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Brian Howlett is partner and chief creative officer at Agency59, one of Canada’s most enduring independents. He loves many more aspects of the business than he hates and continues to actively write on a number of accounts. He is also chairman of the Advertising & Design Club of Canada. Prior to Agency59, Brian worked in Asia and the U.S. with a couple of the multinational omnivores.


Funny in Print

If you have a degree in what field is it? Bachelor of Arts (Honors English). And I’m an MBA dropout (when I got 26 percent on an economics midterm I took it as a sign that I was in the wrong place at the right time).

If you could choose one person to work with (outside your own agency), who would it be? I find some of the more fertile brains are on the production side. It would be cool to bring in a director, editor or photographer at the beginning of a project and see what happens.

Who was the client for your first advertising project? The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. It was a happy fluke, as I’d been editor of my university paper and was a journalism geek. Even better, the campaign won a Marketing Award and I discovered I could be funny in print. (But not that funny. It only won a merit.)

If you were to change professions, what would you choose to do? I’d love to be a surfing instructor, but first I’d have to learn how to surf. I’d probably attempt to be one of the ten thousand screenwriters on the street in Los Angeles trying to get someone—anyone—to look at my screenplay.

What do you consider to be the greatest headline of all time? I can’t isolate any one headline as the “greatest ever,” but when I started out I was pretty much in awe of anything Tom McElligot wrote. More recently, I saw something here in Canada for anti-smoking that floored me. “For more information on cancer, keep smoking.” Wow. Seven dastardly words.

From where do your best ideas originate? A looming deadline always gets the wheels turning. And the best part of this business is the collaboration. So a good, rambling conversation with my art director or strategic director is a good place to start. Then, on the walk or bike ride home, things often tumble into place. Must be the fresh air. And I think my brain works better in the cold. My winter ideas are sharper than my summer ones.

How do you overcome a creative block? There’s no formula, for sure. And you can’t force things. I’ll think about something else, then circle back to the brief a day or two later and hope that it looks different. And looking at other great work still gets me inspired... not to create larceny, but to force me to think big.

If you could choose any product to create an ad for, what would it be? The Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s entirely possible they’ll never win the Stanley Cup again, so the least they could give their fans is an awesome ad campaign. Failing that, Canada. Not tourism, but the idea of Canada. We’re a unique story that few people appreciate.

Do you have creative outlets other than advertising? Playing around with any kind of writing is relaxing. Dabbling in columns, screenplays, fiction. I also fantasize about photography, but I can’t make it past the auto function on my Nikon.

What’s your approach to balancing work and life? I walk in the door, the dog wants a walk and the kids are talking about their day. So it’s a pretty effective shut-off valve. Which is perfect. Having a life is critical. Not just because it’s important for your job; it’s important for your life.

What product/gadget can you not live without? The Solitaire app on my iPhone. I also get a kick out of downloading really lame ringtones. I’d like to get to the point that people fear hearing my phone go off.

What’s your favorite quote? I don’t really have one, so I’ll make one up. How about, “If you don’t laugh at yourself, someone else will.”

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? Keep your head down. Stay out of office politics. Schmooze less; work more. And no one will care more about your career than you. So be selfish. If you aren’t inspired by the people above you, get the hell out.

What's one thing you wish you knew when you started your career? Having fun and doing great work go hand in hand.