Still pitching: Terry O’Reilly’s new book aims to help small entrepreneurs

This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence
Terry O’Reilly (Knopf Canada)
In Town: The author will be at Southminster Church on May 18 at 7 p.m. Information and tickets at

For 36 years, Terry O’Reilly has been an ad guy, a brand builder.

His CBC Radio shows Under the Influence and The Age of Persuasion have been must-listening for anyone interested in the world of marketing.

O’Reilly has worked with large companies such as Labatt, Molson, Pepsi, Goodyear Tires, Tim Hortons, Volkswagen, Nissan and the Hudson’s Bay Company. But, he said, in an interview with ARTSFILE in advance of his visit to Ottawa on a tour promoting his new book This I Know: Marketing Lessons from Under the Influence (Knopf Canada), he has enjoyed  working with smaller enterprises more. And it’s those start-ups, non-profits and mom-and-pops for whom he is writing.

“Small businesses are not armed with the knowledge they need. Our best work at Pirate (Pirate Radio & Television which is a creative audio production company) was always done for small feisty entrepreneurs. It got the highest profile and won the most awards. There was no bureaucracy we were just sitting across from the owner with no one in the middle.”

O’Reilly started in radio as a copy chief with FM108 Radio in Burlington, Ontario. So he’s learned a thing or two over time.

Example: “Amateurs think marketing is all about selling and the pros know that marketing is about differentiating your brand. Because once you really stand out in your category then the selling really starts.

“What I try to do when I am working on a brand is figure out how to muscle my way into that category and make that brand stand out against the competitors. Often you will find yourself up against competitors that have been established longer or have much deeper pockets or they are very aggressive and you have to figure out a way to get around that.”

Example: Tires. “We did years and years of work in the tire category which is really a low-interest category. Tires are a distress purchase. When you have to buy four tires for your car there is no task less desirable than that.”

O’Reilly worked hard to help build up the Goodyear and the Fountain Tire brand and the way it succeeded was through humour and a funny man named Thom Sharp.

“You have to tip your hat to Goodyear (and Fountain) because they have stuck with the spokesperson. I started in the late 1980s with him and here it is in 2017. It’s all about creating a personality.”

That’s how his radio show works too. The stories are always interesting and full of personality.

“When I go back in time and think how we pitched the show originally to CBC, we literally walked in  there and said, ‘Advertising is like architecture. It’s everywhere in your life and most people hate it. They find it annoying. They find it stupid, but in fact advertising and marketing is a fascinating business because it is the study of human nature.

“We wanted to take people on a backstage tour of the advertising industry. We show people how decisions are made in the boardroom.”

O’Reilly loves his industry. And he believes the best advertising isn’t manipulative. It is trying to create “a compelling, interesting, respectful, creative image” for a company.

This book will give those small entrepreneurs that read it, he says, access to a level of thinking they would never normally get.

The first chapter asks ‘What business are you really in.’

“In the big agency world, they will ask you that question and the answers are very interesting. For example, Molson is not in the beer business, they are in the party business. Michelin is not in the tire business, they are in the safety business. Apple is not in the computer business, they are in the personal empowerment business.

“As a marketer you have to know what people are buying from you. If you are selling tires when someone is looking for safety they aren’t going to buy from you.”

A lot of marketers, O’Reilly says, have their noses too close to the window. They fail to really see the company or the product the way the public sees it.

The best marketers are the best listeners, he believes. They spend a lot of time talking to customers. In this regard social media is a godsend because of the instant feedback it offers. Thirty years ago, companies would have spent thousands of dollars to get that feedback.

His book also devotes a chapter to the elevator pitch.

“Can you sum up what makes you unique in one compelling sentence. If you can do that your marketing will always be on point.”

O’Reilly’s favourite elevator pitch of all time belongs to Wired Magazine.

“When the magazine’s founders were looking for investment, they were asked ‘Why should we invest in your company?’

“The answer: ‘Because we want our magazine to feel like it has been mailed back from the future.’ In that moment the investors said ‘How much do you need.'”

Wired was able to show some very skeptical people that they knew where they were going and that kind of conviction is compelling, he says.

Not all marketing needs to be of the “icepick in the brain” variety, he says. And accentuating the positive works, even in politics.

“I thought (Justin) Trudeau’s 2015 election campaign was very interesting. I have worked on several federal election advertising campaigns and we’ve only ever been asked to produce negative advertising. The parties love that and it is effective, as much as I hate the tonality of it.

“But there was Trudeau who really ran for the first time for a long time a positive election advertising campaign. He took an interesting gamble and the result was an impressive victory.”

O’Reilly says he believes the efficacy of negative election ads, which target undecided voters, is limited.

“How many people really are undecided? If I was in charge of election advertising, I would concentrate, as (Barack) Obama did, on getting the vote out.”

For the first 10 years of his career O’Reilly worked for other people. By 1990, “I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to start the company I couldn’t find. That was a production company that really protected an idea.”

His own experience was that production companies failed to listen and protect his campaign ideas.

He loved being in a recording studio and so he founded Pirate.

“When we opened doors in 1990 we were inundated with work. That told me all the other ad writers felt same way.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.