Defining An Era

J.J. Gibbons is not a name that advertising professionals know today. They should. When Marketing first appeared in 1908, Gibbons was already a force in the industry. His agency opened eight years earlier and had muscled aside several well-established shops. The man himself did not have long experience or influential connections. Indeed, he was still […]

Russell Johnston February 11, 2008

J.J. Gibbons is not a name that advertising professionals know today. They should. When Marketing first appeared in 1908, Gibbons was already a force in the industry. His agency opened eight years earlier and had muscled aside several well-established shops. The man himself did not have long experience or influential connections. Indeed, he was still in his twenties.

But his ideas and innovations transformed an often shady Victorian pursuit (yes, advertising was an often shady Victorian pursuit) into a respected, modern business. Marketing, or Economic Advertising, as it was originally known, did well to ally itself with progressive agents like Gibbons who sought to improve the industry’s reputation and practices.

To understand his impact on the business, it helps to know what came before Gibbons: the brokerage agency. Many histories note that Anson McKim was the true pioneer of Canadian advertising. McKim got his start selling ad space for the Toronto Mail newspaper, and was dispatched to Montreal in 1878 to establish a regional sales office. He did rather well. Many manufacturers there wanted to advertise not just in Toronto but across Ontario. He met this need by recruiting one paper from every Ontario centre willing to work with the Mail’s Montreal office. Advertisers in Montreal greatly appreciated the convenience; one agent could handle all of their Ontario campaigns. By 1889 the success of McKim’s brokerage was clear. He cut ties with the Mail and opened an independent agency that placed ads for any advertiser in any paper in Canada.

McKim’s shop inspired a number of imitators, all offering the same service: media expertise and brokerage. Like McKim, none of them offered to write ads, illustrate them, design logos, packaging, or point-of-sale tie-ins, nor did they sully their hands with handbills, posters or billboards. There was no need. Most advertisers did creative work in-house, preferring to control their own brands, their own voices. Those that did seek outside advice hired freelance writers or commercial art firms, such as the legendary Grip Ltd., which employed several members of the Group of Seven.

J.J. Gibbons was about 18 when he was hired by the Toronto News to staff its regional sales office in New York. If you imagine this wide-eyed Canadian boy wandering into the ultra-competitive world of Madison Avenue only to be shredded by the most intense advertising scene in the world, you would be wrong. He embraced the pace and competition, visited the big agencies, and studied their best practices. What he found astonished him. These agencies had recently begun to provide copy and art services to their clients, free of charge. They believed the expense was necessary to enhance the value of the media they bought on behalf of their clients. By extension, these services also enhanced the agencies’ own reputations. No Canadian agency did this.

Gibbons returned to Toronto inspired. Brazenly, he opened his own agency. To be sure, he wanted a media department. However, he shook the industry by raiding the country’s top advertisers, newspapers and commercial art firms of their experienced writers, artists and graphic designers. The result: J.J. Gibbons Ltd.-the first full-service agency in Canada. The year was 1900. Gibbons was 20.

Bundling these services gave the agency control over all aspects of a client’s campaign. It’s easy to imagine a company president, facing this kid across his desk, reluctant to relinquish control of a cherished brand. At the time, the majority of Canadian manufacturers did not advertise. Their products were marketed by whatever wholesale operator and retailers carried them. Gibbons worked hard to get these manufacturers to advertise themselves but feared they would do the work in-house. “If a concern were permitted to handle the advertising themselves,” he believed, “they would likely place it in charge of some clerk who would make a botch of it.” Clients who gambled on Gibbons had no need to worry. Within two years his agency’s reputation was well established. His staff rose to each opportunity with plans that achieved thematic and stylistic continuity through every part of a product’s marketing, from trademark design and packaging to newspaper ads and display cards. His staff was carefully selected and well trained. Several started successful agencies of their own before 1930. One of these was Margaret Pennell, a media buyer who left Gibbons in 1927 to become the first woman in Canada to own and operate her own agency.

The first campaign to catch the industry’s attention was produced for Tillson’s Oats. Oatmeal had long been a breakfast staple in Canadian homes. It was certainly hearty and nourishing, just the thing for the long, cold Canadian winter. On the other hand, it was also time-consuming to prepare, particularly for any homemaker who still relied on a wood stove that had to be lit each morning. The market was ready for a prepared breakfast cereal served cold. American entrepreneurs W.K. Kellogg and C.W. Post provided just that. Corn Flakes and Grape Nuts were rapidly adopted by consumers on both sides of the border. Tillson’s struggled against the new competition and sought help from Gibbons. The agency crafted a campaign that drew links between oatmeal and Scottish traditions while branding the new foods as “pre-digested” American fads. An active if self-satisfied Scotsman, dressed in the fashion of Robbie Burns, served as the product mascot in well-illustrated display ads. One contemporary magazine commented that “the growth of J.J. Gibbons in Toronto has been remarkable. The staff now includes some of the cleverest advertising experts in Canada, and, judging by the Tillson advertising, the work turned out is equal to that of the best United States agencies.” When Tillson’s stock value subsequently rose, the owners quickly cashed out.

A second breakthrough occurred in 1902 with a campaign for Sunlight Soap. Lever Brothers (Unilever) found the ads so attractive it used them in Great Britain and the United States. The Lever contract itself had been a coup. Previously, McKim had controlled the soapmaker’s Canadian business. Similarly, Gibbons wrested the contract for McClary Stoves away from a well-respected freelance copywriter. The conversion of these high-profile clients was a portent of things to come. Gibbons set the pace in Toronto for 30 years, boosting the fortunes of Neilson’s chocolates, Northern Electric, Pear’s soap, White Star Steamships, Canada Life Assurance, Packard Motors and many others. By 1930, the agency provided service to 100 firms in Canada, the United States and Great Britain, from the head office in Toronto and branches in Montreal (opened in 1902), Winnipeg (1911), and Vancouver (1929). Offices in Calgary and Regina would follow.

Gibbons’ mounting successes forced the industry to alter its practices. Every agency that wanted a stable of prestigious national accounts was compelled to adopt the full-service model. Two other agencies quickly opened in Toronto that followed Gibbons’ lead, while established agencies reorganized their operations. Desbarats Advertising (founded in 1891) confessed rather bluntly: “In our own business, changes have been the order of the day. The more or less perfunctory service has given way to a highly specialized one, and we look back to the times that we thought we were giving our customers good service much in the same way perhaps as we will be looking back in another 10 years on our efforts today.”

Gibbons’ influence was also felt outside the agency business. Newspapers and magazines paid agencies a commission on all business. They took note of the fact that creative services were offered free of charge to the agencies’ clients. If Gibbons and his imitators could afford to pay for these services based solely on their commission income, clearly the rate of commission was too high. The Canadian Press Association (CPA; now the Canadian Newspaper Association) hotly contested the issue and sought to lower commission rates for all agencies. At the same time, agencies demanded audited circulation figures from the newspapers and magazines, preferably in standardized formats. Gibbons was central in both discussions. The commission question was settled in 1905. That year, he joined with McKim and three other agents to form the Canadian Association of Advertising Agencies (CAAA, now the Institute of Communication Agencies or ICA) and crafted an agreement on commissions with the CPA. The question of circulation audits was settled in 1914 with the creation of the Audit Bureau of Circulations in the United States. A committee of Canadian advertising professionals represented Canadian interests at its founding meetings. Gibbons went on behalf of Canadian agents.

No doubt, Gibbons’ full-service agency imposed changes on every sector of the industry after 1900. Even after these changes were integrated, however, Gibbons continued to have an influence. He was an ardent Conservative and managed the federal party’s election campaigns in Ontario. Most notably, his agency produced the infamous Mr Sage radio series in 1936 that forced regulators to monitor political broadcasts thereafter. His loyalty was rewarded with the first ever government advertising contract given to a Canadian agency. When the First World War began in August 1914, foreign markets suddenly closed. The perishable apple crop, traditionally sold overseas, was stranded. Sir Robert Borden’s Conservative government stepped in to save the farmers by financing a campaign to sell the entire harvest to Canadians. The result? Another success for Gibbons, and a very early indication of the patriotic power advertising could wield during wartime.

The agency endured until 1961. When Gibbons retired, he turned the shop over to his son-in-law R.B. Pattinson. It still had some 200 clients, but the roster no longer included the blue-chip brands of the agency’s early days. A report in The Globe and Mail that year noted that its total billings were $1.5 million. By contrast, Foster Advertising had billings over $10 million. In September, Harry Foster purchased the Gibbons agency and used its western offices to expand the Foster brand. The Gibbons name disappeared when Foster closed the original Toronto and Montreal offices.

Gibbons had no formal affiliation with Marketing. Still, it would be hard to understand or even imagine the magazine’s early pages without him. The advent of full-service agencies, the training of industry professionals, the creation of the ICA, inter-sector co-operation between agents and the press, the establishment of the ABC and its presence in Canada, the start of federal government ad contracts, wartime propaganda, and agency work on federal election campaigns: these were the challenges faced by Gibbons, and these were the stories that excited the writers and readers of the new magazine. More often than not, these writers and readers sided with him as he goaded their industry to become more professional. As Marketing covered the era, Gibbons defined it.

Russell Johnston is the author of Selling Themselves: The Emergence of Canadian Advertising, published by University of Toronto Press. He is associate professor and chair of the Department of Communications, Popular Culture & Film at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.