A Persuasive Man

Ad man, radio host and author Terry O’Reilly discusses growing up in Sudbury, what it means to live in the Age of Persuasion, and why advertising really is an art.

September 13, 2010 | | Back Issues

The patio roof shades the sun from our eyes, but the air is still heavy on this midsummer day. On-the-go ad man Terry O’Reilly is relaxed. He is sitting in a wicker chair opposite me at his home overlooking the Mulmur hills, the top two buttons of his shirt are undone and his bare feet stretch out in front of him.

In the humidity, beads of condensation drip down the side of Terry’s water glass – and I can’t help thinking that in every beverage commercial, condensation beads just so on the sides of glasses. I can’t help thinking it because it’s the kind of detail that Terry has taught me to notice.

Listen to an audio excerpt of James Jackson’s interview with Terry O’Reilly (link).

Sound familiar? If so, like me, you are probably among the legions of Canadians who tune in addictively to Terry O’Reilly’s CBC radio program, The Age of Persuasion, the show that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of marketing and advertising. Terry is also the author of a book by the same name, co-authored by the show’s producer, Mike Tennant.

The radio program attracts some 600,000 listeners each week, and has made him as much a household name in Canada as many of the brands he discusses. So it’s surprising when he describes it as a sideline, created in “stolen moments.”

For nearly thirty years, his day job has been writing and directing radio and television commercials. Among his clients are some of the world’s largest companies, including Bud Light, Goodyear and Bell.

In fact, his radio show is not even recorded at CBC. “It’s a funny thing, when I go to CBC to do an interview or to be on another show, I always have to get directions where to go, because I don’t exist inside the CBC building – we record the show at my offices and studio.”

His office is at Pirate Toronto, the company he co-founded back in 1990. Originally called Pirate Radio, the advertising company began exclusively in radio production, but soon branched into sound production for television advertising. In a nice twist to the usual corporate flow, Pirate also has a subsidiary studio in New York City. It employs more than forty people across the two locations.

The books in Terry O’Reilly’s extensive library at his Mulmur home are not all about advertising and marketing – most of those are in his Toronto studio – but they do tend to non-fiction, including business, biographies and science. Photo by Bryan Davies.

Terry has won hundreds of national and international awards for writing and directing, he conducts speaking tours across the country, and in 2005, was named the sole Canadian judge for the inaugural year of radio at the Cannes Advertising Festival – the largest advertising awards ceremony in the world.

Yet with all of this success, he continues to be best known as the host of The Age of Persuasion – a show that wasn’t even his idea. It was born over lunch with friends.

Four times a year, Terry and Mike Tennant meet for lunch with two of the creative directors at CHUM Radio, Larry MacInnis and Mike Occomore. They call themselves The Radio Boys.

Terry also gives a radio seminar every year to young advertising copywriters whom he takes through the steps of developing effective and creative radio commercials.

At lunch one day, Larry MacInnis told Terry, “You know what, if you broke your radio seminar into pieces, that would make a really interesting radio series.”

Terry responded, “Really? Who would run that?” And Larry replied, “The CBC.”

“You mean the advertising-free CBC would run a show about advertising?” Terry asked. They shared a laugh and Terry never expected the idea to go past that lunch table.

The next day, however, Terry received a phone call from Mike, who had done marketing shows for the CBC in the past. Mike believed Larry was onto something with his radio idea.

The two of them assembled a three-page pitch, and Mike sent it in to the CBC.

“I expected the folks at CBC to say ‘thanks but no thanks.’ I truly thought that,” admits Terry.

Much to his surprise though, CBC liked the idea.

“Our pitch was that we wanted to create an interesting, insightful and fun show on the business of advertising. We wanted to take people along a kind of wild and crazy ride through the hallways and boardrooms of advertising.”

The show began as a ten-part summer replacement series, called O’Reilly on Advertising. It dealt with broad topics such as humour in advertising and commercials gone too far. Terry was the host and Mike was the producer.

Much to Terry’s surprise, the show was a hit.

In fact, it was so popular that CBC expanded the program from its original ten episodes to twenty-five, and when the season ended, CBC wanted another one.
“Mike and I regrouped and said ‘okay, if this is going to be an ongoing series, let’s change the skew of it.’”

The show became much more specific – which Terry preferred – and they renamed it The Age of Persuasion. “Instead of taking a 30,000-foot view of the subject matter, we were zooming right in on it.”

In one recent episode, Terry explained how creative strategies vary by product category. By taking listeners on a tour of different industries – from automotive and confectionary, to fast food and banking – he uncovered the personalities, rules and language used within each category.

Terry’s show wrapped up its fourth season in June. When it resumes again in January, loyal listeners will again be able to tune in every Saturday to hear Terry’s smooth, familiar voice as he delves deeper into the mysterious world from whence emerges the ads we love – and loathe.

“I definitely am a storyteller, there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I try to tell great stories, and search for great stories to tell.”

The show is not just aimed at the general public, either.

“A lot of people ask me if ad agencies are angry [about the show’s frank approach to their business], and they’re not. They’re fans of the show too, because there aren’t any secrets to advertising. It’s an art. It’s an applied art.”

One of the keys to his creative success, both in advertising work and on his radio show, is humour. He understands that advertising is an interruption, an intrusion into your enjoyment as you watch your favourite program. With the exception of the Super Bowl, people do not sit down in front of their TVs for the ads.

So the key to great advertising is to make that interruption as welcome as possible.

“To me, humour is a great way of doing that. If you make them smile, two things happen. They might like the brand a little more, and it won’t feel like such an interruption.”

It’s no surprise that two of his favourite ads right now are Dos Equis: The Most Interesting Man in the World (web site), and Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (web site)– ads that rely heavily on humour. (If you’ve missed them, find them on YouTube – they’re a treat!) [Ed. note: Dos Equis on You Tube; Old Spice on You Tube.]

He says that much of advertising comes down to understanding human nature. For marketers, every new ad is like solving a puzzle to find a solution that audiences will enjoy, instead of changing the station or hitting the mute button.

He brings the same goal to his radio show: “I want it to be great radio. Really listenable, rewarding, I-want-to-hear-it-every-week radio.”

To say he has been successful would be an understatement. Terry’s program is the hallmark of great radio – it grabs you by the ear and doesn’t let go. Listeners sit in their cars in their driveways or supermarket parking lots waiting for the show to end before going inside.

All of this success, however, grew from seemingly modest roots.

Terry O’Reilly was born in Sudbury in 1959 – not a place you might first associate with creative virtuosity, but he credits his upbringing there for his fascination with radio, television, and all things pop culture.

His first experience in media came early in life, thanks to the popular children’s television show, Romper Room.

“I watched it like crazy, and bugged my mother to take me to see if I could get on the show – which she did.”

One day, on the Sudbury set of Romper Room, his mother was asked if four-year-old Terry could appear in an ad for a local bakery. She agreed, and Terry’s life in advertising was set in motion.

Throughout his years at Sudbury Secondary School, Terry was fortunate to have access to a television and film class with a full studio. “Cameras, lights, switchers, everything – which is extraordinary in a small town like Sudbury,” he says.

From the moment he stepped into the studio, he knew it was where he wanted to be for the rest of his life. “It was just one of those moments,” he says as he snaps his fingers together.

Terry went on to study radio and television arts at Ryerson. Although there were no classes devoted to advertising, it was there that he settled on his future career.

Every Wednesday morning, his class would hear a lecture from someone in the media industry, from Lloyd Robertson to Bob Homme – better known as The Friendly Giant on CBC television.

“But when the ad guys came in, I loved it,” Terry says smiling. “The pressure of the business, the deadlines, working in studios with actors, going to wonderful exotic location shoots. Everything about it.”

He left Ryerson in 1981, one credit short of graduating – “I was too impatient to get on with life” – and set about writing sixty elaborate resumés. He sent them to sixty advertising agencies across Canada – and promptly received sixty rejection letters.

Still, he persevered. “The great thing about life is serendipity kicks in,” he says.

Terry’s girlfriend (and future wife) lived in Hamilton while he was job-hunting in Toronto. He took the GO bus on weekends to visit her, and as he passed through Burlington, he could see the radio station FM 108 through the bus window.

He had never considered radio as a career path. It was television that had captured his imagination. But one day he decided to get off the bus and put in a resumé for a copywriting job at the station. He was hired.

“Don’t you know it, I fell completely head over heels in love with radio and it affected the absolute direction of my life.”

Now, after three decades in the advertising business, he says that not once has he caught himself watching the clock at work. He enjoys trying to connect the dots to get the picture that explains why certain ads work, and others fail miserably.

But his fascination with advertising hasn’t blinded him to the downside of the business. He laments the fact that advertising has infiltrated virtually every aspect of our lives, something he calls “ad clutter.” In fact, the subtitle of his book is How Marketing Ate Our Culture.

As he explains it, advertisers are in the business of creating ads that grab our attention, but the more ads they create the more cluttered the advertising world becomes, which makes it harder for them to get our attention and forces them to create more ads – a Catch-22.

Nowadays, ads are everywhere from NASA rockets to golf holes and urinals, and he calls the trend worrisome.

“We live in the age of persuasion, meaning that everything – every brand, every show, anything that’s marketable – is trying to persuade you or divert your attention. Everything is some form of persuasion.”

As he and Mike describe it in their book, “On a given day, at least three hundred, and as many as six thousand, marketing messages are lobbed your way… The age of persuasion reveals itself in us each time we flirt, date, apply for a job, buy a car, sell a home, fight a speeding ticket, heckle a referee, write to Santa Claus, pop a breath mint, or simply dress for effect.”

Terry’s ultimate goal with the radio show and the book is to help create a better-informed consumer and advertiser. He says that the more informed consumers are, the more products they will buy from advertisers who truly care about them. And the more that advertisers care about their audience, the better the ads will be.

With his thrice weekly, two hours each way commute to his office on King Street in Toronto (where he maintains a condo), a weekly half-hour radio show, countless book tours, and his consuming work writing and directing commercials at Pirate, how does Terry maintain his sanity?

“Living here is my mental health,” he says, gazing over the hills that surround his log home. The house was built in 2003 and after a couple of years of weekending, Terry, his wife Debbie and their three teenaged daughters moved up permanently in 2005.

“My work life is a five-alarm blaze where every minute is accounted for. I get to work in the morning and my assistant says, ‘Okay, from 9:00 to 9:15 you have this phone call, from 9:15 to 9:20 you’re doing this,’ and that’s my day.”

He pauses, and smiles when he says, “When I get to Hockley valley driving home, I just kind of breathe out, and love the journey home.”

Terry is one of the four authors who will take the stage to discuss their books at the sixth annual Armchair, Authors & Art, part of the Headwaters Arts Festival this fall.

“The greatest part about a book tour is meeting fans of the radio show,” he says. “They’re so warm and so wonderful, and just to make contact and hear their feedback on the show, I love it.”

About the Author More by James Jackson

James Jackson is a freelance writer who grew up on a farm in Caledon.

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