Let’s Get Frank: DDB Canada’s Frank Palmer Challenges the Industry

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Frank Palmer - DDB Canada

Iconic doesn’t begin to describe Frank Palmer. The Chairman and CEO of DDB Canada is highly regarded as one of Canada’s founding fathers of advertising. How he grew the business and became a marketing legend in the process: “Foresight, insight and not being afraid to take risks—whether it’s an agency or a business, the main objective is to build brand value and shares.”

In his new memoir, Let’s Get Frank: Canada’s Mad Man of Advertising, Palmer shares his story of the decades of grit, determination and entrepreneurial spirit it took to build Palmer Jarvis and grow it into what is now DDB Canada.

We spoke with Palmer (who is being honored with an event on March 6th by the American Marketing Association’s Toronto chapter) about his legendary career and insights to get more thoughts on the state of advertising today and how he’s challenging brands and agencies to embrace risk. Be forewarned, it’s pretty frank.

What’s your take on the industry today?

Frank Palmer biography - Let's Get FrankThe whole industry is being challenged by clients who are fearful of taking risks. I think 99% of advertising today is crap. Even watching the Super Bowl ads, I was expecting more and got less. There was no ‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic,’ no ‘a-ha’ moments where I said ‘I wish I’d done that.’ Things are too safe. And when it’s safe, it becomes boring. When you take a little bit of risk, your campaign will stand out, and people will want to see it.

There’s a quote about you in the book that says: “Risk built our industry and it made Frank what he is today. He doesn’t know how to operate otherwise.” Taking risks helped you take Palmer Jarvis from a Vancouver-based firm to a national powerhouse. Are we taking enough risks today?

No. We can’t make a difference unless we take a risk. Good creative and risk go hand in hand. We need more courageous leaders and more courageous clients. We need to make ourselves uncomfortable. We need clients who are willing to listen to crazy ideas and try new things. We need to make ads that make us proud.

Why is it so challenging to embrace risk?

In the old days, I could go to a CEO and say ‘what do you really want’? I’d spend a few hours getting to know them, and I’d know what they wanted and the risk they were willing to take. We were able to do advertising for them that would get noticed. But today, very few agencies get to meet the leaders of an organization. We need more CEOs involved in marketing, and to understand that it helps drive reputation. Do you want buttons on your shirt that match, or buttons that stand out? Take the risk—it won’t hurt your product or service.

I remember hearing a story from DDB’s now-Chairman Emeritus, Keith Reinhard, who was meeting August Busch at Budweiser to approve their latest TV commercials. Mr. Busch would see the commercials, and they were doing something that was a little more out there. He was a leader who took a risk, and look what happened. Today, those Clydesdale and dog ads are iconic, part of their history.

Top management must spend time in the marketing of their products and services. They have an important role to play in building and sustaining reputation. This applies to me too. As much as I have great people running the company, I’m still involved and have a voice. Don’t ask me for an opinion if you don’t want one.

Your biography has a chapter called “69 is a four-letter word” and tells the story of how you took DDB from the 69th-ranked agency in Canada to #1. What did you learn along the way about building a culture of creativity?

When we did that, it took years. We weren’t winning awards. I brought in someone who had the experience and confidence and had nothing to lose. I wanted to make change and to help people learn how to do better creative and take risks. We changed a lot of things, which made people uncomfortable, but the results really came out in our creative product. We became the most-awarded agency in Canada.

To embrace creativity, we have to challenge the way people think. This is probably easier for an upstart than for mature companies. When we pitched McDonald’s years ago, we had an insight about coffee as a growth segment, and we took a pretty big risk and flew Juan Valdez and his mule in for the presentation. Many years later, you see how much McDonald’s is focused on coffee. We didn’t win but it was still great. We showed that we were willing to do something out of the box to win the business.

Canadians aren’t normally known as being big risk-takers. What do you think the world needs to know about Canadians?

Canadians are friendly and passionate. We’re a hardy group. But what people may not fully appreciate is that we’re very competitive. Don’t mess around with us. Don’t take advantage of our good nature.

What’s your leadership advice in challenging times?

Leaders need to speak their minds more often, communicate more often and be truthful and honest, even when there is bad news. Tell people: ‘We’re in this together, and we’re going to win together.’ Use your skills to motivate your people and make sure they know you have a vision and the optimism and confidence to get to where you want to go.

Also, as leaders, we need to share and support each other more, particularly in our industry. Tell each other our problems, and work together to find solutions. Maintaining humility is important. Leaders can’t be afraid to show their weaknesses. We need to find kinship.

The other important role is to take care of your people—and make it fun. Agencies are a great grooming ground, and it’s getting harder to keep talent as companies build internal capabilities.
You gotta have fun. People who have fun in their business are probably more successful than others, because they’re passionate. Fun for me is a key word, because if I’m not having fun at what I’m doing, I’m not going to be very good at it.

Speaking of fun, you’re known as something of a prankster. What’s your secret to a great prank?

Well, most of my pranks are spur of the moment. You never know when I might do something. But the really fun part is the rebuttal, anticipating when the retaliation might happen. The other day I pocketed Kevin Brady’s (President/CEO of Anderson DDB Health & Lifestyle) wallet and phone, and got a laugh watching him wander around the office frantically looking for it. But then again, Kevin has also pranked me with exploding golf balls. It’s important to have some fun in your day.

How would you describe the Frank Palmer brand?

My brand is about trust. Trust can be many different things but I’m a man of my word, and I believe in the power of a good old-fashioned handshake. No matter how thick a document is from any lawyer, a handshake says that’s your bond. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. We need to live by our words, and I am a man of my word.

You’re also known for your philanthropy. Over the years, you’ve helped your staff, entrepreneurs, charities and businesses, sometimes out of your own pocket. How important is generosity to success?

When you make more, you need to give more. I’ve supported many organizations for years—the Shriners, the Vancouver Police Foundation, Rick Hansen, mental health, NABS. We have to give back. It’s both a responsibility and an act of integrity.

Who would you most like to meet, living or dead?

Frank Sinatra. I loved the guy for who he was. He was a maverick with talent and he did it his way. Like Dennis Hopper. The person that I would like to meet today is Bruno Mars. Talented, sincere, and fame hasn’t gone to his head. A nice guy who cares for people.

There’s no real ending to your book, but any last words?

Yeah, the story is still being told. At the end of the day, I hope that people will say I’ve made an impression that was good or helped someone. And that we took risks and had fun along the way.


Carolyn Ray is the former MD of Interbrand Canada and a brandchannel contributor based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @thecarolynray

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