2019 Small AOY Gold: Target stays on its mark

The east coast shop finds success in not being a carbon copy of larger agencies and sticking to what it does best.

©David Howells 2019
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of
 strategy.

Anxiety levels in the corner offices of holding co.’s have been soaring ever since Marc Pritchard announced in 2017 that P&G would cut $2 billion in ad spending over the next five years – a reality check of the budgetary pressures among the industry’s biggest spenders.

But in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Noel O’Dea, president and founder of Target Marketing and Communications, isn’t breaking a sweat, which is only partially due to the laid-back Atlantic Canada attitude. That’s because Target has been able to weather industry turmoil – and become the inaugural Gold Small Agency of the Year – as a result of sticking to the core of its offering.

Target is likely best known for its award-winning campaigns for Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism, which have stated that the province “isn’t Disneyland” and doesn’t try to be. Some tourists want the polish of an iconic theme park, but others aren’t interested in manufactured landscapes and experiences.

O’Dea also sees this as a metaphor for Target, which sticks to what it is good at instead of trying to replicate what big agencies or the ever-dreaded consultancies are trying to build.

In fact, Target has always worked at the intersection of strategy and creative, as well as taken an integrated approach that includes having media and, in more recent years, digital staffers sit side-by-side with the creative team. Target’s smaller size and more distant location also gives it an outsider’s point of view and a “human” creative approach that doesn’t “chase the new bling,” O’Dea says.

“The big consultancies study the best practices in an industry and lay out steps a company needs to take,” he says. “[Best practices] works really well in certain scenarios, but best practices don’t give you any differentiation. There’s a crushing sameness in this approach to solving problems, getting more share and differentiating brands. Maybe we’re just odd, but there is a high correlation between odd and differentiation.”

That differentiating focus on appealing to human desires, passions and concerns was seen in the aforementioned work promoting the agency’s home province. It can also be seen in a campaign for Crime Stoppers to help increase the tips it receives. The campaign zeroes in on the unfounded – but real – doubts that many people have about the anonymity of tips.

While Target attracts local businesses and government ministries as clients (which is typical of smaller shops not based in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver), O’Dea says more than half of its revenue comes from brands outside of Newfoundland and Labrador. To serve its clients, O’Dea says it has found staying the size it is at is what allows the agency to do the work it likes best.

“Whenever we got bigger than 50 people, none of the senior team could work directly with clients,” he says, pointing out that clients look for direct access to top agency thinkers, which larger shops aren’t set up to provide. O’Dea can still be found as a strategist on the credits list for Target’s campaigns, not too far under creative director and art director Tom Murphy. While Murphy retired last fall, new CD Jason Hill has been leading Target’s creative department since he joined last September.

O’Dea is proud of the agency’s ability to retain talent, with many having been with the agency for more than 15 years. When the shop needs to hire, O’Dea says it tends to look in places like the U.K., New Zealand and South Africa, where creatives have an outsider POV to complement its own and are more amicable to relocate to St. John’s than talent from Toronto or the U.S.

“It’s always a challenge to recruit the highest-priced people when we’re going up against companies that can offer better or shinier options,” O’Dea says. “But we seem to attract people who are not just smart, but also have a human grounding. And we’ll never be successful in advertising if we talk to people as if they were robots – that was true 30 years ago, and might be truer now.”

New business
Whitecap, Government of Canada – Department for Women and Gender Equality, Crime Stoppers, City of Mount Pearl, BOMA, GoWestern, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

New hires
Jason Hill, CD; Jessica Hill, group account director; Jordan Finlayson, CW; Laura Douglas, UX developer, Tania Martinez, Norita Dhaigham, designers; Melissa Bassett, research coordinator

Staff
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Small AOY Cases

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Through the “Storytelling” campaign, Target set out to attract new visitors to Newfoundland and Labrador. A content hub with over 60 original stories, a 90-second TV spot and a national newspaper campaign drove home the authentic and charming experience that can be found in this iconic location.

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Famous for nothing, Mount Pearl became one of the most talked about towns in North America via a song on Spotify and iTunes. It wasn’t long before the song’s music video went viral and the charm and modesty of this little municipality made its way into people’s hearts.

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For Crime Stoppers, the agency created descriptive but anonymous posters and posted them in areas that experienced crime. The idea was to reassure tipsters that their identity is protected and that their tips do indeed remain anonymous.

Correction: An earlier version of this story previously listed 30-year-veteran Tom Murphy as co-founder of the agency with Noel O’Dea. O’Dea alone founded the agency, and strategy regrets the error.