Dennis Bruce: Canadian advertising’s father figure


—Mark Smyka joined the ad world as a reporter with Marketing magazine at the tail end of the Mad Men era. One of the sacred rituals of the day was lunch—a time when industry people would take a break to talk shop, commiserate, quarrel,  gossip or simply revel in the business itself. In this series, Smyka revives the lunch tradition for intimate conversations with icons of Canadian advertising and marketing—

I first met Dennis Bruce 40 years ago… over lunch. He was an art director with a big international reputation. He had just returned to Canada after a four-year stint as creative director at Ogilvy in New Zealand. He’d been coaxed back home by MacLaren Advertising, the venerable, domestically owned agency that was the biggest and best in the country at the time.

Bruce had already served two tours at MacLaren and now they wanted him back, hoping he could breathe some new life into a flagging creative product. It was a big job.

I was the cub reporter, newly hired to cover the ad agency scene for Marketing magazine, the only industry publication in those days, and therefore its bible. I’d already apprenticed at a few small town newspapers, writing feature stories and chasing politicians down city hall corridors.

Advertising was totally new and unknown to me. Those who were coaching me on how to fast-track my understanding of the business said the best way to figure it out would be to get to know Dennis Bruce. If you really want an honest and meaningful take on advertising, ask him to lunch and pick his brain, they said.

I did, and they were right.

Now, I watch him enter the Toronto pub where we’ve arranged to meet for lunch and I am immediately whisked back to another time.

A collection of Dennis Bruce’s print work.

He has not lost one bit of the charm that I remember so well. He still speaks with carefully chosen words. And, most of all, he makes me fondly remember that knack he always had, of just sitting back and listening, intently, and making you feel that the things you are saying really matter. A listener in a world of talkers.

“What do you think is the single most important quality you need to be successful in advertising?” I ask.

“A curious mind,” he says, without hesitation. “But curious about everything. About life. About people. About why things happen. About how things work. If you have that you will go a long way.

“And you need to be able to deal with uncertainty,” he quickly adds. “People are always looking for certainty. They need it. Whereas in advertising, you must be open to ambiguity and even feel comfortable when everything is hanging in the balance. Not knowing for sure which way to go can be very painful when you are in that place, but you need to be okay with it.

“Too often, people give in to the temptation to rush to a solution prematurely. It’s a natural thing to do, especially when you are haunted by the fear of, ‘Will I ever come up with an idea again? Am I fresh out of ideas?’

“That’s when you really need to focus on the problem. Someone once said, ‘The solution is in the problem.’ I believe that’s true. You need to fully understand the problem… to immerse yourself in it to find a solution.”


Bruce was an art school dropout. Yet he could draw and he loved design. When his family moved to South Africa from London, England, he found work at a local ad agency as an illustrator and designer, beginning a life-long career in advertising.

But he felt the pull of England and Europe, and so, at the end of the 1950s, he was back in the U.K., part of the London agency scene just as the ad world was beginning to explode.

It was an era defined by three New York admen, Ned Doyle, Mac Dane and Bill Bernbach, who were setting the industry ablaze with their reverential, creative-is-king approach to advertising.

“Too often, people give in to the temptation to rush to a solution prematurely. It’s a natural thing to do, especially when you are haunted by the fear of, ‘Will I ever come up with an idea again? Am I fresh out of ideas?’

North America was the place to be, so Bruce crossed the Atlantic and made a brief stop in New York before ending up in Toronto at MacLaren, art director on General Motors. He stayed briefly, then moved to McCann-Erickson at a time when it was the hotbed of advertising creativity in Canada. There he met a brilliant and eccentric copywriter named Cubby Marcus, and the two decided to go out on their own.

They rented an apartment in a mid-town Toronto high rise and hung out their shingle: “Marcus & Bruce.” Beneath it, they added their agency’s positioning statement: “If your account is worth less than $1 million, bugger off.”

“We felt like revolutionaries,” Bruce recalls. “We wanted to turn the advertising world upside down. We were out to prove that advertising could be done in a different way. That was our mission. Mostly, though, we spent our time launching paper airplanes off the balcony.”

They did win a big assignment from Canada Packers, but to get more of the account, they needed to join Cockfield Brown, then a charter member of the Canadian agency establishment. While at Cockfield, Marcus and Bruce created the game-changing “Fred and the Boys” campaign for Molson Export, an ongoing story that followed the exploits of a bunch of good old Canadian buddies. The campaign seared itself into the Canadian psyche and made “Molson Ex” an unassailable brand leader.

Predictably, Bruce soon found the establishment agency scene stifling and too confining. That discomfort prompted his next career move… to New Zealand, where he headed Ogilvy & Mather for the next four years. He turned it into the country’s leading agency and earned a seat on O&M’s worldwide creative council, while also sailing the New Zealand coast in a 30-foot sloop with his family and befriending the legendary David Ogilvy in the process.

“We became good friends,” Bruce says of Ogilvy. “I guess I can count myself among the privileged who have dined at his Chateau in France.”

Then, in 1978, the call came from MacLaren. Bruce, his wife and four children packed up everything and returned to Toronto. It didn’t take long before the entrepreneurial urge began to nag at Bruce again. However, rather than fleeing the establishment this time, Bruce decided to work from within. He teamed up once again with a copywriter named Marty Myers, an affable and close partner who shared Bruce’s creative urgings and independent spirit. The two launched a small boutique-ish offshoot to MacLaren called The Gloucester Group.

“We got a lot of publicity, did some great work and began winning tons of awards,” Bruce recalls. “But that became a problem when MacLaren clients started saying they wanted to be moved to the Gloucester Group. So it was shut down.”

Having run out of options at MacLaren, Bruce and Myers began seriously thinking about striking out on their own. They talked to Eric Miller, one of MacLaren’s ex-senior executives and the potential account guy component in any agency they might launch.

Thus was born Miller Myers Bruce, soon to become Miller Myers Bruce DallaCosta and, eventually, Miller Myers Bruce DallaCosta Harrod and Mirlin, the self-proclaimed biggest name in Canadian advertising.

It was in the early days of Miller Myers Bruce that Bruce and his partners developed a campaign for London Life that transformed the financial services industry in Canada. The campaign was called “Freedom 55.”

“London Life was looking for ways of getting young people to think of investing and taking out life insurance coverage,” Bruce remembers. “So we recruited people in their late 20s and early 30s for some research. The groups completely bombed. These young people didn’t want to hear about spending money on insurance. ‘I have no extra money for this,’ they said, or ‘I just bought a house and am deeply in debt.’ It looked like a lost cause.

“Then we tried something different. I said, ‘Put your hands on the table and close your eyes. Imagine yourself at age 55. Imagine that you have an extra stream of income. Now what do you see?’”

The insight led to a TV campaign with variations of a young person toiling away at work late at night and then being taken away to exotic locations where the younger person would meet their older self enjoying the fruits of a luxurious retirement.

“Our media budget was a fraction of what the big banks were spending, yet in one year we achieved 85% national awareness and ‘Freedom 55’ dramatically advanced London Life’s business. We cleaned everyone’s clock.”

The lesson? “If you promote a service with a rational argument, the critical mind will reject it,” says Bruce. “But if you wrap your message in a story that excites the imagination and appeals to the emotions, you have a chance.”


As much as Bruce enjoys talking about the business, he lights up significantly when the conversation turns to his sons Andrew and Duncan, both top executives within Publicis.

Duncan is president and CEO of Publicis Canada and Andrew is probably Canada’s highest-ranking ad exec as CEO of Publicis Communications North America.

They were never groomed to be in advertising, Bruce confesses, though they heard a lot about the business over the kitchen table. Duncan, who always wanted to be a film director, made his way into the business through the conventional route of art college and art direction at several Toronto agencies. Andrew’s career path was pure accident.

“Andrew was at loose ends and didn’t know what to do with himself,” recalls Bruce. “I suggested he might follow my father’s footsteps and become a builder. So Andrew took courses in woodworking and ended up renovating houses. But that wasn’t the answer either.

“If you promote a service with a rational argument, the critical mind will reject it. But if you wrap your message in a story that excites the imagination and appeals to the emotions, you have a chance.”

“Marty and I had just started another agency with Duncan and Marty’s son, Brad, and we needed an account guy. Marty thought Andrew would be great, so we gave him a computer and hired him.

“One of our clients was a bicycle shop in Mississauga. We had just finished a TV commercial for them, which they had rejected. So Marty suggested Andrew visit the client and see if he could convince them to run the spot.

“Andrew left in the morning and we kept looking at our watches, wondering where he was. He was gone all day. Finally, around 6 p.m., Andrew shows up.

“He says, ‘They bought the commercial. And, by the way, we all have new bikes.’”


We have talked for three hours. My notebook is jammed with fresh scribbling.

Bruce leans in to the table on both elbows and says to me: “You know, you haven’t asked me the big question.”

“And what’s that?” I ask.

“You never asked me what was the most important thing I did.”

“And …?”

Bruce truly beams as he tells me about the “Out of the Cold” program that he helped create and continues to run. For 25 years, Bruce and a group of some 100 volunteers have been feeding up to 120 homeless people every Saturday night from November to March. It takes place in a church basement in Toronto, and about 60 to 70 people are also sheltered for the night.

“It came about as an effort to provide an atmosphere of welcome to people who live on the street,” Bruce describes.

At first, I thought of the story as a bit of a non-sequitur. But then a comment that Bruce had made earlier in our conversation came back to me. “I was coaching a group of MBAs,” he explained to me. “And I kept thinking that they would have done better had they spent more time studying the humanities. They were so obsessed with business and the formulaic that they had lost sight of what it is to be human.

“It made me think also of the digital world and big data and how that has led to so much short-term thinking and basically transactional work: ‘’Here it is. Call now.’

“The problem with data is that it essentially abstracts humanity. It doesn’t laugh or cry or have dreams. Data can’t tell stories the way [great advertising] stories are meant to be told—with emotion, conviction and creativity—and in ways that touch our humanity.”

And suddenly everything made sense to me.