Syd Kessler was like Henry VIII.
He was the jingle king of Canadian commercial radio. He ripped legs off mutton. On his bedside table in his multimillion-dollar home, he kept a bottle of ketchup, one of mustard, a shaker of salt, just in case he wanted to spice up a midnight snack. He weighed 323 pounds, and always wore grubby T-shirts and sweatpants, with his bum crack showing. He'd dance around his office while presenting the rough idea for a jingle, his big body jiggling like Jello, his eyes cute as Smarties, his beard bushy and red and wild.
He wrote all the memorable jingles of that era: Hugga Mugga Max, Look Who's Drinking Pepsi Now, Blacks is Photography, Thank You Very Much Milk, all the music for the Labatts commercials.
Copywriters and creative directors would go to Mount Syd, this great mountain of a man, and he'd lean across the table, eyes downcast as he would listen to what they were trying to create for the product, saying nothing, taking no notes. A few days later he would summon them back to his office, where his desk sat on a dais, and he'd impart the brilliance of his ditty, and be paid thousands.
Once, he was doing a soundtrack for a large electronic appliance company that was marketing the first generations of boom boxes for teenagers. He'd created a hip-hop track, a sound not yet mainstream but which Kessler knew was on the rise. The client walks into the studio, sits in the back on a long line of cushioned banquettes. A scowl rolls across his corporate mask. He doesn't like it! The sweaty-palmed client hand-holders (also known as The Suits) start to circulate, whisper among themselves.
The Fact That The Client Doesn't Like It, a huge show-stopping event, reaches Kessler. He gets up, yanks up his sweatpants. He walks back to the dimly lit reaches of the studio. "What do you think?" Kessler asks the client quietly. (There is always the intention of collaboration in the ad world.) "I hate it," he proclaims. Kessler waits a beat. "Well, thank God!" he booms. (He understands that the art of client relationships is to know when to pretend you don't understand what they want, and when to pretend you do.) Then he asks the client how old he is. Fiftysomething, he answers. Kessler reminds him that the target group is teenagers. "You're right," breathes the client, awed. The recording session continues.
Now 54, he has written a book, The Perfect System,about his formula for purposeful living. (Trust an adman to devise such a hyperbolic title.) Wrapped in some pretty weird stuff about Newtonian laws of the universe and cause and effect, the gist is the same old message that we should take responsibility for our own lives, stop blaming others, and, hey, be nice to others so they'll be nice back to you!
It's an odd combination of business plan and spiritual self-help guide that speaks more to Kessler's indefatigable personality than to anything else. Mr. Jingle King has realized that the advertising world couldn't give his life meaning? Duh. He wants to switch guruships as a matter of fact. The one-time ad guru is now a guru of the soul.
He was a millionaire by 30, yet he had never finished Grade 10 at Westdale Secondary School in Hamilton, Ont., where he'd grown up in a lower-middle-class family. He had worked as a railway brakeman and in the steel mills. At the height of his fame in the advertising world in the early nineties, the company he headed up, Supercorp, handled 60 per cent of all the advertising production business in Canada, plus 2 per cent of television production in the United States. Billings were $150-million annually. He was an empire builder, and it all started with writing jingles, even though he couldn't read a note of music. Or play an instrument.
Hyperbole is the stock in trade of the advertising world. But with Kessler, one of the advertising industry's larger-than-life characters, nothing is exaggerated.
Which is not to say he didn't exaggerate. Or still doesn't. "There's a model that runs through ad culture of guys who end up running companies and eating other companies for breakfast," explains Robert Armes, partner and composer at Pirate Radio and Television, who worked with Kessler in the eighties. "They have to be ruthless. You have to be a good tap dancer. And Syd has always been a good tap dancer."
The trouble is that now, when Kessler most wants to be believed, it's hard to separate the truth from the spin.
He is sitting on an outside deck at Toronto's Baycrest Hospital, talking about his past with passionate remorse. He is the picture of a reformed egoist. Well, at least that's what he wants me to believe. (Why does it never occur to people who claim to have abandoned their egos that it takes a huge one to consider that important?)
"Oh yeah, I was a bastard," he says, shaking his head, as he tells stories about his heydey. He is recuperating from a series of medical problems that began in 1995 when he was diagnosed as a diabetic and later underwent back surgery for a deteriorating nerve condition called stenosis of the spine. He convalesced at home for a year, and became depressed.
"I'd been Superman up until then," he says with a little sigh from beneath his white cap with the words, Kessler Productions, emblazoned across the front. He smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and worked 70-hour weeks.
His career has had roller-coaster heights and dips. He sold his shares in Supercorp, which was controlled by Labatts, after four years in 1994 when, at the height of his industry power, he came face to face with people "who didn't share my vision." He walked away with $8-million.
"I was at the peak of my power, and the peak of my powerlessness," he says now. He regrouped, and helped create a small company, Effects Corp., a one-stop, multimedia studio that produced content for CD-ROMs, from writing to graphic design. But that was when he got sick, and while he recuperated, the business fell apart. In 1997, feeling better, he resurfaced again, ever passionate, ever resourceful, ever flying by the seat of his sweatpants, this time heading up what he calls a digital strategies practice for KPMG, a large professional services company.
There were more setbacks. His mother died that year, and he found himself weeping uncontrollably. "I thought, ' Why me all at this one time?' "
He started writing the book. He had spent years studying the mystical form of Judaism known as Kabbalah, he says. Then, earlier this year, he became sick again, and almost died. He had fever and chills, which no one could explain. (It was later diagnosed as diverticulitis, an inflammation of the intenstine.) He had a colonic to relieve constipation, and his bowel was accidentally perforated, resulting in blood poisoning. He also had deep-vein thrombosis in one thigh. "The doctor said I was a miracle. I should have died."
Kessler is thinner now -- he weighs 237 pounds at six-foot-one -- and is undergoing physical therapy for his legs, which for unexplained reasons he couldn't feel following his latest illness. Dressed in his trademark sweatpants and black T-shirt, he is a combination of vulnerability and bombast, confessional angst and chutzpah.
He says that the void left by his father's death when he was only 13 drove him to "fill myself up with success." He confesses that many of his ruthless antics -- Armes says Kessler "ran his company like a Machiavellian baseball manager would run his club, through fear and intimidation and praise" -- were the result of his need to test the limits of his power.
Yet, he is still given to arch legend-making and a desire to control.
"Don't mention about the money," he says to me, waving his hand, when I ask about whether he retained some of his fortune. He did. He lives in a $2-million house in the north of Toronto with his wife and two children. "It won't help the message."
"You will have a blessing put on you for doing this," he says in a hushed tone at one point, touching my knee, as he watches what I write down.
I ask how he succeeded as a jingle writer when he was not trained as a musician. He points to the sky. "I was channeling," he says without a ripple of irony. "It would all come together in my head. I would hear a melody," he shrugs.
Some people in the advertising business guffaw over that claim, and over his most recent incarnation.
"Syd is a huge figure in the industry, and that makes him an easy target," says Armes. "Plus, he is a master spinner. He made a lot of people's careers, but he also took a lot of the credit as the genius behind work which a lot of others worked on. He pissed a lot of people off."
Still, there is something rather sweet about Kessler and his willingness to believe his own self-spun mythology. It takes a certain generosity of mind, a childish wonder, to reinvent yourself. His hyperbolic tendencies -- "This book is so powerful it's going to change the world!" he says -- are as earnest as the creative types in the business who dream up ad campaigns, and proclaim, as one art director did once to me, that "This is not advertising. This is art."
Which makes the ad community's widespread snickering about the new product launch of Syd The Soulful hugely hypocritical. It's exactly the sort of hyped-up message they pride themselves on producing for the products they push. And this time it may even be true.