The unstoppable Richard Kelly

—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—

Of the many labels that get attached to an ad agency over its lifetime, none is more sought-after—nor more beneficial—than the designation “hot.” In fact, in advertising, hot begets hot.

When you’re hot, the best people want to come and work for you. Hot also gets you onto every important new business list—the ultimate acknowledgement of hotness. And, maybe most importantly, hot wins you the attention of all those fame-seeking clients (including your own) who yearn to become hot themselves.

Being hot in advertising is everything, and there are few in the Canadian ad business who know more about what it means to be hot than Richard Kelly—the British-born agency veteran who presided over one of the most blazing hot streaks in Canadian advertising history.


We are seated at a wood-panelled booth, away from the chatter of the mid-Toronto restaurant’s regular lunchtime guests. Kelly lifts the palm of one hand and gently rests his forehead there. The forefinger of his other hand nervously traces circles on the table as he speaks. Though he says he’s mellowed in recent years, Kelly cannot mask the underlying intensity and extremes that form the central storyline of his career… and that linger still.

Kelly says he knew he wanted to be in advertising the day he read David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man. “The book was a huge hit. It was literate and it was interesting in so many ways,” he says. “It was being read by people outside the advertising business, and the author was this quirky character who had practised as a chef, served in the secret service, had run a tobacco farm and was now a world famous adman. I thought, ‘This is great. I can do this.’”

His start was classic—a mailroom job at an agency in Birmingham, England in 1963. But Kelly was clearly headed upward. He immediately bought a subscription to the New York/US trade magazine Printer’s Ink and impatiently began to learn everything he could about the business.

“I decided that the best route into the industry was through CPG products because that’s where there was strategy and where the really important work of building brands was being done. I decided I wanted to work for the best, which was Procter & Gamble, and that meant Grey Advertising in London.”

It took some 300 hand-written letters before he was able to land a real agency job at Dorland Advertising, ranked among the top 10 in the U.K. at the time. After gaining some experience there, Kelly was able to get the job he really wanted, at Grey London. He soon found himself reading dispatches and research papers from the Grey head office in New York. The thinking and the analysis was impressive. Kelly decided that Grey’s 3rd Avenue head office in Manhattan was the place to be.

“It was a brainy agency filled with really smart people. The research department alone had close to 100 people, and the agency was constantly developing new models and investing in new talent.”

Before he knew it, Kelly was sailing past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. It was 1971, and he was on his way to an account job on P&G at Grey New York. After a couple of years of high level apprenticeship, Kelly was ready to leave for a job at a creative agency in London, only to be persuaded to stay at Grey by its legendary CEO Ed Meyer, who was planning to shift Canadian account responsibilities for a host of P&G brands to Grey in Canada.

“Canada seemed like a more friendly place to be,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Why not?’

“And at 27, it was too good a job to pass up, to be Grey Canada’s VP director of client services and take a step up to a leadership role.”

For the next three years he moved between Grey Montreal and Grey Toronto, and then was hired by one of the pillars of the Canadian agency establishment, family-owned F.H. Hayhurst, to run another mainstream CPG account, General Foods.

It was while at Hayhurst that Kelly got a call from the influential ad agency recruiter Richard Foster, asking whether he felt ready to be an agency president. It was 1977, and one of the hottest agencies in New York, Scali McCabe Sloves, had set its sights on Canada. It planned to open with top talent, but no seeded business.

“I was still only 30 but I wanted it,” says Kelly. “I remember the meeting I had with [agency co-founder] Marvin Sloves. It was my first real ad agency lunch—at the Four Seasons Restaurant, the ultimate power hang-out in mid-town Manhattan. I learned that they were talking to around 10 people in Canada about the position, but by the end of the lunch, the job was mine. Marvin said I’d be starting without any business from New York, and that the first thing I had to do was find a creative director because Scali was a creative agency.”

One of the names suggested to Kelly was Gary Prouk, the often outrageous and flamboyant young creative director of Doyle Dane Bernbach in Toronto. Prouk was winning well deserved praise for his work on clients such as Cadbury and Heinz, and was the self-appointed champion of advertising creativity in Canada.

“We were wary of each other,” Kelly remembers. “He had a reputation for being emotional and arrogant. But then we met, kind of like on a first date, and we talked about the business; we laughed and exchanged Oscar Wilde quotes and we just started to click. I think it took us 14 lunches before we finally decided to work together.”

The next person to join the nascent agency was Pegi Gross, an established media executive who in addition to her media expertise brought a level-headed business sense and a Rolodex full of important contacts. One of the names on that list was Hugo Powell.

Also British, Powell was a fearless marketer, eager to shake up the somnolent Canadian advertising industry from his Vancouver office, where he ran Nabob Foods. Powell was sitting on a genuine innovation in the coffee market—a new, rigid, vacuum-sealed foil coffee package that Nabob wanted to introduce into the Ontario market. Powell needed the right agency to tell his story. Scali was ready for a swing at something big, and Nabob was the perfect opportunity.

The agency did not hold back. Scali launched a boldly aggressive TV campaign featuring Canadian actor Michael Reynolds. In one spot, Reynolds was seated at a table with three of Nabob’s soft-packaged competitors, including market leader Maxwell House Coffee in front of him. Reynolds took the hard-edged Nabob pack and smashed open the competition, one by one, releasing their beans across the table to demonstrate that Nabob had “better, fresher coffee.”

The commercial was an instant sensation, and while it earned a wrist-slap from regulators, it also helped take Nabob from a 2% share in Ontario to 25% in just a year and a half. It also helped establish Scali in Canada as a highly creative, tough-minded agency force. (See a follow up Nabob ad below.)

Mark Smyka’s article for Maclean’s about Scali and the Nabob campaign.

“It was generally accepted in those days that an agency was either creative-led or business-led,” Kelly says. “We said you don’t have to choose. You can have both. And that’s how we positioned ourselves, as a creative agency that is equally balanced between business strategy and creativity.”

Kelly and Prouk took their brand promise—along with the Nabob Foods case study—and went searching for clients that had both the business need and the temperament that would align with the Scali mission.

“We were looking for clients who wanted to make a big impact,” says Kelly. “Companies with huge dreams and often huge obstacles. We were also interested in working with marketers who wanted to break the mould, people who were mavericks.

“For us, that often meant connecting with the CEO to find out what they really wanted to achieve. Which is what David Ogilvy did. It meant going beyond making a plan and doing some ads.

“We connected with clients who had big ambitions. We established deep relationships, where they committed to us and we committed to them. There was a powerful sense that we were in it together. Not everyone can be up for that kind of challenge. So we had to choose carefully. We really needed to believe in what we were doing, and then it was about action and getting things done.”

Big name brands including Cadbury, Ralston-Purina and eventually Volvo followed, and in each case Scali lived up to its reputation for outstanding work. The agency also became known for its all-star talent, both creative and account-side. Working at Scali became a kind of badge in itself.


Scali was hot, but its aggressive approach took a toll. “After five and a half years at Scali I was tired and worn out,” recalls Kelly. “I just knew I couldn’t do this forever.”

Kelly had attracted the attention of Judy Wald, a Madison Avenue recruiter who had a job for Kelly as president of Wells Rich Greene in Los Angeles. “That was the first time that I hadn’t been strategic about my career choice,” says Kelly. “My decision was really more about moving to LA, which I loved.”

One week before Kelly arrived in L.A. in 1983, WRG last its anchor account, Century 21. Two years later, WRG New York made the L.A. office resign the prestigious Hills Bros coffee business because of a conflict with another account. Kelly left shortly afterwards and was hired by Scali again to launch a start-up office in LA, which failed to take off.

“I started looking for opportunities back in Canada and became interested in the agency Ambrose Carr DeForest Linton. It was independent, mid-sized and had a reputation for doing good work.”

Kelly joined as president of the agency, which was renamed Ambrose Carr Linton Kelly. He bonded instantly with Peter Byrne, an ex-cab driver and one of the agency’s creative directors, and later recruited Jack Bensimon, a rising star in account management.

But the agency’s independence was about to end. Miles Nadal, the acquisitive CEO of MDC Partners, had been buying up companies on the periphery of advertising and marketing, and in the early 1990s was keen to get into the agency business. His first important move was acquiring ACLK.

“It wasn’t for me, and by then I’d had it with the business. I just wanted to work with smart people as a consultant and an advisor. So I quit and opened Richard Kelly & Company.”

One of the first people to sign on as a client was Hugo Powell, who had moved over to the beer business as president of Labatt Brewing Company.

Ask anyone who was in the Canadian agency business in the mid-1990s, and chances are good they will remember Hugo Powell’s “Fire The Handlers” speech, delivered at a major conference hailed as a pivotal summit meeting to address pressing industry concerns.

Powell was part of a high-level panel discussion, and was joined on the podium by CEOs from Procter & Gamble and The Hudson’s Bay Company. His speech, written by Kelly, reverberated through the hall like a thunderbolt and became the topic of heated debate for months, if not years, to come.

“The intent was to be helpful and to point the industry in a direction that would lead to a better future between agencies and clients. Hugo was saying, ‘I like agencies and I am happy to pay for their service and in fact I’m willing to pay more, as long as it is for something powerful that’s going to have an impact on my business. But a lot of what you’re (agencies) spending your money on is handling—and not just account people, but creative people as well. I need thinking and I need ideas. I certainly don’t want or need to be handled.’”

It was a sobering moment for many agency people and a shuddering wake-up call that most realists admitted was necessary and long overdue.

Kelly went on to help orchestrate another big shake-up two years later, when he led the account realignment at Labatt that resulted in the firing of most of the brewer’s Ontario entire agency. Labatt shifted the bulk of its brand portfolio to New York-based Ammirati & Puris, the highly respected creative agency. A&P had just committed to opening an office in Toronto to service UPS and Compaq.

After the contract with Labatt ended, and a year of non-compete had passed, Kelly was hired by Molson as a member of its management board and as SVP strategic marketing, a position he held for three years.

Six years ago, Kelly got reacquainted with Jack Bensimon and now works at the agency as a coach and mentor, a role that he says is among the most satisfying of his career.

“I’ve always believed that this is first and foremost a people business. It can also be a sink or swim business. What I’m doing now is using all that I have learned from the highs and lows of my career to help some talented people become the best possible versions of themselves.”


Years ago, over lunch with a prominent and immensely successful agency creative director, I began to discuss the trajectory of life in the agency business. He thought about it for a moment and extended his arm upward from the elbow. He said, “You’re either this.” And then he let his arm point downward and said, “Or you’re this.” And finally, he set his arm parallel to the table and said, “In the agency business there’s no such thing as this.”

Kelly would agree with this assessment. He talks a lot about the passion, the camaraderie, the collection of misfits and unusual people drawn together in a strange, inexplicable bond, and an irrepressible compulsion to compete and to be the best.

“We (at Scali) had a reputation for being tough. We thought we’d better indulge our human side and just go out and play. So we joined an agency softball league. Well, we got killed. And we all said, ‘This can’t happen. We can’t do this. We’ve got to win.’ And then we went out and bought uniforms and we began a training program and we practised. When the season ended, we had won the league.

“We just couldn’t stop ourselves.”