Aldo Cundari, 48, founder, chairman and CEO of Cundari Group and current chair of the National Advertising Benevolent Society, had no plans to work in advertising at all.
His original aim was to be a sculptor, but like the young dreams of many, reality stepped in.
“I studied fine arts in Canada, and felt that the schools here only brought me to a certain level, so went off to Italy to study, convincing the L’Instituto Europeo di Disegno to let me complete the three-year course in one year,” Cundari says.
“But when I returned to Canada in 1979, there was a huge recession — not much need for sculptors — and I could see that there was no money to be made in that field. So I decided to freelance for a while in graphics and design, which is part of what I studied.”
A Long Term International Plan
His small shop in graphics and design has since grown to be one of the top 10 agencies in Canada and one of the few independents, with a staff of about 120 in Toronto, plus small offices in Washington, D.C. and Montreal, and the imminent opening of an office in Vancouver. Next are plans to buy an agency in New York, and, following a long-term plan, to have a substantial presence in various U.S. cities and, possibly, offices in the U.K. and other G7 countries to 2014.
Cundari doesn’t think small.
“We want to be the ‘super agency’, in Canada first, solidifying a strong national presence, and then moving outward,” he says.
To date, his plans are falling into place. His solid client base includes such long-term clients as BMW (11 years) and long-term staff.
“Big agencies would kill for our culture,” says Cundari. “People like working here. We have an extensive training program, with tool kits on every process, even on how to hold a meeting. We have training modules, including, occasionally, ones for all staff.
“We’re building an environment with great relationships and, through word of mouth, attract great staff and great clients. I think my own strength is my talent for being energized and motivated myself, and then motivating others towards a common good.”
An Ultra-Busy Schedule
The schedule that Cundari keeps can lead one to wonder how he gets all that energy, but he seems to thrive on keeping busy with a disciplined approach and eclectic interests. Married 20 years to his wife Livian and father of five — Natalie, Christopher, Julia, Joseph and Nicholas — his passions range from loving to cook, ‘great wines’, winning on the golf course, collecting hand-carved tall ships and hand-carved ducks, and practicing yoga in the agency’s own fully-equipped gym.
Added to that are his business travel and sitting on the Board of Governors of the Villa charities (operator of the second largest home for the aged in Toronto, several assisted-living locations, about 30 external life-skills homes in Toronto and other services) and on the Board of Reach for the Rainbow to raise funds for the hiring of the one-to-one counselors needed to send severely disabled children to summer camp.
That alone would keep a marathon man busy, but Cundari is in the first of a two-year term as chair of NABS, the communications industry's own charitable organization in Canada that provides assistance to advertising, media and related industry professionals who may need professional counseling or short term financial help due to illness, injury, stress or unemployment. That also involves traveling to NABS chapters in western Canada and Montreal (the latter known as the Benevolent d’entraide aux communicateurs).
Plans and Challenges for NABS
“NABS biggest challenge is to get the community to rally around it,” says Cundari. “We have to redefine what NABS stands for as a brand; have to broaden it to include anyone who touches on our industry; and must develop a dominant youth culture. We have to bring more younger people onto the Board and use them to bring in more people.
“There’s a lot of stress in our industry, and we need funds to help people with this and other problems that we see affecting young people, not just the seniors who tended to use NABS in the past. I’d like to see NABS broaden the scope of whom it can help — and to offer retraining as part of its services to get people back in the work force.
“I hope that within the next five years that the majority of the industry will understand what NABS stands for and will present it as part of the benefit package offered to employees.”
NABS exists solely through donations and funds raised through such events as its annual Gala, golf tournament and media auction.
“NABS’ biggest need is funds,” says Cundari. “We’re trying to grow the ‘Friends of NABS’, and are looking for 100 companies and individuals to donate.”
Putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak, Cundari personally donated $25,000 to NABS, and it is his agency’s charity of choice.
Keeping Up on Trends and High Level Topics
Citing his own biggest weakness as lack of time, Cundari keeps up to date by reading a lot, and maintaining his 18-year membership in Marketing Agencies Association Worldwide (MAAW), a global organization dedicated solely to the CEOs, presidents, managing directors and principals of top marketing services agencies — mainly independents. At its meetings (this spring in Berlin), members deal with solving developing issues and discussing topics of interest to senior executives, such as making a succession plan.
“MAAW helps me stay ahead of the curve,” says Cundari. “And I love to innovate.”
Cundari and his agency group have been responsible for many marketing breakthroughs, including the first customer retention programs for past client Hewlett Packard and successful branding campaigns for BMW and Siemens Canada.
Cundari Group itself is also a member of the ComVort Group, the world’s largest network of specialized, independent and owner-managed companies operating in all branches of integrated marketing-communication.
Cundari established a long-term plan for his agency seven years ago, which includes not only geographical expansion, but a totally integrated concept of all disciplines, and a succession plan — although he has no plans for retiring for many years to come.
Many Disciplines, One Bill
“We have no silos and have a one billing structure and system. That’s a fundamental difference between other agencies and us. Others are starting to migrate that way, but we have 25 years of learning about it. Your systems have to be different; your processes have to be different; your people have to be trained differently.
“Most of it has to be driven by the client. The client has to realize that, because you’re going to do that, you have to structure how you’re going to pay your agency differently. You cannot have varying price points or ways you buy goods. You should only pay your agency fee — and most agencies don’t know how to survive just on fees. They build the fat back into everything. That pisses off the client.”
At Cundari, there is no special pricing for each service. The client gets the best of what is needed from each discipline required and the people may move about as required. Even though Cundari Group includes Cundari Health and Cundari SFP (the branding and design group Spencer Francey Peters bought by Cundari in 2004), the same situation applies, with their separate names mainly to indicate specialization offered by Cundari in these sectors.
“We wanted to create ‘best in class’, which is why we bought SFP,” Cundari says. “It's all part of the plan. We offer best-in-class advertising, design, branding, interactive, direct marketing, promotion, events, media planning and public relations. We have top of the line print and broadcast production studios, our own focus group research facilities, and a development group that builds custom software applications.
“We offer everything to help clients reach their business goals. Our philosophy is ‘Creating Valuable Experiences’. We look everywhere for opportunities where we can make a difference. We want to create meaningful, valuable experiences that encourage people to take action. Everything we do is focused on the client.”
Cundari opened its Montreal office in Dec./06.
“There’s more of an entrepreneurial spirit in Montreal than in Toronto,” says Cundari. “And there’s a lot of pharmaceutical business. I think we can gain an edge in Montreal because of the way we think. We want to draw clients locally. When we talk to the people there, they’re surprised at the scale of business that we have.
“We had been thinking of opening in Montreal for a couple of years. We didn’t open there to handle the francophone needs of our current clients, but if they migrate to our Montreal office, too, that's great.”
The Montreal office opened with the Teccart Institute account, and has since added another, as yet unnamed client.
The Washington office, opened in November, 2006, is working on the ‘branding’ of Washington, D.C., much in the way that the agency branded the Toronto Waterfront.
The Brand Is Everthing
“Branding and building value for the brand are key for us,” he says. “When a company has a problem, it’s usually not because it’s a bad company; it’s because it has a branding problem. The brand has to be central to everything, then everything else comes off that.”
Cundari has been opening up ownership of the company, with minor shareholders now including Garry Lee, agency president; Robert Lewocz , executive vice-president, and Maria Orsin, vice-president administration and finance. The next concept is for new seniors in the agency to also have equity.
“Our current challenge is to finance our geographical expansion and to find the skill sets we need in these markets,” Cundari says.
And, of course, Cundari would like to add some new accounts.
“We’re specialists in the luxury segment, with clients like BMW and Four Seasons, and would love to add a financial/wealth management client, and one in the higher end spirits or beer. In fact, we’d love any aggressive clients that want to succeed.
“And I’m always looking for the brightest people. If you have the right people, they’ll motivate others who will bubble to the surface.”
Research and Creative Thoughts
Cundari has some strong ideas on today’s research and creative trends.
“People are researching marketing to death because it’s the wrong kind of research. They don’t dig deep enough. They measure the creative and not the cause. That’s one of the reasons that we have our own focus group facilities. You have to gather the right information.
“And you have to build relationships. People are looking in the wrong places for creative ideas. They think they have to shock people. Rather, it’s important to know how to talk to customers with the right returns. Today, we often see what I call ‘bratvertising’ — advertising that doesn’t respect the brand.
“You have to know how to differentiate the brand, and when and how to talk to the consumer.”
......And he’d still like to be a sculptor!
(April 16, 2007)