Best Advice from Eric Blais

“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 Eric Blais, one of the first people to embrace the discipline of strategic planning in agencies in Canada. His resume includes leadership roles at some of the finest agencies in the country including Harrod & Mirlin, Roche Macaulay and Partners, Publicis and MacLaren McCann. Today he is the founder and president of Headspace Marketing as well as being an avid painter—that’s one of his Montreal street scenes up top.

What was the greatest hurdle you had to overcome at the start of your career?

Within a month of joining Young & Rubicam Toronto in 1983, fresh out of Laval University in Québec City, I sat in a meeting where my only role was to take notes to produce a contact report. After much debate about an issue I didn’t quite grasp, the General Foods client declared out of frustration that this was a “catch-22.” He went on to say that the research was F.U.B.A.R. I had an English-French dictionary but no Google. That’s when it dawned on me that I’d have to not only learn the business of advertising but also the English language and its colloquialisms.

What was the most valuable lesson you learned early on in your career?

Don’t let someone who can’t say yes, say no. The strategy or creative development process usually begins at the lower levels of the marketing organization. Many great ideas died an early death in the hands of marketing decision-makers who could not have approved them without senior management’s blessing. It’s a tricky thing to manage but if you feel strongly about your recommendation, find a way to keep it alive, without ruffling feathers, until you get it in front of the person who can say yes. There’s a corollary to this: always have a recommendation and a solid rationale.

What’s the best advice you can offer young people entering the ad world today?

The same advice that was given to me when I started: stay curious. Back then, agency networks invested heavily in training. Less than two years into the job, I was fortunate enough to be one of 20 young staffers from Y&R offices around the globe to be sent to New York for two months to attend what was essentially an in-house advertising university course. On the last day of classes, this giant man walks in to say a few words. Alex Kroll, the former football player who went from copywriter in 1963 to CEO in 1985, reminded us of the power of curiosity. You’ll need curiosity to succeed. Ask questions even if you think people expect answers.

Who did you lean on most when you started your career?

The people who helped me the most early on had one thing in common. They all worked on the account nobody wanted to work on: Whitehall Labs and brands like Anacin, Compound W, Summer’s Eve, and Preparation H. What it lacked in excitement, it more than made up for in learning opportunities. It had it all—large budgets, non-stop creative development and production, copy testing, regulatory challenges, and lots of research. It taught me the discipline of packaged goods advertising.

Did you ever make any important missteps and how did you recover?

I don’t recall making missteps that are worth writing about but I did course correct my career before making the misstep of leaving the agency world.

I knew I wanted to work in advertising when I was in high school. I’d go see the Cannes reel at a movie theatre in Montreal and would come out determined to be in that creative business. Starting as an account manager, I had little to do with the creative side of the business but I learned a lot. I moved up the account service ranks with limited opportunities to be creative. I probably would have changed careers had it not been for the chance given to me by Harrod & Mirlin in the late 80s to build what was then a new function: account planning. Being a planner and running planning departments allowed me to be at the intersection of strategy and creative for most of my career. Everyone in the business should be creative no matter what department they’re in—maybe not accounting.

What should young people be most aware of when starting in advertising today?

Someone once described advertising to me as “a high school social club with money.” This business can be a lot of fun but I’d argue its golden age is behind us. The Mad Men era ended a long time ago. It’s a tough business that is in the process of reinventing itself. And while it’s important to learn from the past before we forget about its best practices, anyone starting in the business today should be keenly aware that they’re entering uncharted territory they’ll need to constantly adapt to. This too can be fun.

What is your one golden rule for someone planning a career in account services today?

At the risk of being too blunt, I wouldn’t advise anyone to plan a career in account services working for “agencies” with “accounts.” That model may eventually disappear. I’d plan a career in marketing-communications, not necessarily in agencies, with a focus on creative business-building ideas so that the skills you acquire are portable no matter how the industry continues to evolve.