Best Advice from Terry O’Reilly

“Best Advice” is a recurring column on The Message, in which industry veterans Jack Neary and Kevin Spreekmeester—and some of their colleagues—dispense practical advice for people who are just entering the industry. This week Best Advice talks with broadcast producer and personality Terry O’Reilly, best known as host of the CBC Radio One series Under the Influence—which has garnered nearly 30 million podcast downloads. O’Reilly was also the co-founder of the award-winning radio and television advertising production company Pirate. (Photo: Jeremy Fokkens)—

On his early challenges:

“Right from the start I knew I wanted to be a copywriter. Fresh out of Ryerson, I sent resumes to agencies from coast to coast, and no one would hire me. It was 1981 and there was the recession. It was a tough time to find a job. I ended up landing at a small radio station called FM108 in Burlington, Ont. I was the only copywriter on staff. I had to write and produce all the ads, sometimes 25 a day. I found that I had an ability to write radio—it came easily and it was fun.

The biggest challenge was presenting my ideas. In a small radio station, you’re always doing that over the phone to clients, and the pace is pretty quick. My biggest fear was could I convince a client to buy them? I always feared presentations. When it came time to dial the phone number, [I experienced] big-time anxiety. I had nobody there to teach me the ropes. Over time I got used to it, but I never enjoyed it.

When I got to the big leagues at an ad agency, which was in 1985 at Campbell Ewald, the CD was Trevor Goodgoll. He was the most amazing presenter I had ever seen. I would be in the boardroom, a green copywriter, and I’d watch Trevor present to a room full of clients and it was magic. He owned the room. He was theatrical, he was smart and he knew how to create build-up, so that when he revealed the idea of the ad it seemed as if that were the only choice. I learned from him how to present.

I learned that it’s a two-sided coin in an advertising creative department: one side is generating great ideas, and the other is selling those ideas. So I made it my mission to become at least a competent presenter.”

On doing your homework:

“It’s critical for young people starting out today to do their homework in a couple of ways. One is pore over advertising awards books, because I really think they are the training manuals of our business. Next, when you’re going in for an interview at an agency, do your homework about that particular agency and that creative director before you go.

I’d learn everything about the guy. Years later when people would come in to interview with me at Pirate, they’d say ‘I love Pirate and I want to work here,’ and I’d say, ‘Tell me three of your favourite Pirate ads.’ If they couldn’t answer that, the interview was over right then and there. I’d say ‘I’m sorry, you didn’t do your homework. I recommend you go do that.'”

On making a move: 

“If you’re happy at a shop, you’ve got a job you love at an agency and you’ve suddenly got another agency tempting you and offering you more money, stay put. Don’t move if you’re happy, because it’s hard to find a place that you love. And I wouldn’t go for the money, because the money will come to you.

On making a career switch: 

“I always say I’m very fortunate because I’ve had a third act in my advertising career, which most people never get. Every year I’d do a radio seminar where I’d rent a theatre in Toronto and invite 200 young writers from across the country. I’d get on that stage for seven hours, and I’d try to teach them how to write good, effective radio. I’d bring all my learning to this, because I was directing 500 radio commercials a year.

After years of doing this I was out to lunch and a friend said, ‘You know, that seminar you do would make a great radio show.’ And I said, ‘Who would ever air that?’ He said that CBC would. I laughed: The advertising-free CBC running a show on advertising? But I couldn’t get this idea out of my mind. I thought, why not?

So, we put a pitch together and it was very simple. We went in and said, ‘OK, we’re not academics, we’re not journalists, we’re ad men in the trenches, so we know what we’re talking about.’ Advertising is like architecture in that it’s everywhere in your life. Most people hate it and don’t understand it and think it’s annoying, but in fact it’s one of the most fascinating industries out there because it’s the study of human nature.

We wanted to create a show that explains advertising to the general public. We never thought CBC would buy it, to tell you the truth. But they leaned back in their chairs after our very simple pitch and said, ‘We’ll take it.’ And then we had to figure out how to do a national radio show.”

Terry’s Golden Rule: 

“My best advice, in short, is be bold. Be bold when you’re knocking on the doors of ad agencies. Don’t be afraid to be different when you make that phone call to the CD, or send in that resume. Don’t do what everyone else is doing. Be bold when you’re coming up with ideas, be bold in the boardroom, and if, along the way, someone says to you ‘Let’s go pitch this idea for a national radio program to the CBC,’ something you know nothing about, be bold enough to walk in there and pitch that idea. I mean, I’m starting my 14th season on CBC and we’ve got one million listeners a week.”

Jack Neary is the former CCO of BBDO, Cossette, Chiat/Day and TBWA. Kevin Spreekmeester is a photo-journalist and former CMO of Canada Goose. This week’s eye-candy comes from Spreekmeester’s “Guestbook Earth” project, a photo taken from the Wickaninnish Hotel in Tofino.