Divided we stand

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.One of the characteristics of creativity which Robert Grundin identifies in his wonderful book, The Grace of Great Things, is 'love of the problematic.'To...

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

One of the characteristics of creativity which Robert Grundin identifies in his wonderful book, The Grace of Great Things, is ‘love of the problematic.’

To avoid problems, or to fear them, is to deny oxygen to the fire of imagination.

As Grundin explains: ‘To be open to inspiration, one must cultivate a leaning for the problematic, a chronic attraction to things that do not really fit, agree or make sense.’

Abundance of problems

In marketing terms, Canada can be seen as having an abundance of such chronic problems.

The cultural divide between English and French, the distinct fragmentation of the ethnic mosaic, and the antipathies between geographic regions make this a country as difficult to market to as it is to unite and govern.

Yet, while these problems are the raw materials of innovation, our marketing institutions have yet to embrace the potential of these problems to fashion a unique and vibrant Canadian industry.

Uncomfortable truce

For most of my time in marketing and advertising, the cultural division between English and French has been managed by an uncomfortable and increasingly one-way truce between Toronto and Montreal.

After decades of imposing English marketing approaches on the French-speaking citizens of Canada, most companies have opted for the politically correct abdication of accountability to Quebec-based offices and resources.

Swung too far

This realignment of authority was important, but like so many of the other cycles of social activity, the pendulum has now swung too far in the direction of correction.

Split cultures have created splits in expertise, as well as splits in execution.

The absence of any synergy or cross-cultural understanding have made the whole industry vulnerable because it is only by being masters of diversity that we can differentiate ourselves from the mono-marketing dogma of Americans.

A real and lasting Canadian marketing tradition depends on gaining the intellectual insights and economic efficiencies of selling and serving diverse segments.

Competitive advantage

This, in fact, can become the competitive advantage of the whole Canadian industry.

Instead, by segregating the group that serves the French market from the English, and by going the obvious route of creating completely distinct approaches, we squander the opportunity of cross-learning the essential skills and efficiencies of customization, which marketing increasingly demands.

Both French and English marketing departments and agencies can benefit from such cross-learning.

In a reversal, perhaps an example of poetic justice, English customers and consumers are now exposed to advertising that has been insensitively adapted from French for them.

The most painful example I have encountered are the bmw print ads created by RTA Publicite in Montreal.

The numerous typographical and grammatical mistakes in recent English advertising (I counted 14 in an ad for the 530i) are disappointing and dislocating.

For me, as a customer and long-time driver of bmws (I am driving my fourth), the ads are not only insulting, but also dissonant with my image of the ultimately engineered car.

I can only guess how often English-mandated approaches and English-approved adaptations have created similar dislocations in Quebec.


The point is that without embracing the principles of diversity and cross-cultural problem-solving, both Toronto and Montreal risk becoming parochial backwaters of marketing.

This is not a political argument for unity, but a business argument for competitiveness.

If marketing of the future will increasingly demand one-to-one interactions, then we should be using the built-in divisions, segmentation and fragmentation of Canada to create strategies and expertise that are at the cutting edge of personal relationship building.

The cultural problems of Canada are our greatest resource for revitalizing the domestic disciplines of marketing, advertising, promotion and production.

Try to understand

But we need to try to better understand each other, to share more information and insights, because, in this case, dividing will not conquer.

The expertise in French and English marketing pools is rich, and if we can get beyond the politics of exclusion on both sides, we can do great Canadian work.

My candidate for the ad campaign of the ’80s is the J’M poster campaign created by Cossette Communication-Marketing, Montreal, for McDonald’s.

This was a global idea which transcended the ‘language problem.’

It made me smile, it made me wish I were working with the creative people who conceived it, and it forever made me see the golden arches in a new way.

If we had more marketing and advertising ideas like this, New York and Chicago would be importing Canadian solutions rather than rationalizing Canadian jobs.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives.