CBC’s Terry O’Reilly Talks Advertising

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Considered one of Canada’s most influential marketing minds, advertising guru Terry O’Reilly recently spoke at the Victoria Film Festival’s On Advertising in the Movies. The special event at the Vic Theatre saw the host of CBC’s popular radio show Under the Influence exploring the ad realm on the big screen and its actuality in the real world.

O’Reilly started out as a copy chief for radio before going on to an award-winning career with several Toronto advertising agencies, creating campaigns for top brands such as Labatt, Molson, Bell, The Hudson’s Bay Company, Tim Horton’s, Volkswagen and Nissan. In 1990, O’Reilly co-founded a creative audio production company called Pirate Radio & Television that produced scripts, sound and music for radio and television commercials.

When he wasn’t creating advertising, he was talking about it as host of The Age of Persuasion — and now as the host of Under the Influence. Currently he is in high demand as a speaker promoting the power of ideas. Douglas had the chance to speak with him before his Victoria presentation.

How does your presentation at the VFF explore the way advertising is portrayed in film and media?

I look at various ways Hollywood has looked at the industry — the advertising industry where I’ve spent my career — over the years. I think the earliest clip I’m going to show is from a movie from 1947 and then I’m going to zoom through the decades, skipping and jumping through the decade all the way up to Mad Men. And just have some fun with it — things that are very accurate, things that have never changed about the industry, and things that have absolutely changed. Or just the way Hollywood betrayed our industry; it looks funny but it’s completely inaccurate.

I’ll be showing a really famous clip from the movie called The Hucksters with Clark Gable, made in 1947 just after the war. It’s a clip that shows how some very fundamental things in advertising have not changed right into the 21st century. The dynamics that we see in that particular clip are really still the same.

So, even with all the changes in technology, the fundamentals as still the same?

There’s no doubt about it, with the internet and everything digital and social media, etc, there is a lot that has changed with advertising. But at the heart of it, generating ideas in the client-agency relationship and a lot of the fundamentals are still the same.

Is there a different approach to marketing and advertising if you look at it from the angle of a small or medium-sized business?

Well, I think the fundamentals apply, and by that I mean you really have to understand your audience and have a profound understanding of what it is you’re offering to your potential audience. In other words, if you’re a small local brewery, it’s a very different offer than if you were a Molson’s and people are coming to you for a very different reason, for example. So the fundamentals are the same, strategy, etc, except your budgets are small, so that dictates a very different execution or very different media. So what I always say to small to medium sized marketers is that you have to look at the greatest area of opportunity — which means don’t spend a little bit of money on all mediums. [Instead] spend the most money on two mediums, if you know what I mean. Really go deep on one or two mediums as opposed to going very thin and narrow on a lot of mediums.

One of the regular talks you give is on how a small budget doesn’t mean you can’t do great marketing. Can you expand on that?

In my career I’ve worked for really, really big marketers and done creative work for them, and I’ve worked for smaller entrepreneurs. I’ve much preferred the smaller companies, right through my career. The reason for that, I think, was that you were always sitting across from the owner and it wasn’t bureaucracy, it wasn’t a lot of levels. You could communicate with the founder or the owner and they’re usually bolder and more feisty and more willing to do that interesting work or more compelling work than some of the safer, bigger brands. So when I look back at my career and my company, it’s the work we did for small and medium companies.

I’ve heard you say that ‘customer service is marketing.’ What do you mean by that?

If you listen to my radio show, I often reference that ‘customer service is marketing,’ because I think some companies see them as two different divisions — marketing is one department and the down the hall is someone else who looks after customer service. I’ve always believed the way you treat your customers speaks more and more loudly than any marketing campaign, because that’s where the rubber hits the road. Customer service, at the end of the day, is the best thing you can do. If you care for your customers and treat them well and go above and beyond the call — not just basic service — go above and beyond the call, that’s the sign of a great company.

Does good customer service help create great stories?

Oh, without a question, yes. I’m a big believer in storytelling in advertising. I’m not making up stories, but harvesting real stories. And you can get stories from the history of a company, the philosophy of a company, the founder’s vision, how it may have a greater understanding of its customer’s need than another company; but the customer service aspect of a company is a great place to harvest stories because you’re interacting with the public and they’re telling you this great story about when they used your product or how it really enhanced what they were trying to do. Those are the best stories to tell, bar none.