Here’s to Sunni days

January 06, 2014  |  Chris Powell  |  Comments

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 23 issue of Marketing

A tiny giant of Canadian media leaves behind her an indelible and colourful mark on the industry

Photo: Mike Ford

The Canadian media industry is about to become considerably less colourful, with Sunni Boot stepping down as CEO of ZenithOptimedia Canada at the end of the year.

Her departure brings an end to a singular four-decade career that saw Boot become one of the best-known and most-respected executives in Canadian marketing and advertising.

She leaves with her reputation as a true original intact. A passionate advocate for the media planning and buying function, she is known as much for her well-articulated—and extensively quoted—opinions on everything from measurement to media consolidation as she is for her flamboyant fashion sense.

Boot will be forever remembered as a one-off, cutting a striking—and colourful—figure with her brightly coloured jackets and matching stockings, wrists adorned with bracelets.

“There are some things that are pure Sunni—like the bangles on her wrist,” says Fred Forster, CEO of Omnicom Media Group Canada. “You knew when she came into a room because she had so many bracelets that would jangle.”

Boot seems genuinely puzzled that her fashion style is worthy of note. She can’t even pinpoint when exactly it became one of her hallmarks. “My personal style? Oh my goodness, I don’t know,” she says. “I guess I like coloured stockings and I like a lot of silver. I’m a treat going through airports with all that stuff, let me tell you.”

It could be seen as the logical extension of Boot’s long-held belief that humanity and humour play a key role in business, but she says there was never a conscious effort to cultivate a certain image and she acts shocked that anyone would suggest she is known throughout the industry for her one-of-a-kind fashion style.

“I don’t really think of it—I’ve never consciously thought of anything in terms of personal style, personal look, personal anything,” she says. “You’re speaking to a woman who half the time forgets to put on lipstick. I’m not overly fashion-conscious. I like fashion, but it wouldn’t be a priority for me. I’m shocked that you’re even saying this. I’m thinking ‘Really?’”

The 1998 recipient of the Association of Canadian Advertisers’ (ACA) prestigious Gold Medal Award—awarded to those individuals who have made “an outstanding contribution to the advancement of marketing communications in Canada”—Boot will be remembered as a transformative force in Canadian media.

She is among the last of a generation of Canadian media leaders, along with the likes of OMD’s Ann Boden, M2 Universal’s Hugh Dow and MEC’s Bruce Grondin—all now retired—who helped transform media from a back-room function into a key component of modern-day marketing.

Befitting her status as one of Canada’s most accomplished and respected media executives, colleagues and competitors from all sectors of the industry were effusive in their praise.

Boot in 1998 with her ACA Gold Medal

“She was always a very staunch supporter of media as a business, distinct from a service function in a full-service agency,” says Dow, now retired for three years (“I highly recommend it,” he jokes) and spending his time between Toronto and Niagara-on-the-Lake. “It was an exciting time for the media business, and Sunni played a very major part and has continued to do that over many years.” Dow recalls that when he created Initiative Media as a standalone media agency in 1990, Boot was one of the first to call and congratulate him. She established Optimedia Canada shortly afterwards.

Maxus Canada president Ann Stewart agreed that Boot was instrumental in paving the way for media agencies to lead discussions with clients. As much as Stewart respects her professional contributions, she also envies how Boot lived her personal life with such zeal. “She has taught us well,” says Stewart.

Boot departs ZenithOptimedia as one of a handful of Canadian media executives to achieve recognition not only in her native country, but also throughout North America and abroad.

She has left a “considerable mark” on the media industry, both in Canada and internationally says The Globe and Mail publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley. “Everybody in the industry knows Sunni, she enjoys wide respect in all the different communities she touches,” he says. “When Sunni calls, you take the call and you respect why she’s calling. She’s a figure everybody looks up to and respects.”

Her reputation was achieved, say colleagues, through her continued willingness to speak her mind, as well as her tireless work on behalf of global clients and her extensive board work with North American organizations like the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM) and its forerunner, the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Crawley describes her as a “very important” leader in the Canadian media industry, singling out her work in achieving industry consensus in the politically fraught transition of ABC into the AAM.
“The board of AAM is [comprised of] about 40 people from all over North America, with very different backgrounds and perspectives, so to help get that through was quite an achievement,” says Crawley.

“I’ve seen her operate both in Canada and on the larger stage in the U.S., and I like her feisty spirit,” he says. “She’s got a good strong sense of humour, which you need to do a job like that. You need to be able to roll with the punches and smile about it.”

Her career began typing insertion orders at Ronalds-Reynolds sometime in the late 1960s (Boot is notoriously cagey about disclosing details that can help pinpoint how old she is. “I don’t do my age,” she says).

It was meant to be nothing more than a summer job for the only child of Russian Holocaust survivors, but when her dad was diagnosed with a serious illness she put off going to school full-time and started working at the agency, attending school at night.

She went by her given name of Sonja when she first started at Ronalds-Reynolds, but took the name “Sunni”—a nickname bestowed on her by a then-boyfriend—after encountering someone at the office with the same name.

“I went all through high school never meeting another Sonja, and I get to work at Ronalds-Reynolds and the woman at the next desk is a Sonja,” says Boot. “It was cute at 17—it’s not so cute now.”

Dow first encountered Boot in 1968, and their professional careers would intersect innumerable times over the ensuing four decades—whether going head-to-head on new business pitches (“I knew it was going to be a formidable challenge any time I went up against Sunni,” he says) or working alongside each other on various industry organizations.

“She’s been one of the pillars of the media business for decades,” says Dow. “I’ve always had the utmost respect for her passion for the business and her total commitment. She was one of the few people who realized that total involvement in all facets of the industry was critical to really understanding how the business worked.”

Penny Stevens, president of the Canadian Media Directors’ Council (CMDC) as well as ZenithOptimedia rival Media Experts, calls Boot an “indomitable spirit” who is both a fierce competitor and a tireless defender and builder of the Canadian media business.

“The board of the CMDC is in her debt for being a ferocious advocate of all things media,” said Stevens. “She was never without opinion or a principle that would steer the conversation to a positive result. She is one of those individuals that reminds us it is necessary to take a stand, have a voice and make a contribution.”

Omnicom’s Forster says he really only got to know Boot in the past decade, following his appointment to a senior executive role within Omnicom. The two frequently worked alongside each other on industry conferences and through industry bodies such as the CMDC.

“She’s always been very gracious, very open and a good friend and fierce competitor,” said Forster. “She’s done a great job at running her shop and taking care of her clients. She’s a real pro, and has always been someone who has always been very good to work with on industry events and committees.”

Boot has always appeared indefatigable, staying on long after her former colleagues have retired. Some speculate that the recent loss of longtime ZenithOptimedia client L’Oréal Canada, which awarded its business to GroupM after 15 years, may have hastened her departure or sapped some of her will to compete in what can be an unforgiving business.

“Losing a piece of business that you’ve committed to and provided total involvement with is extraordinarily difficult,” says Dow, himself no stranger to major account losses. “Although you try not to take it personally, you do. I’m sure the loss of L’Oréal hurt her enormously.”

“I know the loss of L’Oréal was not something she took lightly,” adds Forster. “It wasn’t just that she worked on the account for a long time, but that she was personally invested in that business, and had been for a long time.”

Boot, though, is adamant that the L’Oréal loss did not factor into her decision. “It absolutely did not,” she says emphatically. “In fact, it probably kept me on a little bit longer because we didn’t want it tied to that.

“People will say ‘Don’t take [account losses] personally’ and I say ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s a personal business,’” she adds. “But I want to make it very clear that this is absolutely not tied to L’Oréal. At all.”

And L’Oréal clearly felt strongly about Boot. “Sunni’s passion and dedication to the North American media industry has been a real inspiration,” says Marie Josée Lamothe, CMO of L’Oréal Canada. “She and her team have much to be proud of in both creating and building a dynamic Canadian media landscape over the past few decades.”

In fact, Boot began drafting her exit strategy about 15 months ago, realizing that it was time for “another lens” to view the ZenithOptimedia business. She departs, she says, feeling confident that the agency she has nurtured and grown over the past three decades is in good hands.

“I just felt that somebody else should be looking at it,” says Boot. “We’ve got such a solid business that I think the next 10 years are going to be even better.”

Boot says that incoming CEO Frank Friedman will be able to draw from a strong senior leadership team that includes Zenith Media president Julie Myers, ZenithOptimedia executive vice-president Judy Davey, Performics president Veronica Holmes and Monique Brosseau, EVP and general manager of the agency’s Montreal operation.

And she admits she was no longer willing to make the enormous time commitments required to adequately fill a role such as hers.

“It’s a 24/7, 52-week-a-year job,” says Boot. “I want to do a bit of travelling, and you can’t lead from behind. I can’t take off for six weeks because I’d be tied to my BlackBerry. If there was an opportunity, I’d want to come in; if there was an issue I’d want to come in. The time was right personally and professionally for me to do other things.”

For more insights and anecdotes from Canada’s top media and marketing minds, subscribe to Marketing. Watch for our first issue of 2014, where we reveal our Marketer, Media Player and Agency of the Year. (And be sure to check us out on your iPad! We’re available via the Apple Newsstand)

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