Go Canadians, Go: Cossette’s Glen Hunt

New York City: A place where you can get lost… and found

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?

The year was 1996, and after only six years in the business including stops at three Toronto ad agencies, Cossette chief transformation officer Glen Hunt packed his bags and headed south to the Big Apple, home of Madison Avenue and birthplace of the advertising industry.

As it turned out, he ended up not on Madison Avenue, but at One Dag Hammerskjold Plaza in a shiny black tower right next the United Nations and with a fabulous view of the East River. The office was the headquarters of creatively renowned Ammirati Puris where Hunt spent the next three years, working on clients like RCA, UPS, Stanley Tools and Labatt and presenting his concepts all the way from the boardrooms of corporate America to the White House.

I had just left Lowe Roche, and Tom Nelson, creative director of A&P, in Toronto asked me to come down to New York. I had never lived anywhere but Toronto, so moving to a different city seemed like a good idea.

The image of Madison Avenue as the center of the advertising universe and the world of martini lunches and hard working Mad Men cracking big ideas in the Big Apple wasn’t the Madison Avenue that I joined.

That was a bygone era. New York was no longer the central hub of advertising excellence. Now it exists in nooks and crannies everywhere, in places like Portland and Miami or Denver or San Francisco or LA, and I think that’s healthy for the business.

That famous expression, “If you can make it there you can make it anywhere” no longer applies in the same way. Today anywhere can be ‘there,’ not just New York City. That said, it is still an immensely exhilarating city that is positively aglow with excitement and stimulation.

The big thing I learned is the power that comes from a new perspective. As Canadians, we weren’t that much different from the Americans, but different enough that we brought a new way of looking at things. That is a distinct advantage. An outsider’s point of view – a fresh way of looking at old problems – is a perspective I learned to appreciate and it’s something I’ve maintained.

We also brought with us incredibly diverse industry experience. The Americans were big sharp knife blades. We Canadians were like Swiss Army knives, able to do so many things. By the time I got to New York I had a book that was full of TV, radio, print, experiential work and I was getting into digital.

Canadians may have worked on smaller budgets, but that only meant that we had to find ways of doing more with less … we knew what it meant to do more in a shorter period of time using fewer resources. We were much more nimble and agile in Canada.

And that was one thing that surprised me about New York … the pace of the work. For such a bustling and hustling town, everything seemed to move so slowly. Maybe that was just because of the size and scale of the agency. There were 1,000 people in the office and one half of them didn’t know the other half. Even after three years at the agency people still thought that I was a freelancer.

But you can’t deny that everything is bigger in New York. Bigger steaks. Bigger drinks. Bigger budgets. Bigger clients. Bigger meetings … like meetings with 40 people. You would invite clients in from across the country for meetings and they would all make it.

But that also provided me with an invaluable lesson. I learned about the politics that lead to having a good meeting and of learning how to answer tough questions, and of how to read people in the room … of accepting or seeking criticism from clients when presenting work and asking them to provide clarity. These are lessons I have carried forward to today.

I even got to go to present to the President of the United States. It was at the end of my second year at the agency and I went to the White House to present a campaign to President Bill Clinton for “Welfare to Work,” a federal program aimed at encouraging people to get off welfare. It was a pet project of President Clinton’s.

Most important of all, though, is the maturation that you go through by living and working in a new place. The idea of heading out and creating new support systems for yourself and in letting yourself go into an entirely new world as a way of defining yourself and learning to become who you are is transformative. Someone gave me a quote: “There are no welcome wagons on Avenue C.” New York is a city that is incredibly easy to become lost in, but also to find yourself among those tall towers which are blinding in a way, but which also surround you and embrace you.

For me, it was an incredibly powerful experience.

Glen Hunt is chief transformation officer of Cossette in Toronto.

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