The energy field known as Marlene Hore

—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—

As shocking as it is that only 12% of today’s ad agency creative director jobs are held by women, that number seems positively enlightened compared to what it was less than a generation ago.

Although we can’t know the comparable figure from advertising’s creative heyday of the ’60s and ’70s (who, after all, would have even bothered to compile such a statistic), a quick look at the creative credits from that era would peg the percentage at pretty much zero.

In the U.S. there was Mary Wells Lawrence. In Canada we had a feisty, five-foot-nothin’ energy field by the name of Marlene Hore.

Striding breezily into the upscale Bloor Street dining room that was a favoured ad haunt decades ago, Hore shows she has lost none of the vitality or charm that helped her become the first—and at the time only—woman on the worldwide board of the then mighty J. Walter Thompson in the mid 1980s.

She leans into the conversation. From time to time her head dips down so that her glance reaches out over the top of her glasses, looking directly into your eyes. She uses the gesture as an exclamation point. Marlene Hore is ready to talk.

She started off teaching school in her native Montreal at $3,000 a year. She did that for two years, then got a summer job at the TV and radio broadcast station CFCF as a promotion writer and a grunt. She did any work that came her way: script assistant, production helper and a writer of on-air promos for TV shows. “Basically, anyone who needed work to be done would come and see me and I would do it.”

CFCF was a union shop. That meant a coffee break in the morning and the afternoon, and about a half hour for lunch. Every now and then a bunch of guys in grey suits and striped ties would show up in the cafeteria and the station executives would go all out. They’d put together a huge spread with assorted goodies and they’d hang out in a studio from noon until 3 p.m. … or later.

“And so I asked, who the heck are they?”

“Someone said, ‘Oh, they work in advertising.’”

“So I decided I wanted to be in advertising.”

Hore had a knack for writing, and loved doing commercials, as basic as they were at the broadcaster. She was hankering to work at an ad agency.

Montreal at the time was a thriving national advertising centre—equal to, if not bigger, than Toronto. It was the home base of many of the big agencies that dominated the industry at the time, including McKim Advertising, Canada’s oldest agency; Cockfield Brown, the first Canadian agency to go public; and Grey Advertising, one of the big U.S. agencies operating in Canada. Other domestic agencies like MacLaren Advertising, Vickers and Benson and F.H. Hayhurst all had big, full-service offices in the city.

“I just couldn’t get a job,” recalls Hore. “Mostly, I couldn’t even get an interview. I’d sit in the lobby of an agency and nobody would come.”

She got the break she needed when she landed an interview with Kerry Harnett, the executive creative director at McKim. “For some reason he saw me and he loved my work. He said there was nothing at McKim, but he told me that V&B was looking for young creative people and he helped open the door for me.”

V&B liked what they saw in Hore and hired her as a junior copywriter. Her lucky streak continued when she was teamed up with Jimmy Burt, a quirky young art director who had just arrived from Australia and, like Hore, was itching to make a mark. They went on a creative tear at V&B, and were beginning to get serious attention when Burt was lured to McKim by Graham Watt, the copywriter and creative director who would become Burt’s career-long partner.

The next jolt came when the Bank of Montreal moved its business from V&B to J. Walter Thompson in Montreal. V&B’s creative department felt the blow.

But for Hore, the move turned into an opportunity when JWT offered her a job, such as it was in those antediluvian days.

“Men had pregnancy coverage at work, but women had none. It was assumed if you were a woman that you would be taken care of by your husband’s coverage. There was no maternity leave. And if you got pregnant, you were expected to leave work around your fourth month, before your bump showed, because it made clients uneasy in meetings.

“We were not allowed to wear pant suits to work. Women got a half-day off before the Christmas party so they could do their hair… that was kind of our golf day. And there was lots of inter-office sex. It was an after-hours sport.

“The good part was that I got to work for some really great clients, like Kraft, Warner-Lambert, Pepsi and Unilever. The bad part was that women were treated like slaves. There were no senior women at the agency. It was all men, and so many of the policies were crazy, when you think back. But there was no one in a position of authority to do anything. Still, it was strange that nothing was ever said,” recalls Hore.

The strain of constantly fighting back against battalions of indifferent or often hostile men paid off in an indirect way. The combative spirit that Hore cultivated by necessity became a benefit and a competitive advantage when it came time to take the fight to the marketplace on behalf of her clients.

“My clients loved me and I loved them back,” says Hore. “I cared about them more than anything, and they cared about me. I never took short cuts. I was totally committed. The Kraft people thought of me as a Kraft person, and the Pepsi people felt I was a Pepsi person.

“It was a heady time. Our clients were mostly young men, eagerly on their way to somewhere. They didn’t want to be safe and they weren’t looking for security. They mostly just wanted to go for it, and so they took risks.”

Still based in JWT’s Montreal office, Hore became increasingly involved in the advertising work that was coming out of Toronto. This added depth and diversity to her reel, which included brands like Chiclets, Miracle Whip, Cracker Barrel Cheese, Kraft Cheese Slices, Dare Cookies, and a landmark campaign for Red Rose Tea that showed variations of a tweedy Englishman sipping a cup of Red Rose Tea, followed by his puffy pronouncement: “Only in Canada, eh? Pity.”

“I didn’t actually write that line, although I did add the ‘eh,’” admits Hore. “And I helped make the campaign famous.”

Fame was an ingredient that was sorely lacking at JWT when Ron Kovas, the mid-western JWT careerist, arrived in Toronto in the early 1980s to run the Canadian operations. Kovas, a pragmatic businessman, quickly figured out that he needed to improve the somewhat anemic creative product in Toronto, which had become the agency’s biggest office.

“Ron said we needed to do something creatively,” recalls Hore. “He asked me to become creative director for Toronto and to turn it into a creative leader. So I went out and hired the best people I could find. I didn’t care if they were bad boys so long as they delivered. In fact, I kind of liked the bad boys.

“I put creative in the spotlight and I fought for it. It’s always easier to sell bad work. There’s no risk in that. You need to push harder for the good work. And that is something we were all responsible for. We had to support each other and rally around the work. We ended up becoming the biggest agency in Canada, and by many accounts the best.”

At its creative highpoint, JWT Toronto was handling some of the country’s biggest brands—all waging marketing wars in the industry’s toughest categories. JWT was responsible for Labatt Blue when it was going head-to-head with Molson’s Canadian for number one status in Canada. And Pepsi, the perennial number two, made an audacious claim in the ferocious cola wars that it was gaining on market leader Coke with a dramatic TV commercial that showed a Pepsi truck steadily overtaking a Coke truck.

Then, before the decade ended, agency disaster struck. Labatt decided it wanted to look at other agencies and launched a full-scale review of its Blue brand. After an intense and high profile review process, it moved the business.

“It felt as though the whole thing had just exploded,” recalls Hore. “All I can say is that the momentum of going downwards is much faster than the momentum of going upwards.”

Some people say JWT never fully recovered from the loss, and in 1993 Hore’s 22-year career at the agency ended.

“When it happens, it is stunning,” says Hore. “It’s as stunning to you as it is to the people who know you. I just kept thinking of the old saying that ‘Death is contagious. Nobody wants to get it.’”

Hore had barely processed what had just occurred when she bumped into an old colleague and creative director, Terry Bell, at a neighbourhood food store. She told him the news and he reacted immediately with an offer.

“Come join me and we can help get Jean Chretien elected Prime Minister,” he said. And they did.

Bell, who was a creative director at V&B in Toronto, was also a member of Red Leaf Communications, the marketing and advertising agency that worked on the federal Liberal Party’s national election campaigns. The ad campaign Bell and Hore worked on, featuring Chretien promoting the Liberal’s Red Book, was instrumental in Chretien’s 1993 election win.

Hore went on to launch a couple of boutique agencies with a number of former colleagues from the account and creative side, but is no longer working in the industry.

“It was a fabulous ride,” says Hore. “I had an amazing run at a time when women weren’t even allowed on the track.

“The one thing I learned was that success does not come from the top down. Most people think that it comes from being recognized by the CEO or someone high above you. It’s not that at all. Success comes from the bottom up. It comes from all the people around you, those who support you and who want to help you … these are people who make you become successful.”