A Little Bit of Zig – Terry O’Reilly
Canada’s very own advertising man, Terry O’Reilly, has worked with some of the biggest personalities in North America, including Ellen DeGeneres, Alec Baldwin and Martin Short, to name a few.
To clients, O’Reilly is the man who brings the zig when everyone else is zagging — never settling for the status quo, always pushing boundaries. A fount of knowledge, strategy and creativity, O’Reilly has produced some of the most award-winning advertising in North America.
O’Reilly currently hosts the popular CBC Radio One show Under the Influence, a weekly, 30-minute segment tackling all things advertising. He recently released a book titled This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence, a how-to marketing guide of sorts for the little guy that is chock full of the most valuable wisdom a marketing veteran of 36 years has to offer. Packed with valuable advice, personal anecdotes and humour, O’Reilly tells readers why creativity is their greatest asset and that analyzing their strategy can transform their business.
Dolce sat down with the ad man and gained some impressive industry insight.
DOLCE MAGAZINE: What struggles did you initially face when you first broke into the industry?
TERRY O’REILLY: When I got the job at the radio station I was the only writer in a radio station that had about 100 to 150 ongoing retail clients. The salesperson would come in every day with an inch of contracts from various advertisers, and I ended up having to write 20 to 30 radio commercials a day, from not knowing anything about writing a commercial. It was baptism by hellfire! It was a huge obstacle just to understand things like how to absorb a briefing from a client, how to organize my thoughts, how to make a commercial work in 30 or 60 seconds.
The great thing was that I didn’t have to answer to anybody but the clients. I was the creative director, so I got to see what worked and what didn’t through instant feedback — from a client after a big sale, for example. I started to really understand the medium better because I got the best tutorial possible, and that was huge for me early in my career. I don’t think most people get that kind of an exposure to instant feedback the way I did, and that put me in such a great place for the rest of my career because I started to amass a great understanding of persuasion and marketing early on. It was big for me.
DM: Whom do you look up to in the industry?
TO: James Webb Young was one of the few ad people from the early 20th century who actually wrote about his experiences. He was a great essayist in advertising. I love and often reread his books. He was really smart and only interested in effective advertising; he wasn’t swayed by anything like being famous or working a big project. He just wanted to know what worked, and that’s why I love his writing.
When I eventually made my way back to Toronto from the radio station and a small agency position, I got a job with a big advertising agency in the big leagues and I was lucky enough to find my mentor. The creative director at that agency was Trevor Goodgoll, this very flamboyant South African guy. He taught me how to present, how to really analyze a marketing problem and the competitors, how to figure out how a product fits into somebody’s life, how to look for a piece of mental real estate that a brand could own and how to really dig to find that insight. So [Goodgoll], without question, was my mentor. I was so lucky because I had that feedback in the early days of radio, then very shortly on the heels of that I worked for someone who really taught me the ropes, who really understood marketing.
DM: What persuaded you to write this new book?
TO: When I started my own company many years later in 1990, I started working for all the big brands again, while also tackling small brands. I realized that small to medium advertisers typically can’t afford to have a big agency on speed-dial. These companies are spending their precious, hard-earned dollars, so they don’t have big budgets; with a limited amount of money, they’re getting no guidance. I thought, that’s the book I’m going to write. I’m going to write a book taking all the knowledge — or as many lessons as I could put into one book — from my career and from my 12 years of my radio show, and put it in a book that small to medium marketers could really rely on to help them understand how to create an identity, how to stand out in the marketplace, how to zig when everybody else is “zagging” and that you can be really bold in your marketing without having a big budget.
DM: What are your thoughts on creative and out-of-the-box marketing?
TO: I think creativity is the most powerful business tool, and I say that on my radio show all the time. I really want marketers to understand that. In order to stand out in the marketplace, in order to stand out from the competition, you need to use creativity. A lot of marketers resist it, and they think — just being straight information, straight price and item — that creativity is just frivolous. It’s not. It is the way to get noticed, it is the way to make an impact and it is the way to persuade somebody. So when you don’t have a budget, creativity is what you need.
DM: How do you best cultivate your own creativity?
TO: I think you have to look at the world through fresh eyes. That’s one of the key points. You have to recalibrate the way you look at the world so you can see great opportunities and see interesting things at work. As an ad guy one of the things I do is look at the most award-winning, most effective advertising in the world. I’m always on the lookout for it — how are they selling tires in Pakistan, or how are they selling Coca-Cola in India — because I want to see what’s working and what knowledge you can gain there. I was standing in the airport the other day and I was looking at it as a media centre, not as a place where you catch a plane. I’ve recalibrated my thinking, so I’m thinking of interesting ways you could use the airport to advertise a brand. I believe everything is an opportunity to do something creative.
“Even though I am 36 years deep into a career, I will still learn something brand new tomorrow about marketing, I guarantee you”
DM: What top three elements are crucial when it comes to successful marketing?
TO: I love humour. It’s not the only way to do advertising, and I think there are a lot of products that humour isn’t conducive to — like if you were advertising a funeral home, I don’t think it would be the right choice, although there have been some pretty great funeral home ads that have been funny. What I love about humour is, as I say in my book, it is the WD-40 of advertising. In other words, it lubricates the way in. All advertising is an intrusion; it’s an interruption to what people are really there for, and I think humour makes that interruption polite, and it gives something back by making people smile.
I would say the second point is getting your strategy right; find a place in the marketplace to stand for something that no one else is.
The third thing would be to focus on your greatest area of opportunity. Almost all the clients I’ve worked with have said they need to generate new customers to grow their business, but I always suggest that maybe a greater area of opportunity would be to get your current customers to buy more of your product. If you’re talking to your current customers, it’s a warm call; it’s not a cold call, it’s not a ground-zero proposition, and they already like you.
DM: You say that “ads give back.” Could you explain?
TO: I think there’s an unwritten promise between advertising and the public that was forged many years ago — probably in the ’20s, when marketing started to become an industry — and that is: we’ll pay for the content if you’ll watch our ad.
So there’s a give and take. When you read a beautiful magazine like yours, there are ads that pay for your wonderful writers and your photographers. Advertising has to always remember that this is the deal. When advertising breaks that promise, that’s when advertising gets into trouble. For example, when I see ads in movie theatres, I don’t see what I’m getting. The ticket price hasn’t come down — what am I getting in return for having to sit through these movie ads? When advertising breaks that rule, that’s when people get annoyed with it, and it’s a black eye for advertising.
DM: You mentioned that your work with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was your favourite project. What was the strategy there?
TO: Most symphony advertising, from day one, is just ticket prices, concert events, composer evenings. We didn’t do any of that; we used humour, which the TSO never really used before. We said things like, “You’re afraid to clap at the wrong time, aren’t you?” or “I went to the symphony and I held up my lighter for an encore, and I feel like that was wrong in hindsight.” So we made fun of all the intimidating things that keep people away, and ticket sales soared.
DM: In your book you mention the importance of finding “the sweet spot.” How would you define the sweet spot in your life?
TO: I think I’ve always been fascinated by the puzzle of marketing, just figuring out why people react the way they do, what triggers certain reactions. How do you change people’s behaviour, how do you persuade someone to just look at an item, how do you make people wear a seatbelt, how do you make them not drink and drive? All of those things involve persuasion, analysis and psychology. That is my sweet spot. That’s why I’m still excited about it at this stage of my career. So if you’re asking me what the sweet spot is, it’s that I never stop learning. Even though I am 36 years deep into a career, I still will learn something brand new tomorrow about marketing — I guarantee you. I can’t get enough of it. I just love it.
DM: How did you manage to balance work and family life?
TO: I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s a really good question that no one ever asks. A couple things you have to know about the advertising industry: First, it is not welcoming of families. For example, you work 60-hour weeks. My wife would always get that phone call telling her I wouldn’t be home for dinner, or I had to work all weekend even though we had guests coming. Those horrible things. Then, when the industry celebrates, like at an awards show or something, spouses aren’t invited. It takes you away from your family, and then when it’s time to celebrate, they don’t invite your family. Just the nature of the business. So, it’s very hard on families, and I think the rate of divorce in marketing and advertising is extremely high. So, how to contend with that? I give a ton of credit to my wife, because she wouldn’t let me be a bad dad, for starters. Plus, I adore my family. We would be the only family in the audience at awards shows. I didn’t care what anybody thought, because [my family] did without me for so many hours and days and months, the least we could do was celebrate together. That was just sort of our family mantra.
Photo By Max Jamali