Special Report on The Bessies: McLaughlin wins Spiess

By Cheryl Binning
May 19, 1997
Page 33

Canada's TV spot awards fete the best and the brightest ­ Playback looks at the talent behind this year's crop

In this report

- Palmer Jarvis' evocative ad for Playland is a prime example of Vancouver's guerrilla-style admaking at its best p. 22

- The winners montage: pix of the picks p. 26

- Preserving our TV advertising heritage p. 28

- A profile of Bessie-winning cinematographer Peter Hartmann p. 31

- Flashcut's Bob Kennedy scoops the Bob Mann Award p. 32

- And the winner of the prestigious Spiess Award is BBDO's Michael McLaughlin p. 33

- Allstars roundup p. 34

- Playback introduces ZapProof, a new feature on TV spots that stand out from the clutter p. 40

* * *

"Michael is so fussy that he sends his awards back to get the typeface revised," jokes commercial production icon Bill Irish of 1997 Fritz Spiess Award winner Michael McLaughlin.

If that's the case, the bbdo Toronto art director has returned over 350 tv and print advertising awards from every major Canadian and international show during his 20-something-year career. His awards stash, ironically, even includes the Les Usherwood Award for typography amongst the pile of Bessies, Lions and art director accolades.

But the latest prize under the scrutiny of his critical eye is the exclusive Spiess Award, presented at the Bessies to a member of the tv commercial industry for lifetime achievement and excellence in the field.

The award was first handed out in 1979 and the previous recipients, Irish among them, comprise the selection jury. They all echo the sentiment that McLaughlin's creative talent and painstaking attention to detail have put Canadian commercials on the world map. They are also quick to note he earned this latest honor for being a genuinely nice guy.

"Michael has a total devotion to every facet of the creative ­ from idea, the casting, working with the director on set, even to the typeface" says Gary Gray, retired chairman of DDB Needham Canada and 1995 Spiess winner. Gray landed McLaughlin his first big job at Ogilvy & Mather, hiring the young Kamloops, b.c. native fresh from the L.A. Design School.

Within six months, Gray decided he wanted the young art director as his partner. Eventually, they both moved to Vickers & Benson where former chairman and another Spiess hall-of-famer Terry O'Malley says, "When you need somebody to cut the Hope diamond, you call in Michael."

McLaughlin teamed up with longtime partner Stephen Creet when Carder Gray was formed in 1985, the duo later moving to MacLaren McCann and ending up at bbdo.

Jokes of his nitpicky nature aside, his peers rave about the thoroughness and strength of McLaughlin's boards, while noting his respect for the talents of the directors, dops and editors as enhancers of his initial work.

"Production houses drool over getting a chance to quote on one of his boards," says Gray. "He's so exacting that everybody knows they have to be in top form to work with him.

"He's like an Olympic creative guy. If you want to play with Michael, you've got to be in top shape."

Another Spiess recipient, The Partners' Film Company executive director Don McLean, agrees. "He's demanding but not unreasonably so," he says. "The benchmark of talent in this town is someone who consistently sends you concepts that are excellent. And you never get a bad board from Michael, he's just so bloody good at what he d'es."

McLaughlin's close work with directors has helped build careers. McLean says this has been the case with a number of Partners' directors over the years, such as Ian Leech who worked with McLaughlin on some Molson Canadian spots.

And it was McLaughlin who called up McLean and told him to check out a young stills photographer in whom he saw directorial potential. Based on McLaughlin's recommendation, McLean took on this new talent, none other than Jeremiah Chechik, training him in the tv commercial biz. Chechik went on to a successful career at Partners' before making the jump to Hollywood where he directed hits such as Benny and Joon and Diabolique.

With an innovative style that defies trends and flavors of the month, McLaughlin has garnered acclaim both at home and abroad. At BBDO Canada, his Red Dog beer spots have been touted as the most successful premium beer launch in Miller's history. He's also created high-profile campaigns for Molson, Federal Express, Frito-Lay, Campbell's and Chrysler.

"When everybody zigs, you zag," is McLaughlin's favorite line, and that's what makes him a leader, not a follower, says Gray.

Adds McLean: "He has concepts and stories that are visually rich but he d'esn't go in for all that special effects, high-tech, music-video type stuff. His work is clean.

"I hope he d'esn't hate me for saying this, but I think he d'es a more traditional type of work ­ but with incredible style."

Canadian creative all too often d'esn't make inroads on the international front, but McLaughlin's work has definitely made a splash worldwide. Beyond a long list of Canadian prizes, a slew of international awards suggest the ground he's broken for the Canadian market, amongst them a Gold Lion for Heinz Ketchup's "It's a long way to Tipperary," North America's top newspaper advertising award, the Athena, and numerous prizes from the Clios, Communication Arts Annual Awards and New York's multimedia One Show.

McLaughlin has also been invited twice to judge the prestigious Communication Arts, an honor bestowed on a select few.

McLean recalls when Partners' was just starting out McLaughlin's work was already turning heads worldwide. He designed a couple of sets of promo posters for the commercial production house, one featuring a young woman in a green bathing suit shot in triplicate from the front and behind.

"They were brilliant," says McLean (although he admits that in these far more gender-sensitive days the posters are now considered politically incorrect by some). Not only did they win a slew of international awards, McLaughlin kept the rights to the posters, selling thousands worldwide, and they even showed up in the background sets of a few American tv shows.

McLean also points to McLaughlin's early work with Gray at o&m as evidence of how he continues to influence the international advertising scene. "The campaign presently running in the u.s. with the milk mustache, it's an absolute steal from their Ontario Milk Board spots," he says.

Commercial producer Elaine Miike, last year's Spiess winner and a member of this year's nominating committee, has worked on a couple of McLaughlin's boards over the years. "I admire him not only for the high standard of creative integrity in his work," she says, "but because he is a nice person, a true gentleman. And that counts for a lot."

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