I began working in the ad business in the 1980s, up in Calgary, Canada.
I worked on the copy side and as a Creative Director, mainly on the Mark's Work Wearhouse account which, at that time, was a 200-store retail chain. Those were the days when the company was still run by its iconoclastic founder, Mark Blumes. I moved to the client side, and worked as the chain's VP Marketing at a time when the brand was being repositioned upmarket. Under Blumes, the place was a customer-service cult. Nothing was allowed to get in the way of satisfying a customer, even if it meant losing money on any individual transaction.
Later, I was CD at McCann's Calgary shop (mostly General Motors work) and at SGCI in New Brunswick (where I led the team that created the Aliant telecom brand.) I also worked for Muller & Company in Kansas City (Muller's claim to fame was that it had been dubbed 'One of the Top 6 Small Shops in the U.S.' by Adweek. Or was it Advertising Age? Whatever.)
After about 15 years in the ad business I'd made a lot of good money and a few good friends but I was disillusioned by the industry's overall lack of strategic insight and tendency to waste money and effort. In 2001 I quit a six-figure ad gig, sold everything I owned, and moved to the Isle of Man. Over the next year I prepared to compete in the world's most dangerous organized sporting event: The Isle of Man TT motorcycle races.
By the time I returned from Europe, in 2004, the ad industry where I'd spent my career was in the throes of disruption. It still is. But changes – can you blame if I even say 'chaos'? –in the ad world make the underlying message of 'Build a Brand Like Trader Joe's' even more effective today. The fast moving trends that have upended the ad industry – media fragmentation, the rise and dynamic nature of social media, programmatic online ads, etc. – make direct contact between customers and companies more important than ever.
Empathy, the softest skill of all, has become a critical differentiator for some of the world's most admired brands. My job is helping companies build front-line customer service staffs build strong and durable customer relationships. If that makes me old-fashioned, so be it.