The ’80s: Despite early skepticism, nabs takes shape

—nabs is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and to mark the occasion, The Message spoke with key figures from each decade to learn more about their important work. In this first instalment, we spoke with the people responsible for its launch—

Today, 40 years after its inception, nabs is a Canadian advertising and media institution, woven into the very fabric of the industry, with well-earned respect for the invaluable help it provides people in need every day.

In some ways it’s a unifying force, bringing usually fierce competitors together as allies to support the charity. But when Rupert Brendon first considered launching the charity in the early 1980s, the situation was profoundly different.

But if nothing else, he knew there was a need. The ad industry, with its work hard/play hard ethos, can take an enormous toll on its employees. “Advertising is a very stressful, high-pressure business, and people do fall through the cracks,” he says today.

A U.K. native who been working in the Canadian advertising industry since the late 1960s, Brendon already had a model for what he wanted to create: the U.K. charity NABS, which had been established in 1913 as the National Advertising and General Benefit and Benevolent Society, its stated mission to relieve “distress among persons who are or have been engaged in advertising” and anyone dependent on those engaged in advertising.

At first, Brendon was reluctant to push too hard for a Canadian version, rationalizing that he first needed to “arrive” professionally before taking on such a high-profile task. But by 1983, he had risen to CEO of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles Canada, and decided it was time to make his vision a reality. “I don’t think my bosses in New York would have taken kindly to me spending so much time [trying to get a charity off the ground] in my early years, but once I’d got the agency going in the right direction, I felt it was the time to try it.”

Now armed with both the necessary clout and the absolute conviction that the industry needed a charity to help those who had fallen on hard times, Brendon—who would later go on to become head of what was then known as the Institute of Communications and Advertising (ICA)—set out to enlist support.

But, though it may be hard to imagine now, Brendon encountered many people who failed to grasp his vision, or were even dismissive of the concept. There seemed to be an unspoken belief among some he spoke with that people were responsible for their own predicament, and it was incumbent upon them to find a solution.

He remembers one agency CEO testily informing him that his agency could take care of its own staff. “It was an alien idea in Canada, and people were somewhat suspect about the whole thing,” says Brendon from his home in Cornwall, where he now runs a hotel that has been in his family since the late 1700s. “Some people thought it was sort of left wing, social import from Britain.

“I wore out a lot of shoe leather trying to get it off the ground.”

While it was difficult to make inroads during those early years, Brendon was able to enlist some “disciples” who provided the fledgling charity with an invaluable combination of ideas, energy, time, and money. “As you go out, you find people who see the vision and share the vision and say ‘I want to be part of that,'” he says.

They included P&G’s David Hopkins, who helped establish the charity’s Allocations Committee, and Earl Weiner, who handled national broadcast sales and business development for the Canadian Traffic Network, and engaged singers like KD Lang and Shania Twain to perform at nabs Galas before their careers truly took off.

Another of those early disciples was Brian Pearman, a Benton & Bowles media director who became a nabs board director in 1986, and would go on to create the Nabs Media Auction of  unsold time and space. Another Brit who was familiar with the U.K. version of NABS from his earliest days in advertising, Pearman was recruited by Brendon to help get the charity off the ground in Canada.

“I joined [Brendon’s] agency, and was asked if wanted to be part of the group, and I agreed,” says Pearman. Early on, they fretted that the full NABS name seemed, well, “typically English,” but Pearman says the industry came to understand what the charity represented.

That was attributable to the measured, methodical approach taken by Brendon and his associates, backed by some early success that demonstrated its viability.

“There were some people in the industry that genuinely needed help, and we were able to get them help that weren’t able to receive it before,” says Pearman. “The ad business is a tough business. Some people just fell on the wrong side of the tracks, and it was great to be able to help them.”

After establishing a presence in the country’s biggest ad market, nabs eventually made its way to Vancouver, with industry legend Frank Palmer playing a key role in helping it establish a crucial west coast presence.

Like Brendon, Palmer had seen first-hand the toll the industry could take on its people.

At that time there was very little understanding or discussion about mental illness, he said. But there were a lot of problems with alcohol. Drinking around the office wasn’t just accepted, it was expected, he said, and it wasn’t uncommon for a morning meeting to include a belt of whiskey.

“Back then, there was always problems with somebody drinking too much,” he said. “I can remember people in our industry that lost your job when they were in their early 40s. And they had no money, and they had to go and find ways of getting some cash and people to support them.”

Helping those people was one of the main reasons Palmer got behind nabs early on, and has remained a champion and vocal advocate ever since.

Palmer was supported in his efforts to establish Nabs West by the late Red Robinson, a legendary figure within the Vancouver radio industry. “I know how proud Red was of his ability to call on anyone in any business for support,” says Michael Godin, who served as nabs West general manager and today is host of the syndicated radio show Treasure Island Oldies.

“In essence, [Robinson] knew just about everyone in the Vancouver business community since he started on radio in the mid-1950s. He used that “influence” to generate the financial support badly needed for nabs to be able to help those who had fallen on hard times.”

Nabs, he says, was a “silent hero” to hundreds of people who needed its towards. Robinson, who died earlier this year at the age of 86, himself used Nabs’ services when the charity stepped in to provide assistance for his mobility issues.

Over the decades, nabs has evolved to include a 24-hour support line and programs supporting everything from substance abuse to financial literacy. But in those early days it was mostly about direct financial support dispensed through a confidential allocations committee that would review applications.

“Frankly, if we weren’t providing that help, there would be no help,” said Pearman. “Some of these people had reached a fairly low level in their life and were pretty desperate. So when we came along and we provided our help, it was very well received.”

In time, as word spread and people learned more about the cause, support grew, said Pearman.

And why wouldn’t it? At its core, nabs is a manifestation of the basic human impulse to help others in need. But in those early days, it required some heavy lifting to harness that goodwill and direct it into one unifying entity. Credit for that goes to a handful of Canadian advertising heroes for whom the hard work was, in many ways, its own reward.

“It may seem as though it was an imposition, that there was additional work you had to do, but the payback, particularly here in Canada, was enormous,” said Pearman. “You did a little, and you got a lot back.”

—With files from David Brown

Chris Powell