Go Canadians, Go: BBDO’s James Miller

“We’d like you to come and be the lead planner on Guinness”

As part of our “Go Canadians, Go” project, Marketing asked dozens of Canucks working abroad (or those who’ve returned with a few years of international experience) to give us their impressions of the differences between Canada’s industry and others. Does being Canadian give you a leg up?

I almost moved to New York in 1996.

I was going to transfer from Lowe SMS in Toronto to Lowe SMS in New York. I had an offer to be an account director on some Coke brands and my visa application was submitted. It was a straightforward transfer; the paperwork would take about six weeks. Seven weeks in, I got an unexpected call on Friday afternoon from Paul Hammersley, the CEO of Lowe New York: “James, it’s Paul. I’ve got good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”

“Let’s start with the bad news so we can end on a positive,” I said.

“The bad news is that I’ve just flown back from Coke in Atlanta where I’ve resigned the brands you were coming to work on, so we don’t really have a job for you anymore. The good news is that your visa came through yesterday so you could start work Monday.”

Paul assured me I could come and they would find me a role in New York or I could keep my role in Toronto. He gave me the weekend to think it over. I took it as a sign and decided to stay.

Lesson 1: Leaving doesn’t always go to plan

I moved to London in 2001.

I left Lowe six months after the aborted move to New York and went to BBDO Toronto to become a planner. I loved the place and the job. I had a brilliant boss in Neale Halliday and worked with great people on fantastic brands like Jeep, Molson and FedEx. But after five years, I wanted a bigger challenge.

As a planner, what I really wanted was to work in London. London was the home of planning, as well as many of the agencies and much of the creative work I admired. As it happened, Abbott Mead Vickers (AMV) was part of the BBDO network.

BBDO wasn’t great at moving people around back then, but a few strings were pulled. After a grueling phone interview and a whirlwind day of interviews in London, I was told: “We’d like you to come and be the lead planner on Guinness.”

It was my dream job. AMV was (and still is) one of the most highly awarded agencies in the world, and Guinness, fresh off a Cannes Grand Prix for ‘Surfer,’ was its marquee client. I looked at the salary, benefits and cost of living in London, realized my standard of living would halve and immediately said yes.

Back in Canada waiting for my U.K. visa to be processed, I got a call from AMV: “You’re going to read that Guinness is going into global review. Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”

I arrived for work on January 2, 2001 with enthusiasm and a bit of trepidation. I was met by the head of account management who said: “Welcome. Nice to have you here. We haven’t heard yet from Guinness. We’re very optimistic, but at the moment we’re not sure what you’ll be working on. Don’t worry, we’ll find something.”

Lesson 2: Arriving doesn’t always go to plan

As it happened, they held on to Guinness (a client to this day) and I worked on it for three years.

I remember my second day at AMV. It was the first day I set foot in the creative department on the top floor. I swore the building tilted under the weight of creative awards stacked on shelves. I felt much the way I imagine a young football player feels the first time he steps into the Real Madrid dressing room — honoured to be there, but just a bit awed at being among legends previously admired from afar.

My meeting was with Walter Campbell. Walt is the man who wrote Guinness ‘Surfer’ and about a dozen other ads you’ve definitely heard of. He’s also from Northern Ireland and speaks with an accent so impenetrable to my Canadian ears that I understood maybe a third of what he said. What I took out was that he cared deeply about the work, expected me to care deeply about the work and as long as we could agree on that we would get on just fine.

I’ve been at AMV now for 13 years and in that time had the chance to do great work on clients like Guinness, BT, The Economist, Heinz, FedEx, J&J and Mars. I met my wife in London and we’ve got two little boys who sound like Brits and have Canadian and British passports. For the last five years, I’ve been the global head of planning on Mars, BBDO’s largest global client, and had the chance to create global campaigns for brands like Snickers, M&M’s and Pedigree.

I’ve stayed because I found a home and because I’ve never felt there was a bigger challenge somewhere else.

Lesson 3: It’s not about leaving or arriving, it’s about what you do while you’re there

James Miller is EVP, head of planning on Mars at BBDO Worldwide

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