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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Terry O’Reilly
Terry O’Reilly

terry oreilly colour photo 300x299 Terry OReillyWriter/Director

It’s kinda funny that it has taken me all these years to get a legend like Terry O’Reilly to grace ihaveanidea’s Creatives section. On a personal note, Terry is the first advertising creative I ever met, and several months after that, he was the first ad guy to ever see my portfolio (and probably a little too kind with me regarding its contents.) Terry served as the very first host of ihaveanidea’s very first Portfolio Night, and he’s also indirectly responsible for Ignacio and myself meeting in the early days of ihaveanidea.

But even if you ignore those little connections, you still have a man who’s among the most awarded and respected radio copywriters on the planet. He’s won hundreds of national and international accolades, and bestowed these honors on others as jury members for shows such as the Cannes Lions and Clios. He founded Pirate, an award-winning audio and video shop in Toronto and New York that directs “from a writer’s point of view.”  He’s an inductee into the Marketing Hall of Legends, and a recipient of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada‘s Les Usherwood Lifetime Achievement Award. He also hosts a wildly popular radio show about the world advertising on CBC and Sirius satellite radio. 

And now Terry can check “author” off of his list of things to accomplish. The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture goes on sale across Canada this week and in the US this coming spring.

Before he embarks on a nationwide book tour, I had a chance to catch up with Terry to talk about his fascinating life, from his early days in a mining town, to his first ad gig, to the beginning of his own company. We got his thoughts on why he loves radio so much, and whether it’s a dead or dying medium in a creative’s arsenal in 2009.

ihaveanidea: You grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, which, for the benefit of our readers, is a small nickel-mining city about 240 miles north of Toronto. That would seem to be a very unlikely place for an ad guy to grow up in.

Terry: I’ve often thought about this, and I do believe that growing up in such a place was quite influential in shaping my career. Sudbury was a very isolated town, and its geographic location and its topography, with all the dense rock that you’d find in a mining area, made it very difficult for television and radio signals to reach us clearly. When I was young, we had only one TV station, the CBC, coming in, with a handful of others when I got older, plus only two radio stations in town. This meant us kids were getting very little pop culture coming into our lives, and we had to have very, very active imaginations to keep stimulated, which I believe really helped me in my career.

Sudbury’s physical isolation also affected me. It was a blue-collar mining town with very common, real people, people who weren’t affected by big-city trends and ideas. Having that sense of the common folk is really important in our business, and unfortunately that sense is so easily lost, since ad people generally move to the big city, make big salaries and start wearing black turtlenecks while driving expensive cars.

ihaveanidea: So how did Mr. Common Folk end up in the big city?

Terry: Well I think I was beyond fortunate that my high school back in Sudbury had a full radio and television production program from Grade 9 to 13. It’s remarkable to think that a high school in an isolated mining town would have a full TV and radio studio. So for five years, I was writing and directing a lot of TV and film projects that would even air in town. I can’t tell you how excited that made me, and when it came time graduate, I applied for Ryerson in Toronto, in their Radio Television Arts program in 1978. I know I didn’t get accepted to Ryerson because of my marks, but rather because I was one of the only students who actually had a portfolio of work because of my high school program.

ihaveanidea: That left you in perfect shape for a career in TV and film, but how did you catch the advertising bug?

Terry: Well there were no advertising courses at Ryerson, but every Wednesday morning there was a lecture series, where they would invite various people from different careers and industries to come speak to us about what they do. We’d have people like Llyod Roberston talk to us about TV journalism and reading the news, we’d have Bob Homme, “The Friendly Giant” speak about children’s programming.

But when the ad guys came in to tell us about their lives, I was fascinated. I was on the edge of my seat. The business, the need for ideas, the pressure, the deadlines, shooting commercials, working with actors, I just loved it. I knew then and there that I wanted to be a copywriter. So it was the lecture series and not any of my actual classes that dictated where I’d end up in life.


“…I sent out sixty — yes, six-zero — very elaborate résumés to agencies all across Canada.

I promptly received sixty rejection letters.”

ihaveanidea: And all without taking ad-specific courses and classes. That’s a major change from what kids go through today. How difficult was it to break in without an advertising background?

Terry: When I graduated from Ryerson, I knew I wanted to be a copywriter in a big ad agency, so I sent out sixty — yes, six-zero — very elaborate résumés to agencies all across Canada.

I promptly received sixty rejection letters.

Now my fiancée at the time lived in Hamilton, [note to readers: Hamilton is a city about 40 miles southwest of Toronto] and I would take the bus to go visit her every weekend. On each trip, I would pass this little radio station on the highway, FM108. One day, on a lark, I got off the bus and gave them one of my résumés.

They hired me.

Yes, they brought me on as the station’s Copy Chief, which was a laugh because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was a big compromise for me, since I still wanted to work in a big ad agency, not in some radio station, but hell, it was a copywriting job in the middle of the ’81 recession, so I couldn’t complain.

But wouldn’t you know it, I fell head over heels in love with radio advertising as a result of that job. I got to experiment, being the “Copy Chief” of a staff of one — myself. I was the writer, the producer, the engineer, and since I was the Chief, I approved everything I wrote, so I could get away with more things. I got to see how much of a broad canvas radio was. I could be on the moon in one spot, or in a person’s heart valve in another, as long as it was written well and the right sound effects were used. TV couldn’t do this, at least not on the budgets that radio had.

You know Malcolm Gladwell’s theory about putting in 10,000 hours in order to become great at something? Well we had about 150 ongoing clients at the radio station, and I was writing solidly for twelve to fourteen hours a day just to keep up with the demand and deadlines. I had so much radio under my belt in such a relatively short time span that it became my comfort place. But I still wanted to get into a proper advertising agency, so while I wrote huge amounts of radio by day, by night I was building a print portfolio.

ihaveanidea: So when it came time to take another stab at getting into an ad agency, how did that go about?

Terry: Well for one, I didn’t send out sixty résumés this time! Instead I only sent out letters to a handful of agencies whose work I truly admired. I managed to set up three or four interviews with creative directors, and the first one was with Trevor Goodgoll at Campbell-Ewald. Trevor flipped through my book at a hundred miles an hour, closed it and said “I’ll take you on for two weeks. At the very least, you’ll have an ad or two for your book and a couple of bucks in your pocket.” I asked him “well if you like me, will you keep me?” He looked at me, paused and said “we’ll see about that after two weeks.”

Before the two weeks were up, he came to me and said “you’re hired.”

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ihaveanidea: Finally! But it must’ve been quite a change, going from essentially doing your own thing at a radio station to having an actual creative director.

“A lot of creative directors can say no, but it’s rare to find one that can say no and inspire you in the same breath.”

Terry: It was a huge shift, but one that I was so thrilled to get into. I yearned to have a creative director. At the radio station, I was learning on the fly, and I wanted someone with wisdom to guide me. Trevor was a godsend to me, and was my first mentor in the business. I couldn’t have had a better CD at that time in my career than Trevor. He loved big ideas, and would never settle for anything that was a small idea. He had a way of pulling huge ideas out of us that we didn’t know we were capable of. He had this way of turning ideas down that would set you on fire, getting you so excited about going back to the drawing board that you ran back to your office. A lot of creative directors can say no, but it’s rare to find one that can say no and inspire you in the same breath.

ihaveanidea: How did it feel to finally get to work in other media, instead of just radio?

Terry: I loved print and television, but I learned very quickly that in the ad world, most writers were afraid of radio. When a radio assignment came up, the writers sorta backed off. They felt it was tough and didn’t give you the same tools that other forms of media gave you. So here I was in an agency and the writers didn’t really want to do the radio, which is where I felt most secure. I found myself taking all the radio briefs back to my office time and time again.

After a while, my radio work started to generate buzz and win a few awards, and I became known as “that radio guy.” I always felt it wasn’t because I was so good, but rather I was so passionate about the medium at a time when nobody in the ad agency world was really embracing radio. No agency was known for their radio work.

But like I said, I did enjoy other media. At the time, our flagship client was Fiberglas Pink insulation. The agency had had one huge hit prior to my arrival, but was having tons of trouble creating a follow-up spot. The client wasn’t liking any of the ideas. So here I come, a really green writer, and I ask Trevor if I could take a crack at it, figuring the worst he could say is no. Trevor gave the okay, and I went away that weekend, and on Monday I showed him my idea, and he loved it. He flew to Chicago and presented it to Joe Settlemeyer, the director behind Wendy’s “Where’s The Beef?” Before you know it, I was filming my first TV spot with a legendary director. It went on to win a bunch of awards, and that gave me a lot of good confidence, letting me know I was heading in the right direction.

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ihaveanidea: That aside, it’s obvious that radio was where your heart was at…

Terry: Yeah. I worked at few other agencies. I worked at DDB under the great Allan Kazmer, then moved onto Chiat\Day when they first opened up in Toronto. There I worked under Geoffery Roche, Dick Hadden and Ken Wieden, Dan’s brother.

But I eventually got to the point where I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to start my own company, but I didn’t really think I wanted to start an ad agency. It just didn’t feel right for me. I sat down and thought about what kind of company I wanted, it was pretty obvious that I wanted to start a radio company. I had the reputation, and it was what I enjoyed doing most.

I also felt that when I was on the agency side and needed a production company to direct radio for me, be it Toronto, New York, Chicago, Detroit, LA, I often found myself fighting to save my work from the director. They never just respected the idea and enhanced it, they’d run away with it and change it. That drove me crazy as a writer. So I teamed up with Rick Sherman, the only director I knew who “got it” and we founded Pirate together.

Basically we built the company I couldn’t find: a company that directed radio from a writer’s point of view. One that understood the hurdles a writer has gone through to get an idea to this point, and knew instinctively what could be enhanced and what should be left alone.

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ihaveanidea: The copywriters in town must’ve let out one big “Hallelujah!”

Terry: (laughs) we were so busy so quickly! Plus, since I was a writer, we weren’t just directing agency written scripts, we had our own direct clients who didn’t have agencies. When that work won awards, it would attract more agency work. Running a production company with its own creative department was a big risk; if the creative work we created wasn’t top-notch, nobody would want to bring their own work here.

Me being a writer was also a benefit to the writers who came in with their projects. If changes need to be made to a script while directing it, if we back ourselves into a corner, I can really jam with the writer and we write ourselves out of the corner.

ihaveanidea: Over the years you’ve become well known throughout Canada for holding big seminars devoted to writing and producing radio ads. I’ve been to them myself, and I noticed that the audience isn’t just writers, but a whole slew of art directors, designers, account people and even clients and marketers. Why did you start doing these conferences, and what brings all these people out for a medium that is really a writer’s domain?

Terry: Radio is the toughest medium to master, but once you master it, you realize it’s the most freeing medium. But even though it’s the toughest medium, it usually gets relegated to the juniors in an agency. So juniors are saddled with these tough radio assignments, and I knew that they’d love to gain some wisdom and tricks about the medium.

The first few years of these conferences were pretty much all writers, but over the years the audience expanded. I’ve always welcomed art directors to attend. Radio, really, is just like any other medium; the idea is conceived by a team. A writer might actually be the one writing the spot, but the art director is providing input, and it’s great to see that they have an interest in what radio entails. As for account people, the smart suits are the ones who attended (laughs) And clients, God bless them, they really got to see what the creative process was like, which made them better clients.

ihaveanidea: People got a lot out of these seminars, but it wasn’t long before you started speaking to a much, much larger audience, namely your CBC radio programs, O’Reilly on Advertising and The Age of Persuasion. How did these come about, on government-backed commercial free radio, no less?

Terry: Four times a year, myself, writer Mike Tennant, and Larry MacInnis and Mike Occomore, the co-creative directors of CHUM FM — we call ourselves ‘The Radio Boys’ — we all go out and have lunch. During one of those lunches, Larry says “you know, your seminar would make a great radio series.” I didn’t take him seriously, and asked who would run such a show. He looked back at me and said “The CBC.”

I glared back at him. “You mean the advertising-free CBC, the network people go to escape advertising?”

But I sat back and thought about it. Mike Tennant already had a relationship with the CBC. He was sort of their go-to guy, whenever they did a news story on advertising, and he felt we were onto something. So Mike and I wrote up a pitch and took it to the head of CBC Radio. Our pitch was basically that there was a lot of misinformation about advertising in the general public. People thought it was stupid, annoying, and Mike and I wanted to make a show that explained advertising to people, that let people into the boardrooms where decisions were make. We wanted to tell great stories about the strategy that went on in the business, And of course it would be told by us, two real ad guys, not journalists or pundits. We’re in the trenches, so we know the ad world is not like Bewitched. We felt if the general public knew more about the ad world, they’d have a better appreciation for it, and they’d become better consumers.

CBC agreed, and planned to put us on as a ten-episode summer replacement series. That show was called O’Reilly on Advertising. Mike and I did the ten episodes. The feedback was so positive that it was scary, to us and to the CBC. I guess that’s because we expected so much revulsion from the CBC audience. But the CBC extended the show right into January, and since then, we’ve been an annual program, stretching every year from January to June.

“Hate advertising. Love your show. Still hate advertising.”

That first season, we didn’t know it was going to last, so each episode was painted in very broad strokes, but once we got picked up again, we knew we could focus on things in far greater detail, and we renamed the show The Age of Persiasion. This coming January will be the fifth season of the two shows. Never in a million years did I expect it to be so popular.

We get hundreds of emails from across Canada every week about the show, and there are two very common kinds of emails. One” “I’ve never given a ny thought to advertising, I’ve ignored it all my life, but your show has made it a fascinating place.” And two: “Hate advertising. Love your show. Still hate advertising.” But I have to feel that even if they say they loathe advertising and its intrusiveness, we must be getting through to them in some way.

age of persuasion book jacket Terry OReilly

ihaveanidea: And it’s become so popular that the show has now become a book, going on sale this month. Isn’t that every copywriter’s dream, to write a book?

Terry: (laughs) It was definitely mine. We got an email one day from Diane Martin, Senior Editor of Knopf/Random House. She said she loved the show, and asked if we ever considered writing a book. She added “I bet you leave a lot of great information on the editing room floor.” That was bang-on, as our show is only 27 minutes a week, and there’s a lot that we have to leave out. So here was our big opportunity! And that left us in the unusual position of having a book deal, but no agent, instead of the other way around!

Our show was always aimed at the general public, but I always received a lot of comments about the show from fellow ad people, as well as marketers and small business owners, so I knew it wasn’t too basic of a level. So the book was written with the intent to appeal to both groups. We touch on so many different topics, and link them so that ‘civilians’ understand what’s happening, and ad people walk away with thoughts and ideas that they always had but weren’t able to articulate. We’re really excited to see if the book will be as successful as the show is.

ihaveanidea: It’s 2009, and everybody’s talking Mad Men this, and ‘social networking’ that. But radio is your first love, and I have to be blunt in asking this: is radio dead? I mean, I haven’t heard any buzz about radio ads since DDB and Bud Light’s “Real Men of Genius” some years back. I don’t ever hear ad students talk about it at all, and they’re the next generation of the business. What’s the story?

Terry: I think radio will always survive. It’s the first broadcast medium, and it has survived TV, film, video, DVD, MP3 and everything else.

That said, I think radio needs a massive overhaul. Most commercial radio is not great anymore, not riveting in the least. I love satellite radio, and people always gasp when I say that, because so much of it is commercial-free. But I listen to a lot of satellite radio, and the reason why is because I love the programming. It really what radio could and should be. Bob Dylan has the most fantastic radio show on Sirius XM. Even the Playboy station has an afternoon call-in show that’s one of the best call-in shows I’ve ever heard.

My hope is that radio will reinvent itself, and become more exciting and dangerous. I hope it will cease to be such a music jukebox. Everybody’s got their own personal ‘jukeboxes’ and you can’t compete with that. So sooner or later, radio will be forced to be innovative.

ihaveanidea: What do you say to the junior or student writer that scoffs and says “Radio? Listen grandpa, I don’t need to write that stuff!”

Terry: I believe that no truly great copywriter would ever say that out loud. Geoff Roche used to say “if you can write good radio, you can write anything,” and when he looks at junior writer portfolios, he often asks to see their radio portfolio. I think that’s very astute of him, because like I said earlier, radio is the toughest thing to master, and that should be a challenge. Angus Tucker, the CD at John St., once said “writing radio is like trying to hide on a squash court.” You are so exposed as a writer on a radio spot. You can’t hide behind wardrobe, locations, pretty faces and editing, the things that other media give you. It’s just you and your idea, and it’s very easy to see if your idea is any good or not.

“I believe that no truly great copywriter would ever say that out loud.”

Even if you only end up writing radio for the first few years of your career, until you are senior enough to be handed the big budget TV shoots,  those are your formative years, so it makes sense to master that skill.

Besides, what writer wouldn’t love radio? It’s the biggest canvas you can play on. It’s as conceptually freeing as any medium we have in our business. Forget widescreen television, radio is widescreen brain.

ihaveanidea: When asked what’s the greatest ad of all time, most people go for Apple’s ‘1984’ or they might pick those VW “Think Small” and “Lemon” print ads. With a lifetime of listening to, writing, directing and producing great radio, what would you say is your favorite radio spot of all time?

Terry: (laughs) That’s like asking who’s your favorite kid!

I’m not sure if it’s the best of all time or not, but the one ad that has inspired me more than any other from the first time I heard it in the early 1980s was for Pearson’s Peanut Nut Roll. It was written by the late, great Craig Weiss. It’s just a phenomenal dialogue spot between a researcher and a woman who sounds like she has just woken up. Beautifully written, paced and cast, it couldn’t be any simpler, and it has always been my flagship for how great radio can be.

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Another spot, much more recent that I put as one of the best is a Bud Light spot by David Chiavegato, the co-founder of Grip Limited, called “Conversational Landmine Detector.” It is so funny, yet so simple, and no matter who I play it for, be it a room full of ad people or a room full of accountants, it brings the roof down.

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ihaveanidea: From all the years I’ve known you, you have had two passions outside of the world of advertising, two huge interests that, in my mind, couldn’t be more different: The Beatles and mixed martial arts. Please. Explain.

Terry: (laughs) The Beatles, well I’ve been hooked on them ever since I was about nine years old. They mesmerize me to this very day. I love the music first and foremost. I love their story. I have every book ever written on the Beatles, I’ve got sealed albums that have never been opened, I have the actual recording contract for Helter Sketler, and all sorts of other one of a kind memorabilia. The Beatles have always, always, always been a great source of joy and creativity for me.

Mixed martial arts? I can’t really say, other than I love it. I’m a martial artist myself, so that’s a big part of why I love it. I’ve been a boxing fan my whole life, from back when Muhammad Ali was in his prime, but when mixed martial arts came around, I couldn’t watch boxing anymore because it seemed too boring for me. I never thought I’d say that in my life, being such a die-hard boxing fan. My wife and three daughters simply don’t understand, but I’m okay with that.

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Interview by:

brettcreditpic Terry OReilly

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

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