AGF paints its canvas with pure branding message

I was driving west on Bloor Street the other day, headed into downtown Toronto, and I think I did exactly what the creative group wanted me to do. I saw a billboard with a scaffold hanging there in front of it,...

I was driving west on Bloor Street the other day, headed into downtown Toronto, and I think I did exactly what the creative group wanted me to do.

I saw a billboard with a scaffold hanging there in front of it, and I figured it was a paperhanger’s work-in-progress. I also figured, since the billboard was about a hundred feet from Mediacom’s head office, that the workman had better get his gluepot in gear.

Then I looked a little more closely. (I happened to do all this in one exposure, because I’m interested in advertising. I think the average dude would take two or three trips before the penny dropped. That’s OK, it’s a repeat-travel street.)

Anyway, I stopped looking at the main eye-catcher – the scaffold – and I looked at the ad itself. It was for AGF Mutual Funds. It had their slogan ‘EVENTUALLY EVERYONE RETIRES’, but the lettering wasn’t quite complete. ‘Aha,’ said I, brightly. I get it. The guy putting up the billboard retired in the middle of the job.’ Nice.

I like the new AGF campaign a lot – and also, I like it a lot better than its predecessor. (‘My retirement dream is to make retirement commercials.’) That one won a lot of awards, but I always thought it was too much of an in joke to play in Flin Flon, and it kind of wore its cynicism on its sleeve.

The ‘EVENTUALLY EVERYONE RETIRES’ stuff delights me, though. It still pokes fun at those getting on in years, but it does it with warmth instead of a stiletto. They show us our folk heroes – Santa Claus and Spiderman, Gumby and Quasimodo – and I smile to see them struggling with the real-life difficulties of a retirement speech or a sand trap. It also makes me think a little about AGF’s premise. I’m not 26 anymore, and come to think of it, how are my RRSPs?

In a very few years, we’ve seen a major evolution in mutual fund advertising, and I think AGF has the new era right. A dozen years ago, the advertiser pretty much had to start by explaining what a mutual fund was. Then as investor sophistication grew, it became a claim game: we have the best system, we have the best analysts, we have the best service, we have the best performance (yeah, maybe yesterday, but I didn’t own you yesterday, how about tomorrow?), and so forth.

Now we’ve become so flooded by mutual fund claims that I think we’re into a pure branding phase. ‘Lemme see, I need soup, which one do I want, that red-and-white can looks familiar, the name rings a bell, I think I’ll buy Campbell’s.’ ‘Charlie, you’ve suggested I put a few bucks into AGF, I’ve heard of them, they seem like a pretty good company to me (can’t really remember why), sure, I’ll drop in a mil or two.’

Much of the tragically unhip, such as the general public and account executives, would guess that pure brand-building is easier and more fun for the creative guys. After all, you don’t even have to send much of a message. You can play around for the whole 30 seconds, and if you’re really eloquent, maybe you can talk the media department into a sixty for the awards shows.

Wrong. It’s actually easier to build a commercial around a supplied message than it is to paint a blank canvas. And some mutual fund companies have really stumbled recently, trying to do the latter.

Fidelity hired Lily Tomlin, who used to be funny, and paired her with their resident guru, Peter Lynch. It was like the scientist who crossed a sole with a jellyfish, hoping for boneless sole, and got a bony jellyfish. Lynch made Tomlin unfunny and Tomlin made Lynch dumb. They pulled it.

A usually good Toronto agency created an over-the-hill old lady who nattered endlessly about how she made her money by ripping off her husbands. Cut to logo for CI Funds, with some line about how they don’t do it this way. Swing and a miss. They pulled it.

It’s not easy to do what AGF has done, and kudos to them for doing it. Now if they would only make the logo bigger.

(Joke! Joke! Joke!)

John Burghardt’s checkered resumé includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘strategic planning -creative thinking’. He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072, by fax at (416) 693-5100 or by e-mail at

From Karen Howe’s dining table: Creativity, COVID and Cannes

ICYMI, The Township's founder gathers the best of the best campaigns and trends so far.

Cannes Base Camp

By Karen Howe

I’m attending Cannes from the glory of my dining room table. There’s not a palm tree in sight, yet inspiration and intel are present in abundance.

Cannes Lions is a global cultural pulse check. The social course correction in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and BLM has delivered far greater diversity in the judging panels as well as the work. And we are all better for it.

I’m proud to say that creativity defeated COVID, which speaks to its power. Great work and big ideas flourished, despite unimaginable odds.

The work from the past two years spans a vast emotional range. From the profundity of Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” to the hyper exuberance of Burberry’s “Festive,” they are opposite ends of the spectrum, but each answered a need in us.

Take note, the ascendency of gaming cannot be understated. Smart brands have embraced the channel. It makes sense, because gamers participate to meet others around the world, not just to play. And they represent a huge and powerful community. That’s why QSR Wendy’s gamified their iconic gal in RPG’s Feast of Legends.

Burger King sponsored the unknown Stevenage Football Club, transforming the team into online heroes and vaulting BK into the fray at the same time. Once again, the brand embedded itself in culture.

The birth of gaming tourism arrived when Xbox snuggled up to travel guides and created a brilliant baby: a travel guide for gaming worlds. It, too, embedded itself in culture.

From the standpoint of social good, Reporter Without Borders showed how it worked with Mindcraft for its “Uncensored Library” to bypass press censorship, with Minecraft providing a loophole to a space where young people could be educated. It provided youth with a powerful tool to fight oppression: truth.

COVID changed us in unexpected ways. We learned how to pay attention again and there was a notable lack of 30-second commercials. Instead, longer format content thrived. Apple’s WFH was seven minutes long. Entertainment reigned king, so we find ourselves returning to our advertising roots.

Seeing competitive brands form partnerships was one of this year’s other great surprises. The brilliantly simple “Beer Cap Project” by Aguila to reduce binge-drinking saw the brand reach out to competitive beers to join in. Aguila put incentivizing (keyword: free) reminders to drink water, eat food and get home safely on its bottle caps from all sorts of fast food chains, ride-share co’s and H2O brands.

On a personal level, I’m so proud of Canada again this year. Given that it was two years of work from all over the world being judged, even making the Cannes shortlist was an accomplishment. Canada is herding in the Lions in tremendous numbers – and it’s not even over. Fingers are crossed.

KAREN-HOWE-PIC-higher-rez-300x263Karen Howe is a Canadian Cannes Advisory Board Member and founder of The Township Group