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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Aaron Starkman
Aaron Starkman

aaron Aaron StarkmanExecutive Creative Director
CPB Canada

Here at ihaveanidea, it’s one thing to interview all sorts of creative superstars, but it’s another thing to interview a creative superstar who you knew before he was a superstar.

Such is the case with Aaron Starkman, Executive Creative Director of the Canadian office of the legendary ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky. I’ve known Aaron since the days of me shopping my fresh out of school portfolio around and he becoming a fast rising copywriter at Zig (CPB Canada’s previous incarnation.) Over the years we’ve had countless conversations and consumed numerous beverages — from a raucous night eating “Fu King fried rice” in Chinatown to a surprisingly quiet evening in Cannes sipping beers on a balcony. Somewhere along the way Aaron morphed into a prestigious CD, but I don’t think I’ve ever really asked him about that journey (or about the spiky hair in this new press photo — you’re a dad, for crying out loud!)

Of course, that all changes now, with this interview.

ihaveanidea: Very few kids wanna be ad people when they grow up, so when did advertising become your calling?

Aaron: When I was a kid, I watched Who’s the Boss? with Tony Danza all of the time. I thought that Angela Bower had the craziest job in the world. She got to come up with ads, how fucking amazing was that? So I always had that in the back of my head, especially when I was in university studying psychology. I thought I would be into that too, but psychology is basically about finding what’s wrong with you and your parents! In the end, I just wasn’t into it, but I still found what I learned to eventually be useful in this profession. Anyway, after I got the degree, I went into the advertising program at Seneca College, run by Anthony Kalumut, who was and still is awesome.

ihaveanidea: So I’ve heard. Was Zig your first foray into the business?

Aaron: There’s a cardinal rule in advertising: you should never take a job for the money. But when I was 26, I had been dating my girlfriend for nine years. I wanted to propose to her, but I had no money to buy an engagement ring. I was totally broke. So I did what you’re not supposed to, I took a gig just so I could afford an engagement ring. It happened to be at a place where ideas were unfortunately not in the DNA of the company. But I was there for a reason, and after a few months into the gig, I had enough saved for the ring.

There’s a cardinal rule in advertising: you should never take a job for the money.

Just around that time, I received a call from Elspeth Lynn, one of the founders of Zig. I was already a huge fan of her and her work. I thought “Cam Breast Exam” was the funniest thing I had seen in my life. So I left that other agency and I started at Zig a little while later as a junior copywriter.

ihaveanidea: It must’ve been a refreshing change. How were your early days at Zig?

Aaron: It was amazing. About a month into the job I was partnered with Stephen Leps, and we discovered that we really just clicked. It was kinda funny, because we were the exact opposites of each other. I’m this nerdy, bookish writer guy, and Stephen is this crazy, outgoing, rock star Ken doll model. But we really liked each other and going out drinking together, and we just clicked and had great chemistry.

ihaveanidea: Only a couple short years after the two of you teamed up, you were onstage at Cannes, picking up your first Gold Lion. What was that experience like?

Aaron: Leps and I had went to Cannes for the Young Creatives Competition the year before. We were just completely blown away by the work, the people, and the whole vibe of the place. So the next year we decided to go again. We paid for the trip ourselves, and shared a tiny un-air conditioned room,but truthfully, we were just happy to be there rooting on the all the Canadian entries.

We were at the Canadian delegate party a few nights before the big show where they announce the Film Lions. At the party, they had a copy of the just released shortlist. We were looking through it, and we were a little bit bummed out when we didn’t see our PSA spot for bullying on the list. It won a Gold at the Bessies, the Canadian award show, a few weeks before, so we thought who knows, maybe it had a shot at a shortlist. The spot we had created for Vim wasn’t on the shortlist, and we really didn’t expect it to be.

Shortly afterwards, we learned from the judges that the spot was just shy of winning the Grand Prix.

So later on in the festival, Leps and I were having a drink on the beach with some other Canadians when we got a call. It was Elspeth on the other line. She told us we needed to buy jackets. We didn’t get it. Then she told us that not only was our Vim spot actually on the shortlist, but we won a Gold Lion for it and we had to go up on stage. We freaked out and hugged each other right there on the beach. It was just such a cool moment in our careers.

Shortly afterwards, we learned from the judges that the spot was just shy of winning the Grand Prix. To be honest, we were just so blown away by what was going on that when we heard about that, it didn’t matter to us. We were just stoked with winning a Gold Lion, especially because it was for a cleaning product that we weren’t expecting to get anything for.

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ihaveanidea: After you won your first Gold Lion, did you feel the pressure to get back on the stage?

Aaron: Well, the last thing we wanted to be thought of was a one hit wonder. So on the very next brief after Cannes, we had in the back of our heads “let’s kill this thing, let’s make the client famous with crazy business results, and have work that truly stands out.” And we were fortunate enough to get back on stage in Cannes. I guess the cool thing was the that other Cannes Gold Lions we won were for different clients, in different categories, and in mediums other than TV.

ihaveanidea: When Canada wins at Cannes, the winners become sources of pride for the entire industry – you don’t see anyone chanting USA! USA! when Wieden or Goodby win. What’s your take on this?

Aaron: At Canadian award shows like The Marketing Awards and the Bessies, we’re all trying to kick each other asses. For some reason when Canadians get together in Cannes though, it’s like we are all part of Team Canada. It’s weird -in a really good way. Part of it is, as Canadians in general, we look for recognition outside of our country. We’re proud when our comics like Jim Carrey and John Candy become famous. The same kind of attitude is displayed when a Canadian ad does well in Cannes. It’s very much a brotherhood. And it’s really awesome.

ihaveanidea: One of the major milestones in your career and in the history of Zig was winning the iconic Molson Canadian beer account back in 2004. People and pundits seemed surprised with that win, giving voice to a perception that Zig was a “chick agency”, a shop founded and staffed by women and a roster of clients that primarily targeted women. Reality is different than perception here, but did you ever find ourself having to combat it all?

Aaron: I think we were definitely seen as underdogs in that pitch, and part of the reason may have been because the founders of the agency were women. But Elspeth and Lorraine Tao were so valuable in that they had done the successful “Out of the Blue” campaign for Labatt a few years before. Leps and I were the lead team on the pitch, which was a true honour, and we really became sponges around Elspeth and Lorraine, soaking up their vast beer advertising knowledge and experience.

Still, we were a bit concerned that we might be perceived in a certain way. At one moment in the pitch, Elspeth flat out asked Molson “Would you feel comfortable going to an agency founded by a couple of chicks?” It wasn’t a big deal to them at all. It was all about the work, which of course is how it should be.

Later, when I became the CD on Molson Canadian, I actually tried to mix it up as much as I could in terms of male and female teams. I’m a firm believer that women can do kick-ass work on traditional male accounts and that guys can do kick-ass work on traditional female accounts. Look at Leps and I on Vim! And a funny aside on that project, we actually got the assignment because a female team didn’t want it.

I’m a firm believer that women can do kick-ass work on traditional male accounts and that guys can do kick-ass work on traditional female accounts.

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ihaveanidea: You were at Zig for a lot of major transitions, namely the merger with ACLC a few years back, and last year in becoming Crispin Porter + Bogusky Canada. Describe what big transitions like these are like for you in an agency.

Aaron: When ACLC merged with Zig, the thing that changed was our size. We suddenly had a lot more people and lots of new names to learn,  but the vibe was very much the same. As a CD and someone who was at Zig for many years, it was essentially my responsibility to make sure the culture remained true. So what we had established with Zig, I tried to share and have the new people buy into. The cool thing is that they did. From as long as I can remember, people hung out and had lunch together at a big table. We ended up buying a bigger table. But having lunch together and hanging out is very much a part of who we are. This agency has always had a family vibe to it. And it still does. It’s a big part of who we are. Our family is just a little bigger these days.

In terms of the transition to CPB, it’s been really seamless and amazing. As Zig, we shared many of the same creative beliefs with CPB. That’s a big reason why we jumped at the chance to be part of it.

ihaveanidea: What’s been the biggest change for you in becoming CPB Canada?

Aaron: Well, one really amazing change in becoming CPB Canada is that we’re now part of something bigger, a kick-ass global team. There are new ways of leaning and a shared set of values and beliefs. It’s great having access to really great minds around the world, in places like London, Sweden, and The US, and we’ve been fully communicating with them and jamming on the Polycom.

Another really awesome thing is we’ve mimicked the management model in Boulder. I went down there and saw the way Rob Reilly, Andrew Keller and Jeff Benjamin work together. It was really inspiring and I loved the fact that there’d be a meeting going on with Rob, but Jeff was within earshot and he could make a comment or suggestion to help the work get better. That’s what we’ve started doing in Canada. We’ve hired Darren Richardson, a digital Creative Director from 180 in Amsterdam, and we both work with Michael Murray who’s amazing and has been with us several years. And just like Rob, Andrew and Jeff, we share an office and it’s been just awesome working with people I have a lot of trust and respect for. Plus I happen to really like them as dudes. Which is a huge thing.

ihaveanidea: How often do you get your hands dirty these days, throwing down on creative?

Aaron: Whenever I can, I try to do get out and do a working lunch with whoever’s around. I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but I am in fact the Foursquare mayor of the Jack Astor’s across the street from CP+B, beating out the restaurant’s own chef. Whenever I walk in, they kind of treat me like Norm from Cheers. I know every waiter’s name. It’s weird, I know, what can I say.

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ihaveanidea: How would you describe yourself as a CD?

Aaron: Well, the truth is I’m still learning new things everyday. I’m still a relatively new Creative Director and I’m loving every day of it.  One of the things that I have learned is that different people respond to different things. Some teams may need a little bit of a kick in the ass here and there. Other teams respond better with a warm and fuzzy hug. But no matter who it is, or what the assignment is, I want people to bring their own values, life experience, and personality into the work. I want to get a sense of who they are otherwise we’ll get a bunch of stuff that is all very similar to each other.

ihaveanidea: What do you think the future holds for Canada on the global advertising scene, and for CP+B Canada specifically?

Aaron: As an industry, Canada has a track record of creating big ideas and using cost effective ways to bring them to market. This will help us in both the short term and long term. In Canada, we are less constrained by our legacy. We’re seeing that innovation is coming from startups and rebels like CPB, like places like Taxi and others. As ‘nice’ as we are in Canada, we’ve always had to have that mindset. If we didn’t, all we would be doing is picking up work from the US and UK.

The future of CPB in Canada? Well, there really isn’t a CPB Canada. What I mean by that is we have a whole bunch of passionate people who happen to live in places like Toronto, Sweden, Miami and Boulder. We just pitched a US client with a planner from Boulder, content management and a social media expert from Miami, and the entire creative product coming out of Toronto. It is really is one agency. We’re getting opportunities that we didn’t have before and we’re totally loving that.

ihaveanidea: I’ve known you since before you were a CD, before you were a big boss, before you were a dad with family responsibilities. What drives you today that differs from what drove you all those years ago?

Aaron: To be honest, what drives me hasn’t changed at all. I used to not be married and not have kids, and now I’m married with three kids, but when it comes to work, it’s the same now as it was back then. I want to be a part of something special. I want to make clients famous and achieve results, I want to do work that gets recognized by the mainstream press, not just the ad industry press, I want to be involved in something cool. I haven’t changed a bit.

ihaveanidea: Your hair has.

Aaron: “…”

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Interview by:

brettcreditpic Aaron Starkman

Brett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

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