Carlos Moreno: Looking back as he moves forward

—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—

One of the great oddities of the advertising business, something I’ve always had difficulty explaining, is how so many people in the industry get there without ever having planned it.

Once, when I was a reporter at Marketing magazine, I asked 10 of the top creative directors of the day how they got their start. Only one had made advertising a deliberate career choice. All the others just happened into it.

The truly weird part is that although so many people I’ve known over the years never followed a direct path into the business, they confess at some point, usually in reverential tones, that they couldn’t imagine having done anything else.

I guess it’s true that when you fall in love with advertising, however that occurs, it’s a head-over-heels kind of thing. It happened to me as an impressionable reporter in the early 1980s. And it also seduced an equally susceptible Carlos Moreno as a student at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto.

“I always knew I’d being doing something associated with art,” says Moreno over a bowl of rice and yogurt on his end, while I’m feasting on my wife’s irresistible paprika-laced Hungarian goulash soup on my side during a recent Zoom lunch date. “I studied art at high school and OCA and heeded my mother’s advice. She told me, ‘Do what’s in your heart.'”

When he entered OCA, Moreno had no idea what an ad agency was. He just loved art and design. Then he discovered the influential creative publication Communication Arts and was instantly captivated by the advertising imagery. Moreno was so taken by the ads that he put together a portfolio of his own and took it to MacLaren McCann, one of the hottest agencies in town in the late 90s and stacked with talent: Rick Davis. Marta Cutler. Randy Diplock. Jamie Way. Mark Fitzgerald.

Moreno caught the sympathetic and discerning eye of Dave Kelso, who clearly liked what he saw.

“I graduated from OCA on a Thursday and started work on Monday,” he recalls. “Little did I realize at the time how lucky I was. The atmosphere in the agency was electric, full of energy and loads of fun. They had the very best people. I was surrounded by the New York Yankees of advertising.”

Over the next two-and-a-half years, Moreno served his advertising apprenticeship on big brands at MacLaren. His work began catching industry attention, and as so often happens, an agency in search of fresh talent came calling. Moreno responded and made his first agency move to Cossette.

“I was at Cossette for about 30 hours when I realized it was not for me, mostly because in my heart I felt that there was so much unfinished business at MacLaren. It showed me that you should only leave when you’re ready… when you really know you’ve made the most of an opportunity.”

***

Moreno returned to MacLaren, but was in need of a partner. He’d heard about an up-and-coming copywriter at Taxi named Peter Ignazi, who—adding to the list of accidental entries into the ad business—started his working career as a chemist. Ignazi answered Moreno’s call, launching a partnership that would last more than two decades and produce a trophy case bulging with all the major awards anyone in advertising can win.

So what’s the secret? What made the partnership work?

“We were tied at the hip. We were one. We both had the same desire in terms of creative drive. And we both had a strong work ethic. We also had the same instinct of knowing what was worth fighting for and what was not. But maybe most importantly,” says Moreno, his voice trembling slightly, “it’s about how we were built as human beings. The way we were raised. The empathy that we brought to the table and the humanity and, frankly, the love that was reflected in the work that we have been a part of.”

Over the next two years at MacLaren, Moreno and Ignazi hit their stride as a creative team, creating attention-grabbing work for the National Post and The Sony Store. “You could tell that working together we were developing a sense of strategic smarts… and we just kept getting better and better as a team,” recalls Moreno.

They moved from MacLaren to agency Bensimon Byrne, but stayed for only five months before joining Saatchi & Saatchi, where they had a chance to move up into creative management. But both knew in their hearts they weren’t ready.

“We still needed to work on the work,” says Moreno. “There’s a reason why things happen in a certain order. To earn respect as a leader you have to have done it yourself. Someone once said the choice is between being a manager or a brand cracker. The crackers are the people who solve the problem, and then people want to work with you because you are the guys.”

Within less than a year, the creative opportunity of a lifetime appeared. Downtown Partners was a creative juggernaut put together as a DDB satellite, primarily to service the Bud Light brand.

“We were able to stretch ourselves even further in that very intense environment. We learned to take even greater leaps, the kind of leaps that really push your work… work that walks that fine line between not being strictly linear, but ultimately making sense,” says Moreno.

After rounding out their portfolios with big budget Bud Light commercials, one of which placed third in the USA Today Super Bowl poll, the high altar of creative achievement, Moreno and Ignazi were ready for something really different.

***

This time, the opportunity came from New York City and Amalgamated, a new boutique agency advocating for work of a higher calling. “It was one of the first agencies that was saying brands can succeed if they stand for purpose,” says Moreno. “Amalgamated was looking for advertising built on longer-lasting ideas that required patience and that would get stronger over time.”

The experience was exhilarating, and it pushed Moreno and Ignazi even further creatively. But the back and forth to New York was taking its toll. “We needed to get back to Toronto and we heard great things about what Jack Neary was doing at BBDO. The agency also had big clients and represented a huge new canvas.”

Moreno says he was also happy at BBDO to not have the top creative responsibility and leave creative management in someone else’s hands. He and Ignazi still had work to do.

“There is no rush to climb the ladder,” he says. “Walking the street, or being in a bar, just you and your partner coming up with ideas. That’s the best time you can have in this business.”

The decision paid off in a big way for Moreno and Ignazi, as well BBDO. Their personal and corporate brands suddenly grabbed the spotlight in Canada and at international shows with breakthrough campaigns for Skittles, the Paralympics, Social Smoking, RBC, FedEx and others. The work also led to BBDO’s first-ever Agency of the Year Gold in 2011, and Toronto was placed among the top four offices within the BBDO network.

After nine dazzling years at BBDO, Cossette came calling again, this time in search of a creative revitalization. Under the creative leadership of Moreno and Ignazi, Cossette went on a creative tear, winning Agency of The Year three years in a row with work for clients such as SickKids, Honey Nut Cheerios, McDonald’s and the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Says Moreno: “We had an incredible creative run at Cossette. For me, the best things were the fun, the growth and the opportunity itself.

“But then I found myself asking, what would make me feel most fulfilled? What can I do to bring the most value, not just to me but to the company I am working for? And I kept coming back to this answer: I need to be closer to the work. What I am best at is having that blank piece of paper in front of me and asking, ‘Okay, what do we do now? What can we do to solve the problem creatively and strategically?'”

Moreno made the tough decision to break with both Cossette and Ignazi. He is now doing what he describes as “the craziest thing I’ve ever done” by launching a new agency called Broken Heart Love Affair.

It’s a nine-person shop led by agency exec Beverley Hammond as chief business officer, ex-Cossetter Jay Chaney as chief strategy officer and a chief creative threesome of Moreno and former BBDO creative directors Todd Mackie and Denise Rossetto.

In explaining the rationale behind Broken Heart Love Affair, we go back to the beginning. It’s all about love.

“I decided that for me, I needed to find a way to put all the learning and experience of so many successes as well as failures and bring it to my own place with partners who have the same qualities and beliefs that I have.

“We believe in having an agency that is bigger than anyone in the room. It needs to be about a belief in making people fall in love with brands again. That’s the big opportunity right now.

“It’s about bringing value to brands and what they stand for in the marketplace. About building lasting campaigns that feed on themselves. The Love Letter we wrote to the industry is not a made-up thing that came out of a one-week workshop. It is who we are as people. It’s the truth.”

***

In any successful working relationship, there is usually both a closeness and a duality, two sides of the same coin. Moreno is the effervescent one, always ready with a smile and a heart that he wears openly.

“Sure, I remember the last day with Peter. We had been talking about it for months. So yeah, we knew it was coming. There was no surprise. But then, the day finally arrived,” says Moreno, pausing briefly to return to that moment.

“You know, I’m a very emotional person,” he says, turning his head away from the screen to hide a tear. “It was a Friday. I had an appointment I had to get to with my son, so I had to leave early.

“My departure had already been announced internally a couple of days earlier. I remember fumbling around and then finally grabbing my backpack and putting it over my shoulder. That was it. I reached out and hugged Peter and I said, ‘See ya.’ And he said back ‘See ya.’ And then I was gone.”

 

Mark Smyka