Q&A with Vancouver Advertising Legend Frank Palmer

We sit down with "Canada's Mad Man of Advertising" to talk ad campaigns and office pranks.

June 19, 2018

By Stacey McLachlan

Mad Men may have been off the air for a few years now, but there’s still a collective fascination with the advertising world. And no one knows it better than Vancouver’s own ad legend, Frank Palmer.

As chairman and CEO of DDB, one of the country’s most acclaimed creative agencies, Palmer has been a critical part of Canada’s ad industry from an unusual place—the West Coast. This spring, he released a biography (Let’s Get Frank) chronicling a life of wild campaigns, office pranks and boundless creativity. We caught up with Vancouver’s answer to Don Draper to talk campaigns, challenges and the next chapter.

How did you get in to the advertising business?

I always had a flair for artwork. I was always doing something for the art department, pages in the year end annual. When I was a kid,I was always doing Disney figures, and had a flair for drawing or painting. Once I got out of high school, I thought I would be either an artist or a police officer. I wrote the test for the VPD when I was 21. I made it through the physical test, the written test, and I was pretty good at facial recognition, but I didn’t pass the psychology test—the HR person knew I wouldn’t take orders. I don’t like taking orders. I listen… and then I decide if that’s a good direction or not. I ended up being on the Vancouver Police Board in the end, though, so really, I kind of accomplished both.

If you hate taking direction, how do you work with clients?

You have to understand with clients that you have to do what’s best of whats for them. You can say, “You could improve upon it this way,” but at the end of the day, you have to do what they want you to do. I’m an artist that doesn’t get stuck. I’ll never be able to sell anything if I become too rigid.

What are some of the campaigns you’re proudest of?

We were the agency that came up with the upside-down M for McDonalds for International Women’s Day. We did a whole bunch of Volkswagon stuff. We did one for Greyhound Air where we had a greyhound dog that went over and peed on the wheel of the airplane: the campaign was “launching new territory.” When I  told the board of directors that the dog was going to pee on the wheel, there was dead silence—it seemed like a lifetime. But then someone finally spoke up and said, “That’s the best advertising I’ve ever seen,” and the whole crowd broke the ice.

Sounds like a lot of your work relies on humour.

Humour is something that I have to have on any job. I’m always trying to do make the day lighter—it’s a high intensity business. So I like to play practical joke. Once I put a numbing agent on the rim of a coffee cup and gave it to a co-worker. She phoned her sister and said, “I think I’m having a stroke, my lips started to freeze!” Her sister says, “Is Frank in the office? I think he’s probably playing a joke on you.” She came in and punched me in the arm.

I have these little noisemakers that make different sounds and I’ll put them behind a picture or hide in a ceiling. The noise will go off like a computer sound going off or a mouse scratching and people won’t know where it’s coming from for a year. I buy them in bulk.

What’s it like running an ad business in Vancouver when so many agencies and head offices are based on Toronto? 

It’s very tough to be here because there aren’t very many head offices on the west coast. There’s a different attitude out here. We tend to be a little more casual. We don’t just live to work, we work and we want to live. I decided to live here even when I did my business deal in 1998, it was important to me to remain and have the culture we have. I didn’t see any fun in Toronto, working for the sake of working. People are afraid to go home because they didn’t want to be seen as someone not dedicated to the business. Proud that we’ve been able to have a lot of graduates of our firm start their own businesses and stay here, and now they’re all good competitors.

Do you think retirement will ever be in the cards for you?

For me, it was interesting to finish the book and then have people ask me, “What’s next? We can tell, this isn’t your last chapter.” I was a bit worried when I finished the book—you tell your life story, and now what? The “now what” for me, the next chapter is what I would like to do starting another company. I own a few other companies, like Ziptrek up in Whistler. When I’m down in California I paint.

I’m 77 now, and I think I’m 39. I have to be aware that I have the same energy I’ve had all my life and passion for the business, even though I realize you can’t be the same athlete that you were. Even if you think you’re young, the clients don’t think you’re young. But if I wasn’t working for DDP, I would start another advertising company again and hire the right people and I would just be the owner and still be able to provide advice. I wouldn’t want to retire. The day you retire is the day you start to die. Mentally and physically, you need a reason to get up.

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