Remembering Graham Watt: A ‘writer’s writer,’ who elevated Canadian creativity

It’s a phrase that is dutifully trotted out whenever someone passes away in their later years, but what is it, exactly, that constitutes a life well lived?

Can it be defined simply by longevity, the fact a person died less than two months prior to their 86th birthday? Could it be leaving behind a loving wife, five children and grandchildren? Or is it being fondly remembered as someone who always saw the best in people and spread joy wherever they went, a person renowned for their seemingly inexhaustible reserves of humour, curiosity and generosity?

Perhaps a “life well lived” might refer to a person’s professional accomplishments. Like being included in the Canadian Who’s Who for contributions to Canadian advertising, or being the co-creator of ads that colleagues and peers say set the standard for TV creativity.

Then again, it might also mean being fêted with innumerable awards and accolades, such as being a co-recipient of the prestigious Spiess Award—bestowed upon those who furthered excellence in Canadian TV advertising—in 1991.

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Watt at the helm of his schooner, “Canada Goose.” Photo courtesy of Jim Burt.

Or could it refer to a person’s accomplishments outside the workplace? Like, say, spending the better part of a decade almost singlehandedly building a 23-ton, three-mast schooner named “Canada Goose,” or creating a five-part series on cross-country skiing for the U.S. public broadcaster, PBS.

Or perhaps, as in the case of Canadian advertising legend Graham Watt—who died in “his sweet little Sackville,” N.B. on Dec. 23, aged 85—maybe it’s the extraordinary combination of all of the above.


Ad people almost invariably have stories that contribute to their legend, and Watt’s longtime creative partner, Jim Burt, has a couple of good ones.

The first takes place around the time of Expo 67, when Watt, in an inspired bit of braggadocio that became his calling card for years afterwards, purchased a single billboard on Highway 20, west of Montreal. It read: “Entering Montreal. Birthplace of the incredible Graham Watt.”

It was also around this time that Watt somehow managed to entice former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to record a spoken language record called—funnily enough given the significance the phrase would later achieve in Canadian advertising— “I Am a Canadian.”

“It was classic ’60s behaviour to be sure, the likes of which, sadly, we shall never see again,” says Burt ruefully. “He was a one-off. One of the greats.”

Burt first met the man who would become his longtime creative and business partner in 1971, when they joined McKim Montreal within one week of each other. Neither man knew it at the time, but it was the beginning of a long and fruitful creative partnership that would span nearly 30 years.

“I don’t know of any two other guys, especially creative guys, who’ve managed to come anywhere near that,” says Burt of his long association with Watt. “If you could last five years or even two years with anybody, you were doing well.”

The partnership was akin to a marriage, complete with all the ups and downs that such a long-standing and proximate relationship entails. “We could have some massive falling outs, but they never poisoned [the relationship],” says Burt. “We kept coming back, and I think we did a phenomenal job over a long period of time.

“God, 29 years man. It’s phenomenal.”

On the surface, the two men were unlikely partners. Watt, a native Montrealer, was 10 years older and teetotal following what Burt describes as a raucous early life—”he used to drink like a fish and smoke like an engine, and then he quit it all,” he says—that at one point included a spell in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where he indulged his love for skiing.

His counterpart, meanwhile, was a hard-charging 26-year-old British ex-pat, a stereotypical London ad guy who had arrived in Montreal in 1969 and quickly developed a taste for the city’s nightlife.

The two would become a formidable creative team at McKim, cranking out work for clients including SunLife Canada and the Trans Canada Telephone System. They successfully pitched the Ontario Milk Marketing Board (now Dairy Farmers of Ontario) assignment in 1978, and their client Mike Pearce followed when the two opened their agency, Watt Burt Advertising, in 1980.

It was here that the pair would cement their creative reputation. They were incurable workaholics in the agency’s early days, sometimes spending up to 90 hours a week producing campaigns for a client roster that grew to include Air Canada and the Wine Council of Ontario.

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Towering over it all was career-defining work for the Dairy Marketing Bureau and, of course, their milk marketing. The partners churned out campaign after campaign for a product that remained resolutely unchanged—with no “new and improved” formula or product extensions to hang their creative concepts on.

“It was the most rewarding and the most diverse in terms of how many campaigns we produced, yet it was exactly the same product,” says Burt, now 76 and living in Toronto. “We put on so many different wraps to sell the stuff and we were never ever stumped. We constantly kept reinventing the wheel.”

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Among Watt Burt’s other highlights was a $6 million TV campaign for the Dairy Bureau of Canada, animated ads that featured a knife laden with a pat of butter seductively dancing with a slice or bread.”It looked so innocent, but it did have sexual implications,” says Burt with a laugh.

The ads seem almost quaint in this era of 3D animation and high-tech FX, but the results were the kind that creatives can stake their reputation upon. Burt says that the Dairy Bureau of Canada received as many as 150 letters praising the ads (“And they were long letters,” he says with a touch of pride), while a Toronto Star report from the time claimed that the ads helped boost butter sales in Ontario by 10%.

Pirate Radio & Television founder and Marketing Hall of Legends inductee Terry O’Reilly was among the young creatives who found himself smitten by the pair’s work on the milk brand. “It was beautiful. It captured the essence of milk and made a very standard beverage desirable,” he says. “Much of that work was quiet and simple in the MTV-era quick-cut ’80s. It boldly resisted that trend and stood out as a result.”

Watt’s reputation was established in an era almost unrecognizable from contemporary advertising (it’s hard to imagine today’s audiences having the patience to read a long copy ad like the one for SunLife Canada below), yet his career rested upon what are arguably the profession’s fundamental building blocks: A faculty for language, and an uncanny ability to convince clients that a concept was in their best interest.

“He was an absolutely stunning presenter,” recalls Burt, who lost touch with his erstwhile partner following the dissolution of Watt Burt in 2000. “He was very charismatic, powerful and super-articulate.”

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Longtime JWT Montreal/Toronto creative Marlene Hore says Watt was one of the primary reasons she got into advertising. “He was one of the great, rich characters in life and one hell of a writer,” she says. “He had a masterful sense of humour and always made me laugh.”

“He could weave words into persuasive arguments the way a spider spins a web,” adds long-time Canadian creative director Jack Neary, who would regularly pin Watt’s work to his office walls for inspiration when he was a young up-and-coming creative.

“Graham was just a lovely guy,” says Ian Mirlin, another creative competitor and admirer. “His writing was always very humane and kind and sweet.” Mirlin remembers chairing the Bessies the year the pair won the Spiess. “They came up to the front and they were in tears, both of them,” he says. “They were so emotional.  They just emanated sincerity and real passion for the work, and this kind of recognition was overwhelming to them.”

Watt would finish his career as the “creative in residence” at SCGI Communications in Sackville, but for all of his cultural cache and praise for his writing, he never seemed entirely convinced of the undeniable role that his work played in the broader culture.

In a 1979 profile in Creativity magazine, he downplayed advertising’s importance as a cultural artifact. “Advertising is a business. It’s not an art form, really,” he said bluntly. “It never will be.”


Chris Powell