The quintessence of soft spokenness-that’s how more than a few people in the Canadian advertising business have described Ian Mirlin. “It’s how he makes you pay attention. He speaks very softly. You have to listen,” says Steve Conover, senior vice-president, creative at ACLC in Toronto. “But he’s well worth listening to.”
The listeners have heard him well through a career that has taken Mirlin from copywriter to creative director to owner and president of an ad agency to president of a multinational.
“I was actually going to be a lawyer, but by the time I had my B.A. I thought maybe the film business was the way [to go],” he says. “So, for a short time, at Cavalier Films in my native South Africa, I was an assistant editor. They sent me to Spain on a project where I wasted a lot of time and money before returning home.”
Becoming an advertising copywriter was a suggestion of a girlfriend at the time. “She had some friends in the agency business, so she knew a bit about it and she thought I could write.” So, in 1971, Mirlin walked into Chilvers Advertising in Johannesburg for an interview with a creative director named Donald Dallas. “I mean, his name was almost as unbelievable as my own,” he says. “He asked to see my samples-I’d never written an ad in my life. So I lied and said they were on their way back from Europe. I think he saw through me but he liked me and gave me a chance.”
At a princely $300 per month, Mirlin’s advertising career began. Yamaha motorcycles and Rent-a-Kill Pest Removal were his first creative challenges. Two years later, he was plying his trade at Bates and a year after that, at Grey. “Grey was the elite creative environment in South Africa at the time, but it was run by fascists,” says Mirlin. “I had to sign a contract agreeing to termination within 24 hours without severance if management didn’t like my work.”
Still, Mirlin says he did some of his most adventurous work at Grey. He remembers a theme line for a chain of liquor stores as indicative of the creative environment of the time: ‘We sell you the best times of your life.’ “There were no borders,” Mirlin recalls. “If an account guy came back from a client meeting with an unsold ad, chances are he’d be fired.”
Aside from the omnipresent threat of being arbitrarily terminated, there were other early creative inspirations. Mirlin remembers seeing an ad for a training program to provide new skills for South Africa’s problematic youth. The visual showed a young man working on a TV set. The headline read: ‘What you see here is a TV set repairing a man.’ “I thought to myself, that’s the kind of communication I’d like to create.”
Meeting ad legend Bill Bernbach, who’d come to judge a South African creative show, was also a stimulus. Ed McCabe came the next year and gave one of Ian’s ads a gold medal, but they never met-by 1977 Mirlin had already left for Canada.
The Canadian career commenced with a two-year stint at Goodis Goldberg Soren. Next was a year at Ogilvy partnered with soon-to-be-famous art director Michael McLaughlin.
By 1981, Mirlin had become part of the creative renaissance at McCann-Erickson. “There were some wonderful people in the creative department at the time,” he says. “People like Allan Kazmer, Brian Harrod, Stu Eaton, Terry Iles, Steve Catlin, Ken Boyd and Keith Killmer who I worked with.”
Most of his time was spent promoting the merits of Ontario Pork, Tetley Tea and Philishave for whom he penned a rather famous TV spot. (Two men lie side by side in hospital beds, both virtually incapacitated after serious accidents. One man shaves himself with the Philishave while the other cringes at the prospect of a straight-razor hacking from a nasty nurse. If only he owned a Philishave.)
“Kazmer and art director Brian Harrod were the lead players at the time, doing some great work. But then Allan left for DDB and I started with Brian. After that, I never teamed with anyone else.”
Their collaboration was prolific and prosperous both in the work they created and the companies and alliances they made possible. “We stayed the course at McCann for a while and then left to become part of what Marty Myers referred to as the biggest name in Canadian advertising-Miller Myers Bruce Dalla Costa Harrod & Mirlin.”
While Mirlin wasn’t completely happy with his creative output at the agency, he did create a classic piece of outdoor advertising in 1985. A transit shelter poster, it showed a bucket of Häagen-Dazs ice cream sitting in a small child’s wagon. “Tell yourself it followed you home,” read the copy. “It won a lot of prizes and Allan Kazmer once told me he thought it was the best thing I’ve ever done. It was one of those pieces you’re fortunate enough to do once in your life.”
In 1987, Mirlin and Harrod formed Harrod & Mirlin, a wholly owned subsidiary of McCann. They started working on McCann’s conflict accounts but soon scored recognition for their creative work. In 1990, they were named Marketing’s Agency of the Year. Mirlin became president the next year and in 1993, with Harrod, led a buyback from Interpublic that saw Harrod & Mirlin become an independent Canadian agency. Clients included Levi-Strauss, Nabisco, TD Canada Trust, Quaker Oats, Evian, Mead Johnson, Fairmont Hotels and Best Foods. In 1996, the agency became known as Harrod & Mirlin/FCB after they sold to Foote Cone and Belding.
But, throughout all the corporate evolutions, the work always predominated. There were the eloquent Levi billboards like ‘Love ’em to bits.’ There were the Kodak posters identifying poignant points in life while subtly sticking it to Fujifilm, which had just spent millions to become the official film of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. There was the 1987 mud-covered Suzuki Samurai ad with the headline: ‘A face only a mudder could love.’ And all of it has been fuelled by Mirlin’s enduring passion.
“Brands are important to the world,” Mirlin says. “They are touchstones, the glue that binds us, a virtual light in the night. We’re allowed to play in a very sensitive, rarefied atmosphere. What we do is valuable.”
He pauses, smiles and continues-still speaking softly. “I think the creatives in my era cared very deeply about what we did. I think we were given more leeway than today. I think we dealt with less research, less fiddling, less risk aversion. I think we dealt with more clients who would stick their necks out.”