"Business, communications, and marketing don’t follow rules. You may get A+ in school, but that won’t necessarily help you. You learn by doing."
If you’ve been to a monster truck demolition derby, you know tires on steroids destroy stuff. Dean’s summer job was to sign up slo-pitch tournaments. In the Ottawa area, adult softball is more popular than summer ice cream. One tournament might have 200 teams. Dean drove a Labatt’s van stuffed with promo materials around the Ottawa area, backing tournaments that Labatt’s already sponsored and encouraging others to sign on with the beer company.
That was his actual job. But he also got to do other cool things, like assisting at the Labatt’s monster truck weekend. Dean had never done any public speaking. At least not to 10,000 people. His boss (who should have done the announcing) was MIA. Dean was 21 years old and had a microphone in his hand.
“I just started talking and when I finished, there was cheering. I didn’t screw up. I survived.”
That night Dean started to formulate his business philosophy.
“Business, communications, and marketing don’t follow rules,” he says. “You may get A+ in school, but that won’t necessarily help you. You learn by doing.”
During the school term, Dean studied economics at Carlton University and managed the Carlton University Students’ Association bar. He attended daytime classes on micro- and macro-economics and at night watched his promotions and marketing ideas pull in record sales of $10,000 and $11,000 an evening.
Dean’s love of economic theory did not match his appreciation for business. When he realized he didn’t have enough credits to graduate, he left university to start his own promotions company, Best in Times. Labatt’s had laid off some employees, which meant Best in Times could pick up beer-company contracts.
Best in Times also won contracts with O’Toole’s restaurants and Tim Hortons. For O’Toole’s, Dean did corporate promotions. He loaded a karaoke machine and some laser discs into his car and for four months drove a circuit from Ottawa through northern and eastern Ontario.
“Monday night Ottawa, Tuesday night Pembroke, Wednesday night the next town,” says Dean. “By then, I was pretty comfortable in front of a bar with a microphone. I can’t sing, but I would always start a song to get people going. If I am this bad and not dying, you can sing too.”
For Tim Hortons, he pulled a race car around Ontario for a summer. Tim Hortons sponsored a race team and had promotional cars.
“We would literally pull up to a Tim Hortons and set up the race stands. People would come by and take pictures of the mocked-up race car. Then we would pack up our stuff and go to the next Tim Hortons or the next race.”
Then the western world went into the 1990 recession. The Gulf War began in August. Both the U.S. and Canada were in trouble, but Ontario was worse off than Alberta.
Dean grew up in Edmonton and was still in touch with his cousin, who promised Alberta was not as bleak. Dean started applying for jobs. West Edmonton Mall wanted to interview him to do mall promotions. It was Monday. The interview was Thursday.
“I drove like a madman across the country and arrived Wednesday at noon. There were no other drivers, just myself and two crazy dogs.”
Dean didn’t get the West Edmonton Mall position. Instead, he worked in a warehouse for a courier company.
“I would go to work at three in the afternoon and work until two in the morning. The shift was perfect. During the day, I would apply for jobs and go to interviews.”
In 1998, Dean joined the United Way of Alberta Capital Region, who hired him to do large-scale events but later transferred him to media relations. Once again, he was speaking into microphones. This time, they belonged to reporters. Dean was learning how to think on his feet to get his messages on TV and radio and into newspapers.
In 2000, Dean moved to the Alberta Library as communications director. In 2001, he joined a marketing and communications agency, known as Sandcastle. The following year, he and Sue formed Focus Communications Inc. In the years that followed, he learned how to do—everything from managing large-event logistics (Edmonton Airshow) to responding to media as Edmontonians adjust to new transportation infrastructure (Valley Line LRT).