Bill Durnan: From the mailroom to account guy, to the creative who shook up beer advertising

—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—

For as long as I’ve been reporting on the advertising business, I have been asked by friends and acquaintances who have absolutely no connection to the industry, ‘So what are these ad people really like?’

I attribute the question mostly to simple curiosity, though it’s clearly become more common in recent years because of  TV shows like Mad Men.

The best answer I’ve been able to come up with is that ad people are basically a collection of square pegs who have no round holes to fit into. They’re neither hardcore business people—if your notion of a business type is a Bay Street banker or a number-crunching financier. Nor are they fine artists in the sense of auteur film directors or garret-bound novelists.

Ad people are something in between. They are a distinct and unique breed, a hybrid that straddles the worlds of business and art, drawing from both, but existing in a category of their own.

That description comes vividly to mind as Bill Durnan, one of Canada’s best-known creative directors, comes bounding through the front door of his favourite Queen Street West Italian restaurant. He is in full throttle, his modish hair length still intact. And he’s all smiles—a Durnan trademark.

Our conversation, like a square peg searching for a round hole, could be viewed as all over the place, unstructured and free-flowing. But if you love advertising, it’s fascinating and fun.

“Advertising is either in you or it’s not,” says Durnan. “And you’ll learn that very quickly. If it’s a struggle in the beginning, it’ll only get worse. The need to sell or convince someone of your ideas is really at the core of it. Everyone has their own form [of selling]. It’s not just about being a fast-talker.

“But the ability to convince an audience to act—whether the audience is the client that you’re presenting to, or the consumer that you’re talking to—if you can’t convince them, then the idea is nothing. And it’s a battle all the way through.”

Durnan learned these lessons from the ground up—or, more precisely, from the mailroom floor.

He started with a summer job after high school, sorting mail at Vickers and Benson Advertising in Toronto. The Canadian-owned agency was firmly ensconced within the industry’s top tier at the time, ran by partners Terry O’Malley, the agency’s creative heartbeat, and Bill Bremner, the consummate account guy.

“I guess my dad’s name helped me get in there,” he says. Bill Durnan Sr. was a Hall of Fame goaltender with the Montreal Canadiens in the mid-to-late 1940s. “But I really got the job by promising that I would work my ass off, which I did, for a salary of $3,006 a year.”

The time was the early 1970s, and like the slice of life commercials that it was creating for its clients, V&B was an eclectic mix of diverse, multi-talented people.

“They had all sorts of people. Writers, art directors, journalists, filmmakers, taxi drivers, PR people, retail specialists, oddballs, misfits, you name it,” says Durnan. “They were all different, larger than life. And they were doing everything, not just advertising. They even designed the (1972) Team Canada sweater. There was a feeling at V&B in those days that anything was possible.”

Durnan’s fateful career turn occurred when Bremner, impressed that the mailroom guy got to know just about everyone in the agency, approached him and asked, “Have you ever thought about being an account guy?”

“I was always enthusiastic and I had a great energy for ideas,” Durnan says. “I later learned that Bremner had said to someone, ‘Hey, that kid can really sell.’ Anyway, I said, ‘Yes.’”

Durnan immediately found himself on the marketing front lines handling the Loblaws account. It was there he came face-to-face with the grocer’s celebrated President’s Choice and No Name pitchman Dave Nichol, known in the industry as a hard-driving and demanding client.

“We were in the same building as Loblaws on St. Clair Avenue. I was an early riser and would be at my desk at 6 a.m. when Dave Nichol would come by and share an idea with me. Then he’d say, ‘Can we see a script by 3 p.m.?’ I learned that anything can be done if you put your mind to it.”

After six years, it was time to move on to a new business category (beer) and a different agency culture (MacLaren Advertising).

“MacLaren couldn’t have been more opposite to V&B,” says Durnan. “It was slower paced, with more analytics. I went from, ‘Get this done fast,’ to ‘Let’s wait and think this through.’

As the new account guy on Molson, Durnan was also suddenly and nerve-wrackingly plunged into the high-stakes, marketing-intense beer business, a category he would help reshape in Canada with two revolutionary campaigns for the Molson Canadian brand.

But first, he needed to make the switch from account service to creative.

“I started to do some creative on my own, and I would slip my ideas under the creative directors’ office door. Then I offered to spend a week of my holidays on the creative floor, just to see if I would fit in. Finally, I took a big pay cut and was hired on as a junior in the creative department.”

Less than a year into the job, Molson’s head of marketing Dave Barbour, frustrated by the lacklustre performance of his flagship Canadian brand, sent the MacLaren creative department a note. It said: “I want a campaign unlike I have ever seen in my life for Canadian.”

It was the early 1980s. MTV had just launched in the U.S. and music videos were capturing the imagination of youth with their kinetic, quick-cut, flashy video style.

“Music was taking on a new voice,” recalls Durnan. “There was also a growing scepticism among youth. So we started asking how we could get music to be the ultimate voice of beer.”

More than anything else, Durnan needed the right director, someone who could take his rough outline and elevate music with startling visuals to create something completely new and inspiring—unlike anything seen before.

Durnan called Bruce Dowad, a promising, avant-garde art director he had known at V&B. Dowad was launching his directorial career with a boundary-pushing reel that promised just the kind of highly stylized, arresting imagery Durnan had in mind.

They got together, purchased the rights to Martha Reeves’ 1964 classic tune “Dancin’ In The Streets” and beer advertising in Canada hasn’t been the same since. The campaign was followed up by the equally successful “What beer’s all about” from Durnan’s newly hired lead team of Michael McLaughlin and Stephen Creet.

“I remember when I started on beer someone said to me, ‘Welcome to the male cosmetics business,’” recalls Durnan. “There is so much truth in that. A guy thinks about a beer brand like a cologne he might wear. What does it say about him? What message is he giving off? How does it fit with his personality? The advertising needs to take all of that into account.”

The Molson work boosted both the Canadian brand and Durnan’s career. As he steadily added to the department over the next few years, with many of the top creative teams in Canada, Durnan also rose in MacLaren’s corporate ranks—becoming a partner and the first creative person to sit on the agency’s management committee.

But as jolting and category-altering as “Dancin’ In The Streets” was, like any popular style, it was also bound to fade and give way to the next new thing. After a successful five-year run, it was time yet again to find a fresh and more relevant campaign idea.

Durnan remembers coming into the office on a Sunday morning. He had been listening to a rock lyric, “I am … I am.” At the same time, he was going over some focus group research showing that Canadian youth were feeling more confident and aligned with the global community, and buoyed by a new sense of pride in being Canadian.

From there, Durnan wrote the strategy: “Molson Canadian inspires an identity in a country that doesn’t have one.”

He developed a campaign outline and gave it to a young team to ensure the campaign would find its proper voice, and the Canadian brand got another new lease on life with the launch of “I Am Canadian.”

“In many ways, the strategy is harder than the creative. But the interlocking of great strategy and creative is where the strength lies. When the two of them collide, you get magic,” he says. “What I’ve learned is that it’s all in the process. The relationship between strategy and creative needs to be intimately linked. It must be liberating, not restricting. A good strategy should instantly spark ideas. I’ve often said, ‘Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.’”

Durnan oversaw production of six spots and by then, he felt his time at MacLaren had run its course. After 14 years with the agency and two monster campaign hits, along with many other awards across the MacLaren client portfolio, Durnan was tired and ready for something new. He negotiated an amicable split with his partners and launched his own small agency, Bill Durnan Communications.

Durnan posted his shingle and attracted several clients, but looking back he realizes: “I didn’t set it up properly. It wasn’t the consultancy that I really wanted it to be.” Before he had a chance to re-establish the company, a call came, literally out of the blue, and surprisingly from the brewery he had been battling throughout his decade and a half at MacLaren.

Labatt had not been sitting idly during its intensifying beer war with Molson. In 1991 the brewer sent its own shock wave through the industry when it shifted the bulk of its brand portfolio to New York City-based Ammirati & Puris, the high-profile creative agency that had opened an office in Toronto. But when Tom Nelson, one of its founding executives in Canada, decided to return to New York, A&P needed a suitable replacement.

David Kincaid, who was running the marketing department at Labatt at the time, had a clear picture of who should be running the agency—it had to be Bill Durnan.

Kincaid made the call and Durnan became the new president and CEO of A&P. Within a week of starting, Durnan and his Ammirati team got the riot act read to them by Kincaid: “If we don’t hit a home run this time, you will all be gone,” he warned.

This made it very clear, scary and inspiring to the entire agency. They knew what needed to happen. Using a new creative development process, the “Out of the Blue” strategy was developed.

“I have always felt that any campaign that you can describe without being able to name the brand is flawed,” says Durnan. “With ‘Out of the Blue’ we had that problem solved. But how to bring it to life?

“We knew we wanted it to be fun. But what kind of fun? Then we heard in our research groups with young men that the best fun they had was when they unexpectedly bumped into friends and that would lead to something, and that would lead to something else. So we landed on spontaneous fun—unplanned fun is the most fun.”

Based on that insight, and with the tagline “A whole lot can happen out of the Blue,” the A&P creative team created a couple of “out there” scenarios. In one spot, an impromptu street hockey game breaks out in downtown Toronto, only to be interrupted by an oncoming streetcar. In another, a group of urbanites commandeer shopping carts and go careening through city streets on a crazy joy ride.

The commercials were a hit and the Labatt Blue and Molson Canadian brand battle was “game on” once again.

After two and half years at A&P, Durnan was ready to step away from the business again. He left the agency in 2000, to take a much-needed sabbatical. Within less than a year, he was lured back into the fray by Cossette, this time as a strategic counsel.

Durnan ended up heading Cossette’s strategic planning division, Nucleus, and went on to become interim president and eventually served as Cossette’s creative director until 2010 when he left the company to team up with a new model agency, Jackman Reinvents.

These days, he does a little consulting, and is on the board of a small design firm. But for the most part he’s happily retired in Tulum, Mexico, managing a few real estate investments, travelling and spending time with good friends and family.

Our conversation too, has left advertising. We talk about everything else. Our kids. Durnan’s property up north outside of Barrie. Lots of gossip. The idea of forming some kind of social club for men our age. Relections on life in general.

And then it’s back to advertising, just briefly. “Yeah,” he says, his smile returning. “I had a great run.”