Several years ago, Marketing ran a story on a controversial industry issue, the particulars of which are lost to advancing age and a less-than-stellar memory. It was probably measurement; it’s nearly always measurement.
There was no question that Bruce Claassen would be part of the narrative. President of the Canadian Media Directors’ Council (CMDC) at the time, he was a pugnacious, outspoken and powerful member of the Canadian media community. A reporter’s dream, in other words.
He called back almost immediately, and after extracting assurances he would not be identified, issued a highly quotable—and wonderfully splenetic—assessment of the situation in his fast-talking, and sometimes elliptical manner.
Within 30 minutes of the story’s appearance online, a furious Claassen called the magazine. In a 20-minute dressing down punctuated by liberal uses of the word “fuck,” he said everyone in the industry would know who was being quoted, because of the tone of the remarks and how they were delivered.
Eventually, mollified by apologies and the (quite legitimate) defense that his quotes were simply too good not to use, Claassen ended up laughing it off. He even went on to make some additional observations that now exist only in a tattered notebook.
Claassen, who died Thursday, was indeed a singular voice in Canadian media, variously described as a “larger-than-life” character who never backed down from a challenge, a champion of media who mentored a generation of senior leaders, and a born storyteller who never settled for good enough.
After graduating from Concordia University with a Bachelor of Commerce and an MBA, Claassen started his career in the marketing and national sales departments of the Montreal Star. Eventually recruited by MacLaren Advertising for a job as a media supervisor, he worked his way up to media director within two years.
He moved to McKim Advertising in 1982 and became a partner and vice-president of media, taking on additional responsibilities as account director and head of strategic planning and business development. In 1990, he was on the move yet again, tasked with launching the agency’s new standalone media arm, the McKim Media Group, as senior vice-president.
In 1992, he was hired to lead Genesis Media, a newly created offshoot of Vickers & Benson and Media in Canada (a standalone agency that handled the federal government media assignment).
It was a role that came to define Claassen’s career, as Genesis went on to become one of the leading independent agencies in the country before merging with the Aegis Media Group’s Vizeum network in late 2007, becoming Genesis Vizeum (the Genesis name was dropped entirely in 2010).
Claassen played a significant role in the professional development of future media leaders, including current Dentu Aegis Network CEO Annette Warring. A self-described “punky little kid” who worked for Claassen in the 1990s before being hired to run Genesis—by then a significant independent player—in 2004, Warring would learn the business under his guidance.
Like so many of his media counterparts working to establish standalone media companies throughout the 1990s, Claassen was “relentless” in ensuring that media was recognized for its contribution to clients’ marketing objectives, said Warring.
“Media people didn’t have a voice, and he was relentless in ensuring that they had a place at the strategic table,” she said. “He really fostered the idea that we weren’t just people working in advertising, we were businesspeople who made a significant contribution to our clients’ business.
“He elevated what used to be essentially a back-room function,” she added. “He was talking about measurement, and accountability, and linking media outputs to business outcomes before the words ‘Big Data’ even existed. It’s an industry I’m very passionate about today, and a lot of that comes from what Bruce passed on.”
Blessed with entrepreneurial acumen, Claassen would launch several business offshoots with Genesis, including the Marketing Consulting Group, The Direct Company and Clickthrough Interactive, which grew into the largest internet advertising network in Canada before being sold to New York-based 24/7 Media in 1999.
He would stay with the agency until 2009, eventually leaving to start Bluepoint Investment Corp., which would go on to purchase the Saskatchewan TV station Saskatchewan Communications Network (SCN) for $1 in 2010. The station was re-launched in 2011, and acquired by Rogers Media—which transformed it into a City station—for an undisclosed sum in 2012.
His most recent venture was in Stuart, Fla., a small town of 15,000 on the state’s Treasure Coast—an independent music store that he purchased with two other investor partners in 2012.
“Music was a big passion point for him, so it doesn’t surprise me that’s where he ended up after he left media. He just decided to follow his passion,” said Warring.
On Friday, colleagues and counterparts remembered Claassen for his indefatigable work with industry associations and committees, including the CMDC, Print Measurement Bureau (PMB), Audit Bureau of Circulations (now Alliance for Audited Media) and the Newspaper Audience Databank (NADbank).
“Bruce served the industry well through the many media and measurement organization boards of directors with which he freely volunteered,” said Bob Reaume, vice-president, policy and research with the Association of Canadian Advertisers in Toronto.
Added NADbank president Anne Crassweller, who first met Claassen when he was at McKim in Montreal and the two worked on the PMB Research Committee: “Bruce was bright, and always had something to say and contribute. He was very committed to our industry and would always take the time to seriously work through issues. Research and media planning went hand-in-hand for him.”
Cairns O’Neil co-founder David Cairns, who worked alongside Claassen in both the CMDC and PMB, lauded Claassen as a “genuinely nice man,” defined by his preparedness, leadership and a collaborative approach to problem solving.
“Bruce will be remembered for his dedication to raising the industry bar, his real curiousity and, of course, his success in building Genesis Media into a major Canadian media agency,” said Cairns.
“Bruce was larger than life and a true character,” added Lauren Richards, founder/CEO of Toronto media consultancy Pollin8 and former counterpart of Claassen’s from her days with Cossette Media and Starcom MediaVest Group. “You could always count on Bruce speaking his mind and enjoying himself, whether it was an intense meeting or a party.”