Cannes Special: Canadian agencies go global

Polite? Apologetic? Not this bunch. From the convention doubting creatives at Taxi to the art stars of Sid Lee, ambitious Canucks are making waves in the international advertising community.

Attitude is not generally considered a Canadian characteristic. We’re a polite nation, known for our peacekeepers, our universal healthcare and innocuous pop stars like Justin Bieber and Michael Bublé. Yet, when it comes to the international advertising community, some of our most visible ambassadors are the ones who have ignored conventional wisdom, taken risks and turned the industry upside down. Not content to limit their creative chutzpah to the Great White North, these hotshot agencies have expanded abroad and managed to break through despite difficult financial times. They’ve beat out major U.S. competitors for international clients and brought home big international awards. And they’ve done it with panache.
Consider Taxi. They’ve added offices in the U.S. and Europe to their expanding Canadian operations, with these outposts recently picking up work from Reddwerks, Bombardier, Newcastle Brown Ale, Unilever London’s Hair Care TIGI range and Ikea (for digital). How? In an interesting business anomaly, a major business win factor for ad agencies is their trophy chest – how many awards they’ve picked up for their creative efforts on behalf of existing clients. And Taxi has traditionally showed well at Cannes, the Oscars of advertising.
When the ad world’s most prestigious creative arbiters, One Club and D&AD, released their joint Pencil Rankings this year, resulting in a creative hierarchy for agencies worldwide, Toronto-based Taxi was the only Canadian agency to crack the top 20. It came in at #19, just ahead of the geniuses at Apple. Over the past decade, the agency has won roughly 1,200 national and international awards, and taken gold in strategy’s Agency of the Year competition five times, ultimately being named our first Agency of the Decade.
It’s an impressive CV, all built around a single mantra: “doubt the conventional.”
As CEO Rob Guenette explains, “Everybody that works at Taxi, from account people to HR, has to doubt the conventional because that is the birthplace of creativity. Why are things done this way? Why is this the category norm? If you start out your day thinking like that, you’re a creative person.”
“What we are building is new creative expressions of things,” adds CCO Steve Mykolyn. “There are no real best practices when you’re creating something that’s supposed to break through. You [should] be evolving, not reacting.”
And what an evolution it’s been. Taxi was founded in Montreal in 1992 by Paul Lavoie and Jane Hope, with a Toronto headquarters added soon afterwards. Guenette joined the agency as president in 2004, spearheading what he calls an “extreme-growth phase” that saw a New York office added that year, followed by a second Toronto office (Taxi 2) and a Calgary office in 2006, a Vancouver office in 2007 and Amsterdam-based Taxi Europe in 2009.
“We thought, as long as there’s more demand for Taxi, we’ll continue expanding, because we think what we have will resonate globally,” Guenette says, noting that they cap the employee count of any one shop at 150 people (thus necessitating Taxi 2). “We wanted to maintain our creative culture and business culture through this growth.”
The agency was careful to keep operations centralized in Toronto, with P&L all calculated together, and Taxi has grown year-over-year for each of the last five years, despite the recession.
But their growth has been more than financial. In late 2010, Taxi was acquired by WPP, the world’s biggest advertising and marketing services holding company, which reported headline EBITDA of $2.218 billion last year and includes agencies such as Grey, JWT and Ogilvy & Mather. The move made Taxi part of the Young & Rubicam Brands portfolio, which Guenette says gave it access to more resources, while leaving the existing management and mindset intact.
As he puts it, “Same Taxi, bigger engine. What it’s meant so far is that they leave us alone; they don’t impose anything on us. Where we had gaps in our capabilities, they fill in those gaps.” Having access to the WPP network of agencies has strengthened Taxi’s offering in areas such as direct, PR and back-end digital, and has added media buying and planning to the table.
It’s not hard to see why WPP was interested in absorbing the Canadian indie. In recent years, Taxi has attracted envy on the international stage, racking up Cannes Lions with its effective work for long-standing clients Mini and Viagra – campaigns that share a cheeky sense of humour.
Taxi’s relationship with Mini began with the car’s Canadian launch in 2002. Since then, much of the work has been exported globally, including an early out-of-home stunt that saw the car placed inside a cage near the Auto Show with the notice “Do not tease, feed or annoy the Mini.” Minimalism, a customizable website about the car’s eco-friendly features, offered content programmed to match the length of time the consumer wanted to spend on the site – a breakthrough idea that won a Gold Lion at Cannes and went on to become a global platform for Mini’s environmental messaging.
“Mini is a brand that’s seen around the world, with very good agencies in all the geographies trying to make work that stands out,” says Mykolyn. “Everyone’s competing not just within an office but within a global landscape, so the work’s better because of that.”
And then there’s Viagra – a campaign that caught the ad world’s attention in 2002 by leaving out everything we’ve come to expect from pharmaceutical advertising. No hard sell, no government-mandated list of side effects. Instead, an early TV spot showed a man skipping to work with musical accompaniment, leaving viewers wondering why he was so darn happy until the word “Viagra” was revealed. That first spot established the humorous tone the Pfizer brand still uses to get men talking to their wives and doctors, while creatively sidestepping heavy regulations restricting product information in tandem with branding.
Taxi won Gold Lions for its Viagra work in 2005, 2007 and 2009, and in 2006, “Bleep” was the third-most awarded campaign in the world. Last year, the Gunn Report (an annual tally of results from ad awards around the world) declared Taxi’s Viagra spots the second-most awarded film work in 2010. Guenette says that’s set the bar high for new work.
“Every year, Steve comes into my office after the Viagra campaign is done and says, ‘Okay, Rob, here’s the work,’ and I go, ‘Geez, I don’t know if that’s as good as last year.’ Then I’m in Cannes and I find out we’ve won Gold on Viagra again.”

But Taxi’s not the only Canuck agency making waves around the world. In fact, you’d have a hard time finding a Canadian team with more unbridled creativity and international flavour than Sid Lee.
Founded in 1993 as Diesel – a name that was changed to the anagram “Sid Lee” in 1996 – the Montreal agency was created by a group of students with no experience, no clients and no money, as a way of elbowing their way into a tough industry. This entrepreneurial-outsider perspective worked to their advantage, and since then, Sid Lee has grown into a 450-member multidisciplinary team known for creating edgy, unconventional brand experiences for companies like Cirque du Soleil and Red Bull, and winning the global Adidas advertising account.
Recent years have seen new offices – or, as the agency prefers to call them, ateliers – popping up in Amsterdam (2009), Paris and Toronto (both 2010), all operated with a single P&L, and international accounts now make up 50% of the business. This spring, the agency set up shop in Austin, Texas, kicking off a planned expansion into the U.S. market.
While this international growth puts Sid Lee in closer proximity to certain clients (for instance, Dell’s head office is in Austin), vice-president and partner Vito Piazza says it also helps with staffing.
“Our ability to do international-quality work is really contingent on getting the right talent,” explains Piazza. “That means the quality of talent but also diversity in terms of culture and expertise. The cities we’ve selected [for expansion] have helped us tremendously in that.”
Sid Lee prides itself on being allergic to the status quo, ignoring traditional silos and blurring the boundaries between business and art. It’s built up a diverse staff that includes art directors, architects, screenwriters, retail design experts, interactive developers and creatives from just about every other discipline you can imagine.
Although the teams are separated by an ocean, Piazza says collaboration is a critical part of their success. “The level of involvement between the offices is not between the presidents, talking about high-level issues – it happens on a very granular level,” he says. “If you look at our international success, it’s because we can go within the broader group and pick the best people.”
Another big part of the agency’s cachet has come from staying ahead of the technological curve and doing things people have never seen before.
“Our international growth seems [like] it happened overnight but there’s a lot of work behind it,” Piazza says. “We’ve embraced digital culture and technology since 1994. That’s been a huge contributor to getting interest from outside of Canada; all these services which are a bit more leading edge, they tend to travel very well.”
He continues, “We always strive to be an early adopter, sometimes to the point of being a bit too early to the game. There have been a few blunders in the past – like we were 10 years too early in iTV, which we laugh about now.”
But digital is just one part of Sid Lee’s offering, and, as Alper notes, the agency was employing a media-neutral integrated approach long before it became trendy to do so.
“Consumers don’t see a distinction between retail and advertising and e-commerce, it’s one brand story,” Alper says. “Progressive marketers recognize that, and our service offering is about telling one brand story through every aperture.”
You can see this strategy at work in Sid Lee’s recent campaigns for Adidas. This spring, it launched a global effort that brought together the company’s three product lines (Performance, Originals and Style) into a single campaign for the first time in the brand’s history. Launched simultaneously in 100 countries, the celebrity-studded “All In” campaign included print, out of home, in-store and the brand’s largest digital investment to date.
But the relationship with Adidas began years earlier, starting with a redesign of the Adidas Originals concept store in New York (a look that was exported worldwide) and the launch of a digital campaign for the brand. By 2008, Sid Lee had been named global agency of record for Adidas Originals, and in 2010 it was awarded the entire Adidas portfolio.
That year, Sid Lee launched the Originals Star Wars collection with a multimedia arsenal worthy of the galactic empire. Proving that the force was indeed strong with Sid Lee, the agency got George Lucas’s blessing to create a web video combining Star Wars footage with an Adidas street party scene, as well as a Facebook and Google Earth-fuelled app that allowed users to see their neighbourhood obliterated by the Death Star. Sid Lee even enlisted rapper Snoop Dogg to lead an Imperial March of Storm Troopers through the streets of New York.
The ever-innovative agency also helped Adidas launch the world’s first footwear with a coded tongue in 2010. When held up to a webcam, the special tongue granted instant access to the augmented reality Adidas Neighbourhood, where players could use the shoe to control a Star Wars game, a skateboarding game and a DJ game.
When World Cup fever hit in June, Sid Lee hit back with a two-minute “Star Wars Cantina” video that spliced Adidas-clad celebs like David Beckham, Noel Gallagher and Daft Punk into the famous cantina scene from the movie. The viral video has been viewed over five million times on YouTube.
As Alper explains, “Clients come to us when they’re ready to make a change. We’re in the business of helping people evolve and reinvent themselves.”
It would seem that Sid Lee’s not too shabby at reinventing itself either. In 2009, the agency won a Silver Lion for Design in the Self Promotion category for its own corporate rebranding – its best showing at Cannes so far.
“It’s easy to say awards don’t matter,” Piazza says. “I think they do have an important role to play, but is it more about generating business or drawing talent? [For Sid Lee] it probably has a more important role in showing people in the creative community what our approach is, and drawing in talent. From a business perspective, it’s a complement to the broader story.”

Of course, a roundup of jetsetting Canadian rebels would be incomplete without mentioning the new kid on the block, Juniper Park. When BBDO Worldwide decided to launch a new subsidiary in 2007, it chose Toronto for its home base, putting four former colleagues from Grip – another agency that marches to the beat of its own drum – at the helm: Jill Nykoliation, as president and chief strategist, and Barry Quinn, Terry Drummond and Alan Madill as creative directors.
But while Juniper Park is located in Toronto, the majority of its clients, as well as its most awarded campaigns, have been stateside.
Take, for instance, the agency’s enlightened work – and we mean that literally – for Frito-Lay in the U.S. When a SunChips factory in California started using solar power, Juniper Park rolled out a “solar-powered” newspaper ad, in which the main text was revealed by holding the page up to the light. To announce that the brand was switching to compostable bags, the agency created a time-lapse TV spot showing the bag decomposing. Although the spot only aired on television once, a tweet from Demi Moore sent its online popularity soaring.
Juniper Park also hit upon some key brand insights for Lay’s; namely, that consumers didn’t believe that the chips were made with real potatoes, or realize that they were grown by local farmers across the U.S. The result was “Happiness is Simple,” a feel-good campaign that used print, broadcast, digital and out-of-home advertising to remind consumers that the chips were “just potatoes,
all-natural oil and a dash of salt.” Juniper Park followed it up with localized TV spots that put consumers on a first-name basis with the potato farmers in their region, allowing the farmers to tell their own stories about how long their families had been working with Lay’s (an idea later adapted for the Canadian market by BBDO).
The agency’s work for Frito-Lay made it the most awarded agency at the Effies in New York last summer, with six Silvers, as well as the only Canadian agency to take home a trophy. As Nykoliation remembers fondly, “Those are American awards and we won the most of any agency office.” That same year, Juniper Park received four international AME awards, including the 2010 International AME Green Award for its SunChips work, and was also the most awarded agency at the Canadian CASSIES, winning the Grand Prix and two Golds.
The Torontonians at Juniper Park also gave the Chicago Tribune an ownable new brand identity in 2009, with a print and radio campaign that framed it as the city’s watchdog. The campaign made Juniper Park the biggest Canadian winner at the U.S. Clio Awards in 2010, while one of the radio spots (“Bears”) nabbed a Bronze Lion – the agency’s first win at Cannes.
Nykoliation says it’s Juniper Park’s keen strategic ability that gives the agency its competitive edge. “Whereas a lot of agencies do communications strategy work, we do brand strategy work,” Nykoliation explains. “We’re really comfortable with those conversations that often you might go to a different agency for – an innovation agency, a design agency, a packaging agency, a concept agency…We hire a lot of client-side folks on the strategy side, because they are quite comfortable in those conversations and they hear between the lines.”
To Nykoliation, it’s imperative that Juniper Park gets involved with clients on a business level, whether it’s to build a brand from scratch or take it in a new direction. “Those early conversations shape the output,” she says. “I don’t want to miss those conversations, because decisions are being made, doors are being closed or opened that will affect what you can do with the brand. If you’re not there, those decisions are made without you.”
It’s this kind of gutsy thinking and creative ambition that’s putting Canada front and centre on the world stage, earning Canadian agencies international business along with awards recognition.

***

MDC builds global business

Canadian advertising mogul Miles Nadal has been adding Canadian and foreign assets as he builds his new model of the global agency network with Toronto-based MDC Partners, which bills itself as being “where great talent lives.” Since late 2009, the holding company has been growing rapidly through acquisition of independent ad agencies renowned for their award-winning creativity, both at home and abroad, with a recent focus on picking up companies with strong digital, social media and PR skills. This spring it announced that its 2010 revenue had climbed to $697.8 million, an increase of 28% over 2009, with EBITDA up 20.5% at $86.2 million.
Last year, MDC Partners spent about $125 million in a series of acquisitions that included Toronto agency Capital C and its Mississauga, ON.-based data analytics and marketing solutions firm Kenna. It also scooped up PR firms Allison & Partners (San Francisco), Sloane & Company (New York) and Kwittken & Company (New York), as well as creative agency 72 and Sunny in L.A. And earlier this year, it acquired a 60% stake in Anomaly, a multi-disciplinary agency with offices in New York and London.
With more than 40 agencies in its best-in-breed roster – including Canadians such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky Canada, Bruce Mau Design and Henderson Bas – MDC continues its quest to challenge the WPPs of the world, holding companies that have a bevy of long-standing global agency brands in their arsenal. The recent WPP acquisition of Taxi indicates the big global holding companies have their eye on competition in Canada.