At some point during the 1970s, my father, Terry Clarke, walked into the pristine conference room of a conservative manufacturing company in New England. The company had long supplied the federal government with precision devices, for which they made a fortune in top-secret contracts. On this particular spring day, my father and his partners were intent on pitching that business.
The room was a testament to old Yankee money: paintings of ships, high-backed leather chairs, a long wooden table and yard upon yard of thick, luxurious carpet.
Having been scheduled for a middle slot in the company’s agency review, my father knew they had to do something extraordinary to stand out. And by God, he had just the pitch.
“By now you’ve probably seen just about every dog and pony show in town,” he began. Then he paused for dramatic effect. “But you haven’t seen ours.”
Just then, my father opened the conference room door to reveal a yapping dachshund and a dusty-looking Shetland pony, which he proceeded to lead into the boardroom by its harness.
The reception was nothing short of disastrous.
Almost immediately, everyone around the table grasped the seriousness of the situation, realizing their luxury carpet was in imminent danger of being sullied by a hot pile of nervous pony shit, a outcome that seemed more and more likely as the dachshund began nipping at its hooves.
The CEO scrambled to his feet and shouted, “Get those animals out of here!”
My father graciously obliged, ushering the dog and pony into the main lobby with the unflappable poise of a circus ringmaster.
Meanwhile, watching all of this from the waiting area was another agency quietly going over their own presentation, wondering how in hell they were going to follow my father’s now-smoldering pitch. He flashed a confident smile and said, “Now … watch how I turn this around,” then bounded back into conference room to pick up where he left off.
The seething CEO, now with veins bulging out of his forehead, exploded the second my father walked through the door. “I thought I told you to get the hell out of here!”
Without missing a beat, my dad calmly corrected him. “No … you said to get the animals out of here.”
Not surprisingly, they didn’t win that pitch.
But it didn’t really matter, because as far as my dad was concerned, he got something even better than a new client. He got a good story. And for him, that was more valuable than gold.
The “Dog and Pony” story has been in circulation for years around Boston, but I tell it now because I believe it sums up my father’s life perfectly—a life which heartbreakingly came to an end last week.
I personally love that story because it has all the hallmarks of a Terry Clarke enterprise. It’s equal parts audacious, wildly outrageous, irreverent, brilliant, charmingly naive, hilarious and memorable to the point of legendary.
And that was Terry Clarke in a nutshell.
But to simply say my father was an ad man doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of who he was. Trying to summarize his life is like attempting to photograph the Grand Canyon. You’ll never fully capture the magnificence of it all.
He was actually many things: a Mandarin-speaking Cold War spy for the U.S.A.F. Security Service, where he intercepted and transcribed communications from Communist China; an elite hurdler who went as far as the 1960 Olympic trials; a PR man who handled over 300 confidential crisis communication assignments, most notably the Tylenol poisoning scandal; a university professor who taught his students valuable lessons such as “Always answer your phone on the first ring, so your client feels special”; and just for added measure, he was a Hall of Fame barbershop bass.
But for the purpose of this tribute, let’s focus on his advertising career.
My father owned and operated two communication companies: Clarke Goward, an ad agency, and Clarke & Co., a public relations firm. He reasoned, “No self-respecting advertising professional would ever work for a PR firm, and vice versa.” But while both companies operated independently from one another, each focusing on its own strengths, he encouraged everyone to mingle socially, and, my father being a profoundly social person, this happened often. As a result, going to work every morning felt more like attending a small college.
My father may have been an account guy by practice, but inside him pumped the heart of a creative. Clarke Goward might not have been the biggest agency in town or the most financially successful, but over its nearly 30-year run he treated his creative department as if it were a private nature preserve for art directors, designers and copywriters.
He knew creativity was special, and wanted to protect and care for it as best he could. That reputation encouraged a long parade of incredibly talented creatives to beat a path to his door. And once he let you inside, you were considered family, and would remain so even long after you left—no matter how much it pained him to see you go.
Of course, he couldn’t afford to hold onto anyone too long, and thus was the unwritten compact of working at Clarke Goward. You wouldn’t be paid much, but you would do some of the best work of your career while you were there. And he’d make sure you were laughing the whole time. Mostly because he laughed. Hard.
I can’t stress that last part enough. My father laughed harder and longer than any human being I’ve ever known. It was the kind of laugh you didn’t just hear, you could feel it rumble through you. It would reach down into your depths and flush out a laugh of your own. For those of us lucky to have worked at Clarke Goward, we heard that laugh bellowing down the hall multiple times a day.
His door was always open, and people were encouraged to just walk in, sit down and start talking. All were welcome. Yes, business was occasionally discussed, but more often than not, my father’s office was just the place to swap stories, tell jokes and belly laugh.
On more than one occasion I was fortunate enough to watch my father reel with laughter as he listened to an employee tell an absurd story that somehow only seemed capable of happening at Clarke Goward. With the joy of a teenager who somehow managed to land his dream job, he would throw back his head and scream mid-laugh, “I love this place!”
We all loved that place, just as we all loved Terry Clarke.
Now that they’re gone, I’m realizing just how rare and magical they both were.