Special Feature: Marketing in Quebec: Small is beautiful in la belle province: Quebec’s ‘petites agences’ are competing successfully against the bigger shops, winning major accounts and scooping up creative awards

The odds against them can be steep, and the risks they face are substantial. But in the last decade, small agencies have proven that they can flourish in the competitive Quebec marketplace. Modest-sized operations such as Bos and taxi now...

The odds against them can be steep, and the risks they face are substantial. But in the last decade, small agencies have proven that they can flourish in the competitive Quebec marketplace. Modest-sized operations such as Bos and taxi now play successfully on the same field as big boys like Cossette Communication-Marketing and Publicis-BCP, winning major accounts and scooping up an impressive number of creative awards.

Many of these are part of the wave of ‘petites agences creatives’ that began in the late 1980s with the likes of Auger Babeux, Tam Tam and Communications bleu blanc rouge ­ shops founded by senior creatives who fled big agencies in the hope of doing better work in a less corporate environment.

Now their success is paving the way for the emergence of a new generation. Diesel Marketing, formed in 1993 by a pair of young creatives barely out of university, is quickly establishing itself as a model for the small agency of the future.

In this special feature, Strategy profiles three of the most notable of Quebec’s ‘petites agences.’

Bos

‘I was watching television,’ recalls Michel Ostiguy, ‘and an ad for one of our clients came on. One of my children asked, ‘Did you do this ad, dad?’ And I’d never even seen it before.’

It was about that time, in retrospect, that Ostiguy began to realize he’d had enough of the big-agency experience.

Ostiguy was a founding partner of Cossette Communication-Marketing, and general manager of its Montreal office.

In 1988, he and colleagues Andre Beauchesne and Yves Simard broke away to form what would become one of the leaders of the wave of ‘petites agences creatives’ ­ Bos. (When Simard died three years later, creative director Roger Gariepy joined as third partner.)

While each had his own reasons for making the move, one motive was common to all three: a desire to shed the administrative burden that comes with a senior position in an agency of 400-plus people.

‘We were less and less involved with the end product ­ the advertising itself,’ says Ostiguy, who serves as president of Bos. ‘Supervising people was a full-time job.’

By contrast, with just 36 people on the Bos team, it’s possible for all three partners to take a hand in every single campaign the shop produces.

‘We’ve never written an internal memo here,’ says Ostiguy proudly. ‘If we need to talk about a project, we gather people, have a discussion, divide the work. There’s much less bureaucracy.’

Whether that’s an aid to creativity is hard to say. But it certainly d’esn’t hurt ­ as the agency’s performance at awards shows attests. At this year’s Concours du Publicite-Club de Montreal, for example, Bos ranked second only to Cossette, with 11 awards, including six Golds.

The agency’s reputation for delivering exceptional creative has served it well in attracting A-list clients. Its very first account, in 1988, was the funeral-home chain Urgel Bourgie. Today, the list includes the likes of Nissan, Energizer, Eaton, Tourisme Quebec, Hydro-Quebec and Journal de Montreal. And recent efforts on behalf of Microcell Solutions, supporting the launch of its new Fido personal communications service, are helping build a national profile for Bos.

If there’s a hallmark to the agency’s work, Ostiguy says, it’s simplicity, in both concept and execution. Its award-winning tv campaign for Sports Experts, for example, consists of quick comic vignettes, shot in the studio against a minimal backdrop.

This emphasis on simplicity is, in large part, a function of circumstance. ‘We don’t have million-dollar production budgets,’ Ostiguy explains. ‘In Montreal, a production budget of $60,000-$80,000 is common. But we don’t view this as a limitation. It’s just a fact of life, and we have to develop creative accordingly.’

Rather than aggressively courting prospective clients, Bos prefers to let its track record serve to bring interested parties to the door. In fact, the agency refuses to do spec pitches anymore. ‘Our new business development is the product of the campaigns we’ve done the week before,’ Ostiguy says.

Despite the temptation to add new functions such as public relations, and position itself to clients as a ‘full-service’ marketing agency, Bos has chosen to stay focused on its strengths. They’re proud of the ‘creative agency’ tag, Ostiguy insists.

The same g’es for the ‘small’ part, too. At the outset, the partners set a ceiling on the growth of Bos ­ no more than 50 people. They’re about two years away from hitting that limit, Ostiguy says, and they have every intention of abiding by it.

‘It’s where we must stop expanding, to ensure that we [the partners] have time to do the kind of work we want to,’ he says. ‘But this won’t make us a static agency. We’ll continue to acquire new clients, and part ways with others. We’ll still be on the move.’

TAXI L’Agence de

Publicite et de Design

Three little words help sum up what taxi is all about: inflatable sex dolls.

Maybe that bears a little clarification. A pair of rubber lovers, you see, figure prominently in a provocative outdoor campaign that the agency developed recently for Manager Jeans. It’s work that Martin Beauvais, creative director for taxi in Montreal, rates among the agency’s best.

‘We’re all very proud of it,’ he says, ‘because this is what taxi wants to do: advertising that stands out and gets noticed.’

Certainly that was what Paul Lavoie had in mind back in 1992, when he left Cossette to become president and creative director of his own agency. Five years later, taxi boasts operations in Montreal and Toronto, a staff of approximately 50 and a client roster that includes the likes of Sprint Canada, Pillsbury, and Johnson & Johnson. All in all, it would seem, the agency has done a pretty fair job of making its work stand out.

Like many of the small shops established in Quebec in the last decade, taxi was born of the belief that the best advertising gets done when creatives do their work unencumbered by the administrative machinery of a big agency.

That belief lies behind one of taxi’s founding principles: the idea that an account team should consist of no more than four people ­ the largest number that can fit comfortably into a taxicab. Beauvais, who joined taxi in 1994, says this small-team approach turned out to be exactly what a lot of clients were looking for.

‘When clients meet with their agency, they don’t want to see 20 people around the table ­ people they’re paying to have there. And they don’t want their account shuffled around between teams, as often happens at bigger agencies. When we pitch, we tell clients: The four people you meet today are the ones you’ll be working with next year, and in five years.’

Many of the early clients that taxi attracted were third- or fourth-place players in their category, Beauvais says ­ medium-sized companies hoping to receive more attentive service from a smaller shop. Such clients have proven a good fit with taxi, since they also tend to be more willing to take creative risks.

Although it has built its reputation by doing just such risk-taking work, taxi rejects the ‘creative agency’ label. Beauvais says taxi is a full-service agency, with experienced account people who bring a wealth of strategic-planning expertise to the table.

‘We’ve made it clear that a smaller agency d’esn’t necessarily mean a ‘creative’ shop,’ he says. ‘We do creative stuff based on sound strategic insight.’

In developing creative, Beauvais adds, the agency takes pains to ensure that it is always aiming for worldwide standards. ‘Too much advertising from Quebec is looking inward [at this market], and not enough at the best of what’s being done in New York or Paris or London. We’re trying to work on a worldwide canvas, instead of a regional one.’

Another point of pride for taxi has been its success in establishing itself as a small national agency, capable of servicing clients in both French and English. Beauvais says the Montreal and Toronto operations enjoy fairly seamless integration, rather than the more typical head office-satellite relationship.

Managing growth remains a preoccupation for taxi: How can it continue its steady expansion, without awakening one morning to discover that it has become a ‘big’ agency? The key, says Beauvais, is simply to be certain that every new client taxi takes on is right for the agency.

‘We don’t want to end up with the client who’s going to make us do bad ads,’ he explains. ‘So if we have to miss out on a big account because we don’t think we’ll be able to do the kind of work we want to, that’s just the price we pay to be successful, and stay who we are.

‘It’s just like managing a brand. We have an image, and we have to maintain it.’

Diesel Marketing

As far as Jean-Francois Bouchard is concerned, starting Diesel with partner Philippe Meunier was one of the stupidest things either of them had ever done.

‘We had no clients, no portfolio and not tons of experience,’ he says. ‘All we had was ideas and an approach that was our own. We could have crashed and burned.’

Four years down the road, ‘stupid’ is starting to look like an unduly harsh judgment. After all, it takes more than dumb luck to turn a two-person operation into an agency with 20 employees, and a list of clients that includes Subway Quebec, Sleeman Brewing & Malting Company, Uniprix and Television Quatre Saisons.

Bouchard and Meunier launched their agency in 1993, after working together for a year as a freelance team (Meunier’s the art director, Bouchard the copywriter and account guy). They scouted out the possibilities at a few of the big Montreal agencies, but soon concluded that such an environment was not for them.

Bouchard is quick to distance his agency from Quebec’s wave of ‘petites agences creatives.’ Diesel, he says, represents a whole new generation ­ both he and Meunier are under 35 ­ with some new ideas about how an agency should operate.

A lot of those ideas have to do with client relationships. Rather than simply developing creative approaches and then pitching these to the client, Diesel prefers to work collaboratively with the client during the conceptual process.

‘An agency shouldn’t act like it has a monopoly on good ideas,’ Bouchard says. ‘Our clients are a tremendous source of input. So we’re more inclined to involve them in the process. In some cases, the client will sit with us when we’re brainstorming.’

Diesel also puts heavy emphasis on what Bouchard calls ‘managing the intellectual capital of the agency.’ As he explains it, Diesel sees itself as a kind of think-tank ­ a hotbed for the development of new insight into marketing theory and practice.

The agency puts nearly 10% of its budget into staff training, Bouchard notes. It also invests heavily in focus group research ­ not necessarily to test specific pieces of advertising, but rather to gauge response to marketing concepts.

Whatever knowledge Diesel accumulates, it shares with clients and prospective clients through a regular newsletter that the agency publishes, and though occasional seminars that it organizes for marketing professionals on industry trends.

‘We’re truly obsessed about learning,’ Bouchard says. ‘We think the job of an agency is to constantly rethink and re-rethink what it d’es.’

When it comes to developing campaigns, Diesel employs a conceptual technique that Bouchard calls ‘zero-based advertising.’ On any account, he explains, they begin by envisioning what they would do with a budget of zero dollars.

It’s an approach that can lead to real innovation. For example, on a recent campaign for the Montreal-based restaurant chain Pizzedelic, Diesel made the most of a limited budget by inviting consumers to have the Pizzedelic logo and colors painted on their cars. In all, approximately 500 people responded, and a number of local media outlets picked up on the story. ‘We found a way to do more with less,’ Bouchard says proudly.

Not that Diesel has a problem doing more with more, either. Recently, the agency landed the $2-million Subway Quebec account. The first flight of new Diesel-produced tv spots, part of Subway’s effort to reposition itself within the quick-service restaurant category as an appealing alternative to burgers and fries, aired earlier this spring.

Bouchard says there has been a steadily-growing acceptance, among larger clients such as Subway, that small agencies can fulfill their needs. ‘It’s fair to say that agencies like ours have been gaining ground,’ he says.