given year, but as we all know, popular factoids trump actual data every time when it comes to killing creative ideas quicker than you can say ‘ripomatic‘.)

Think about it:  If a creative type suggested you build a promo item which required your customers to stand on each other’s shoulders on a cement floor, wouldn’t your first thought be L A W S U I T?

Someone was brave here, and I for one am doing the slow clap.

The annoying VEET Wax ad: It was in French!


I know you probably think I’ve been spending these romantic early days of motherhood experimenting with organic, gluten-free baby food recipes so I’ll be prepared when the little bundle of joy starts on solid food, but the truth is that what I’m mostly doing is watching television while I wait for someone to stop by so I can hand them the baby and go take a shower.

One of the problems with watching so much television is that you end up seeing the same commercials, over and over again.  And when you get a a bad one, it starts to drive you nuts.  Like this one:

Can you spot what’s driving me mental?  

Veet is owned by Reckitt Benckiser.  Wikipedia tells me that Reckitt has a market capitalization of 31.6 billion pounds. That’s 31.6 billion.  I feel certain that with this kind of money, and their global market penetration, Reckitt could have afforded to create an English-language spot and avoided this trainwreck that voiceovers forgot.

The original ad appears to have been in French:


Sadly, I can guess what happened here:  Some navy-blue-suit type in the global head office noticed that the Canadian operations were about to spend a shedload of money on a media buy and said “Whoa, Nelly!  That’s a lot of money, and Canada only has, like, 127 people.  So don’t go wasting all kinds of budget shooting a new commercial.  Everyone in Canada speaks French, right?  Right!  So let’s just run that French spot we did last year.”

And then the masters for the ad arrived in the Toronto office of the ad agency.  The account director sighed, had a fight with the media buying company, finally managed to extract $5k from the media buy in order to get the French spot dubbed into English, and reflected, not for the first time, that being the advertising account director for a packaged goods client was not nearly as exciting and creative as she thought it was back when she was a junior account coordinator.