Angus Tucker on why he’s taking a break from advertising

Last week, Angus Tucker, one of Canada’s best-known and respected creative leaders of the last 20 years, announced that he was stepping away from advertising—for now, at least.

Tucker is best-known as the creative leader—along with long-time partner Stephen Jurisic—responsible for the many creative successes at John St., but got his start working account side at Ogilvy in 1987. Five years later, he took his first creative job as a writer at Scali McCabe Sloves.

Stints at Gee Jeffrey & Partners and Ammirati & Puris followed, before he co-founded John St. in 2001. The agency was sold to WPP in 2013, but Tucker stayed on until early 2020, when he left to help launch the bespoke Rogers agency, Theo.

“For the first time in 35 years, I didn’t come back from New Year’s to a paying gig,” he posted to Linkedin. “I left Theo… at the end of December to take a break, recharge and, Covid be damned, travel a little bit. Looking forward to what 2022 brings.”

The post generated lots of well-wishes from across the industry, but they were too polite to ask what we were thinking: WTF? Does “take a break” mean he’s done?

So we called him up and, over the course of a lengthy conversation and a follow up email, Tucker explained a lot: Why he’s “taking a break,” why now, does Covid have anything to do with it, and is he mad at advertising?

So is he retiring?

Tucker made it clear it’s not retirement—“I don’t like that word,” he said—nor is his departure any sort of comment about the state of the industry today. There’s no doubt that a lot has changed, and he has some concerns about where the industry heading, but he’s not necessarily done with advertising. He’s just, well, taking a break.

“I’m not bitter, or angry, or anything like that. I’ve just been doing it uninterrupted for a long, long time, and now that I can take a break, I am,” he said. He’d started to feel a shift within himself and his relationship to both the industry and the work in recent years.

“I have found myself not as excited or as passionate about the business as I once was,” he said. Paul Maurice recently stepped down as coach of the Winnipeg Jets, and said at the time it was because he didn’t feel excited about getting to the rink.

“I just went ‘That’s exactly how I feel,'” said Tucker. “It’s not like I hated it or anything like that, but I just didn’t have the same desire I once did. And I think if you’re going to be leading a place, you have to be 100% committed to it.”

What happened to that passion 

“I think Covid has been an influence to a certain degree,” he said. “When I think of what I love the most about advertising, and in particular the John St. experience, was being responsible for the overall vibe of a place, like the energy of it: How people were feeling, and all that kind of stuff.

“I would say I’m an extrovert at heart. I’m energized by the presence of people. It doesn’t drain me, it actually kind of fuels me. And to be working in the vacuum that has been Covid for what’s coming on two years now is no fun,” he said. “That that was a part of it. But that’s not all of it.”

While he left John St. at the start of 2020 to focus on building Theo, he’d been thinking about handing the creative control to Cher Campbell for some time. “I knew it was going to be sooner than later because I think at some point you start to lose the room a little bit. It’s not to say that you’re old and you’re no longer relevant. But I think it’s important to get the next generation to bring in newer, fresher, younger perspectives.”

Through much of 2021, he found new energy in the thrill of getting Theo off the ground, but that start-up adrenaline also began to fade. And he knew his executive creative leaders at Theo, Mike Lee and Sanya Grujicic, were more than ready to take over on their own.

“There’s still a role for people with a lot of experience under their belt, but it can also be a detriment,” he said. “It’s finding that balance, and I just felt that it was kind of the time for younger people to come in and start to lead the place.”

The changing business 

While it wasn’t a factor in his stepping away now, Tucker said the industry has changed a great deal in the past few years, splitting and going in divergent directions. On one track there is client demand for high-volume, low-value work. Clients want it cheap and fast. “AI and machines are ultimately going to do all of that, but right now there are still agencies and people with those skill sets that are going to be fighting for clients’ dollars.”

And then there is the really big idea work that can literally transform a brand. He points to the work John St. did to reinvent No Frills with the “Haulers” platform. “That’s a huge idea that you can’t give to a machine,” he said. “You need to give it to a bunch of really smart, creative business people to figure out.”

So on the one hand, there’s the largely data driven work that is more about volume, targeting and efficiency. That work is important, but not what Tucker wants to do, nor is it in his wheelhouse. And then there’s the really big idea transformative work that Tucker still loves, but is being undervalued by most marketers (more on that below).

Managing the next generation

Aside from the industry dividing in terms of the work expectations and deliverables, the biggest change has been managing a new generation of workers, he said. “I think I’m reasonably self-aware. And I just found myself more and more saying, ‘Not to sound like your dad or your grandpa. But you know…’ and you start doing that,” he said.

Simply managing employees today is much different than it once was for a couple of reasons. First, younger workers are much more prepared and proactive about their career expectations. “That’s not a bad thing,” he said. “I’m not throwing any shade.”

Second, mental health has obviously become much a greater consideration for employers, and rightly so. But it also means that management becomes much more time-consuming. “That people thing, for the first 15 years at John St., was in retrospect an easy thing to handle. It’s just way trickier now,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about agencies, I think any client in almost any business would speak to the fact that it’s tough finding great talent and holding on to it.”

Advertising needs a new model

The challenge of holding onto talent ties directly into one of Tucker’s other big concerns about the industry today.

“Agencies need to be valuing what they provide for clients way more than they are,” he said. Great ideas can transform brands and turn around struggling businesses. He cited Haulers again, but there are many examples where agencies save a business and receive nothing more than the regular blended rate.

“I know it’s a lot easier said than done, but I think we need to somehow start leaning into the world of intellectual property, so that once the client gets the idea, they can’t just hire an in-house team to execute it for the next five years. Or switch agencies and still use the idea. Which has happened to us way, way too often.

“If I was starting a new place [which he’s not], the first place I’d start is figuring out a way to get paid properly for the value of our work and our thinking on an ongoing basis. Because we’re getting screwed right now.

“It’s not so agency CCO’s make a ton more money, it’s so agencies can afford to hire and keep the best talent. It’s so competitive out there now for really good people. And agencies—who used to enjoy a major competitive advantage hiring people looking for a creative place to work—are losing people to big tech, and a myriad of other places.”

All of that said, Tucker stressed he’s not the angry old guy shaking his fists at change. “I’ve had a number of people go ‘Good for you for getting out.’ That’s not how I feel at all. Advertising has treated me enormously well. I’ve literally loved going to work probably 90% of the time. And I’m not sick of anything.”

He really does want to travel, when Covid permits, and he’ll be teaching at Miami Ad School, which is now being run by his old partner Jurisic.

“I’m just looking to step out a little bit, clear my head and go ‘Okay, what do I miss? What don’t I miss,” he said. “Honestly there’s no ulterior motive. I’m not going to be opening an agency in six weeks or any of that stuff. This is really just kind of stepping off the train for a little bit to take a look around.”

David Brown