DAD.CEO sits down for an exclusive interview with advertising legend and author Aldo Cundari, CEO of Cundari, Canada's top independent communications agency that services some of the world’s largest and most influential brands.
You’re a CEO and a committed dad, how do you make it work?
Aldo: The thing is, you don't really know you're going through a process of juggling home and work, as you do it, so, a lot of mistakes were made in the early days. The key for me was to be aware that I needed to make a difference in my kid’s lives.
In the early days, I started to discover my first set of rules that are with me to this day, such as never bringing my work home. To this day, I'd rather work until nine o'clock at night to get it all done, but when I get home, I’m home. That way, my kids and wife get a hundred percent of my attention. Work with all its demands could easily extend to the rest of my evening, so I decided I needed to put a timeline on it.
Like any busy CEO, I’m sure I had moments where work still dominated my mind, but it took me a few years to realize what was truly important.
Let me give you an example. In the early days of my career, I won a piece of business in the United States and therefore would need a presence in that market. So, I bought a small agency which I grew. And then, one of my USA based clients asked me to take a successful North American campaign that we had developed and take it to 14 European countries. On top of the New York office, I now added an office in London and I had my office in Toronto, which was thriving quite well. Oddly enough, my New York and London offices were twice the sizes of my Canadian office.
"I remember one year where I probably traveled close to a million air miles."
I would get calls from the London office telling me I was needed there for a major pitch and that it was important that the person's name on the door was there to present it to the potential client. So, I would jump on a plane without any hesitation and that would happen over and over. I remember one year where I probably traveled close to a million air miles. I would fly to Miami for a presentation and work with the team and then go back to the New York office, then London and back to Toronto and so on. If you’ve ever flown that much, you will end up in a city and realize that you don't know what city you woke up in that morning.
It was great and exciting, but it was also very selfish at the same time. You tell yourself it’s going well, so I might as well keep pushing.
Then I had a truly pivotal moment that would shape my future. I had two kids at that time, Natalie and my son Christopher who was probably around two or three. I returned home from another marathon of plane hopping and I had one weekend at home. When I got home, my son was very timid towards me and seemed he didn't know who I was.
My wise and patient wife looked at me and told me:
"You understand, it’s time to make a choice."
That was the moment I decided to change everything.
Within about two years, I sold the New York office to the management team and soon after my partner and I sold the London office to a multinational agency.
It was a major life decision, and I think it paid off huge dividends in the sense that my kids now know who I am.
What top 3 lessons did your father leave you with that you feel are still relevant in today's digitally connected world?
Aldo: My dad immigrated to Canada from Italy in 1952 and what he brought to Canada was three very insightful and simple lessons he would eventually pass on to me and now have the honor to pass down to my children. The 3 lessons that I would say stand out the most were:
1. Always work hard. I mean that's as wise advice today as it was in the past. Hard work never goes out of fashion and always delivers great results when applied in the right way.
2. Never give up. Failures are a given in life, but you keep pushing through no matter the setbacks.
3. Protect your legacy. The wisest thing he ever said to me was:
“Son, I’m giving you our name. Protect it and always do the right thing. Remember, it's your legacy.”
Oddly enough, if you look at the advertising agency world today, no one has their name on the door anymore. It’s usually some abstract, functional transitional name.
I made it a point to always put my name on the door so that I would always have to protect it by doing the right thing.
I believe that's the best advice he ever left me with, is also so directly connected to my identity.
Sculpture, Aldo Cundari created of his father
Do you feel you have passed on some of his advice to your kids?
Aldo: Absolutely. I believe they realize that either through my actions or through my words. I work hard, and certainly, they’ve understood that I've never given up. And I always make a point to make sure that they always do the right thing, even if it hurts you financially.
I’m the type of person who always pays his bills and always follow the three rules. I know they're simple, but it protects your reputation, name, and legacy, which is the core of what my father taught me and what I have instilled in my children.
Now that your children are grown up, do you feel you have a new role to play as a father?
Aldo: Well, first of all, I will always be their Dad and I think they would always see that. But you know the role has changed quite dramatically as they have grown up. Obviously, before I would set the boundaries. I said, yay or nay, and would try to give them options, but at least I was part of the decision and so was my wife.
My role now has somewhat changed, because my kids are practically all grown up, with the youngest turning eighteen soon. I’ve now become more of an adviser to them. I never tell them what to do, but rather I advise them on their individual needs. I believe that our relationship still has that comfort level of me being their Dad, but I'm not going to poke my nose into something when they need to make a decision on their own.
While you say that you're now an advisor, do you sometimes see when they're about to make a mistake and is it hard for you to not step in?
Aldo: Oh, that's the toughest part. I look back at myself growing up and the number of mistakes I've made financially and in life decisions, it only taught me that the key to success would be after the mistake is done, you need look back and ask yourself what did you learn from it?
That's the one thing that I was able to garner every time I made a mistake, was that I learned something from it and made improvements or changes because you don't succeed unless you fail.
How do you ‘unplug’ with your family/children?
Aldo: Back when I started making personal changes and I needed to find some sort of work/life balance, the one thing I realized was always being present as parent and husband. So, I decided that my new rule, “never take work home” would become law.
In the thirty-eight years, I have been in business, I can count on my hands how many times I made it home for dinner. My office is in the core of Toronto and our home is twenty kilometers outside of the city. So, even if I were to leave at five with rush hour which can sometimes take over 1-1/2 hours, it would be next to impossible to make it home for dinner.
As a compromise, we established that Sunday night was family night, and everybody in the family has to help me cook. To this day, it’s our ritual and I’m proud to say that all my children have become pretty good cooks!
Cooking and enjoying a great meal as a family is a tradition that keeps the Cundari's connected
What would be your top 5 tips for being a successful DAD.CEO?
1. Never miss a special family moment such as a graduation, birthdays, etc. That’s a must!
2. Never choose work over family time (if you can help it), I know there are times where you just can't. As I said, I don't bring work home. That's my rule.
When I travel for business, I'm traveling for business. But when I'm back, I’m back. There's no in between.
3. Be in the moment. I have seen a lot of my friends who have senior roles in business, and they go home and all they do is think and contemplate about what they should have been doing or what they did. They're not in the moment. So, I think it's important that you sit there and actually be actively listening vs passively listening.
4. Create Traditions. I talked about our ritual of cooking as a family or whatever it could be for you, be it a hike with a family or skating, etc., but make it a tradition, a bonding family experience with no outside influences.
5. Treat everyone like family. At the office, one of the things I always do is I treat my staff as I would treat my family. That makes my life easier at work, which then makes it easier at home.
It's well known that you are an accomplished sculptor. Have your kids taken up your passion as well?
Aldo: You know, it’s funny. When you have five kids, you realize that they're not all carbon copies of yourselves. But you see certain elements in each of them. A good example of this is my middle child, Julia who wants to be a professional painter who is now studying at the Emily Car University Art + Design in Vancouver, Canada.
She will be graduating this spring and we all plan to fly there to attend her graduation.
Chris, our second oldest, has started joining me on sculpting classes on Saturday mornings at the Toronto School of Art.
I don’t think he sees it as a passion as I do, but he sees it as “I can spend time with my dad and have a great time at it.” I’m very impressed at how good he is at it and I think he's starting to understand that it's something that I use to relax, focus and bring joy to my life.
In reality, there are two things in my life that I use as tools to relax which both of them involve working with my hands and that’s cooking and sculpting. I believe that its actually helping him in his career in the fact that he has a place where he can just relax and focus on something other than what he's doing at work.
Aldo Cundari enjoying his passion for sculpting
And what is his job?
Aldo: He is a product manager at Lift & Co. a publicly traded technology company that helps Canadians explore, understand and make better-informed decisions around cannabis with product reviews, events, and data. He just came off of 2 years being an entrepreneur where he developed, marketed and operated an e-commerce service website which he recently sold. This is an area I could have stepped in and helped him out through my agency and all the resources we have, but he insisted to do it on his own and I am very proud of him for taking this route.
Have you in some capacity supported them with your advertising services at your agency?
Aldo: Most of my kids at some point have had an internship here and like my son Christopher, I said to him: “Look, if you need anything such as space or anything else to help your start-up, then I am here to help." He took up the offer of space with 4 or 5 desks at my office for three months and took night courses to learn how to program, UX design and build his own website. Once his company started generating some income, they moved out quickly. He wanted to do it on his own merit and didn’t want anybody saying that his success was based on his father’s influence or favors.
Having a large advertising agency, I have an incredible digital division that could have built it for him and marketed, etc., but this is where you don't step in. He has to do it on his own and I believe he became a better person and entrepreneur for it.
How do you feel you have evolved as a father and a CEO from the time your first child was born to this present day?
Aldo: In my early years, I believe I could do everything better than anyone else. What I've learned since those days is patience goes further than interfering. This key lesson has helped me with my relationship with my children, and the same goes for my staff at the agency. As I mentioned before, my staff has to sometimes fail in order to succeed, and I have to give them that space to do that. So that's why I'm saying treat your staff the same way as you would treat your family.
Being a leader that deals with financials often… can you give us 3 tips that a father should be teaching his children on finance/money so they may have a chance to succeed in life?
Aldo: I have 3 key rules:
• Your kids should not work at your business without earning their own respect first
I have a very hard rule on this. And my wife and I had multiple discussions about it.
I told all my kids that they cannot work for me other than having the opportunity at an internship. They will have to earn experience and gain respect in the marketplace in order to be even considered for a position at my agency.
If you've worked at other jobs with let’s say six to ten years in the industry and then apply here for a specific role, then you've earned your right to be here. And more importantly, no one will ever whisper that you only got your position by being the Bosses kid. It’s not fair to your kid’s future and especially to others who had to work to prove themselves. And so oddly enough, this is what drove them to what they loved most.
They were lucky that we could afford to send them to the right universities and so on and take the time to build their passions like Christopher starting his own company and now knowing that's not the direction in the short term, but rather to get into a larger enterprise, learn and then eventually be an entrepreneur.
• Never give your kids money, make them earn it. I know that sounds old school, but I tell you, there's no expectation for my kids that I will just hand them a check.
• Be honest about your finances. I discuss the good and the bad times my kids. That means, there will be periods where we're booming and there will be periods where were struggling
I need them to understand the realities of life because you can’t raise your kids up in a bubble as they will never understand that there are bad times and how to handle it. The one thing they give you when you tell them about the bad times, is they come and give you a hug, which is worth more than anything.
Do you feel that mothers who are CEOs have it harder at balancing their work/life duties than DAD CEOs?
Aldo: I would imagine there are things that you have to give up. Time being the most valuable when you're in a senior role. I really respect a friend of mine who is the President of an agency, who is a woman. She had a child at a later age and I can imagine how much of a difficult balancing act it has been for her. Let me give you a good example. You usually get a year for maternity leave, but not for my friend, given her dedication to her agency she only took three months. I really don’t know how she did it because I know how difficult it would have been for me as I understand the seriousness of her workload and responsibilities at her agency.
But it’s clear for me to say that mom CEOs have it much tougher than Dad.CEOs.
The word NO is a powerful word in business, but did its meaning work as well in your home or was it the opposite?
Aldo: It’s good when the kids are young to know what the boundaries are. But as they got older, I evolved more into an advisory role and would never say no to them. I would give my point of view and it would be up to them to make the final decision.
It does become very difficult to separate because I had this clear delineation. My commute was always about forty-five minutes to an hour and in winter weather, it's could be an hour and a half to two hours. This would be my wind down time to put everything in order in my head so when I would get home, I would be present a 100%, and I'm there to help and advise them but never to give them an answer, it is best to have them come to their own conclusions.
Family vacations – Which would you recommend?
Aldo: There were two, actually, and we still speak about them often.
We had a family rule that when we could, we had to take a family vacation and it had to be in somewhere in Canada.
We've vacationed across Canada from the east coast all the way to the west coast. One year we decided to go to Banff, Alberta during the summer and hike the high trails in the mountains. I think that was probably the most family bonding vacation we've ever had. We would hike really long distances and we would return completely exhausted by the time we got home and then get up early the next day and go discover another trail. There is not much you can do while hiking other than enjoy the view and “talk”. It was truly an amazing and bonding experience and I would recommend it to anyone and their family as a way to truly connect together.
Hiking the trails as a family vacation in Banff, Alberta, Canada
The second just happened before my eldest daughter got married. We decided on one more only family trip and booked a villa in Tuscany, Italy.
It was truly spectacular as every day we would go shopping at these world-famous boutique shops for meat, pasta, and other special items, and then return to our incredible villa and cook as a family.
Cundari family vacation in Tuscany, Italy
You’re a highly recognized CEO, but who is the CEO at your home?
Aldo: Hands down my wife Livian is the CEO of our home. Interestingly, she was working for the first 20 years of my building our business. She was a teacher and decided to retire. She made it her household and I respect that. But I still do my part in doing the chores and items that she can’t do around the house. But she makes the household schedule on what we will do and I don’t argue and am grateful for that.
Any last words of wisdom? tricks? etc… on being a DAD.CEO
Aldo: If there had been a site like dad.ceo to consult with, 33 or so years ago, would I have made the same mistakes? Would I have traveled a million miles for business keeping me away from home and should I have had the trust in my general managers and presidents in those other markets was never considered as options? Knowing that there was a place I could reference other C-suite life lessons, would have been a great resource to improve my relationship and grow my business.
I don’t regret at all where I am now with my children as this was the path I was meant to follow to grow better and closer together. I believe, considering all the lessons we went through, we turned out very well and I am incredibly fortunate and grateful to have such great kids who make me and my wife so proud by continuing the legacy of our family name that my father passed down to me to protect and that now I am passing on to them.
“I feel the Cundari name is in very good hands!”
About Aldo Cundari:
Aldo Cundari is the Chairman and CEO of Cundari, a full-service advertising agency based in Toronto, Canada which has been recognized as Canada’s most globally awarded independent advertising agency. He is the author of Customer-Centric Marketing: Build Relationships, Create Advocates, and Influence Your Customers. Published by Wiley in 2015.
In 1998, Aldo was included in Marketing Magazine’s “Power List: The 100 Most Influential People in Canadian Communications” and in 2008 and 2009, he was selected as one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurs of the Year. Aldo was appointed to the board of directors of the Canadian Marketing Association (CMA) in 2010 and in 2018 was appointed as Chairman of the CMA board of directors.
In 2013 Aldo, along with a business partner, reopened and revitalized the Toronto School of Art after its doors closed in 2012.
Aldo has 5 children (Natalie, Christopher, Julia, Joseph, and Nicholas) and has been married to his wife Livian for 33 years.