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.