David Fong of TBWA/Chiat/Day tells it like it is

David Fong knows that he courts controversy....

David Fong knows that he courts controversy.

It’s not really by design, you understand. It just seems to be part of who he is.

Consider: Last February, just a few months after having moved to this country to take over as president of TBWA/Chiat/Day in Toronto, Fong told the industry press that Canadian advertising lacks the kind of distinctive voice that defines the best international work.

Coming from a relative outsider, talk like this tends to raise hackles. But Fong hasn’t backed away from that position – in fact, he’ll expound on it at length with even the slightest prodding.

To be fair, he does know a thing or two about international advertising. A native of New Zealand, Fong has worked in 15 different markets around the world, including Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and New York. Most recently, he headed an agency of his own in Singapore, which was subsequently bought up by TBWA/Chiat/Day.

Fong says he came to Canada because the temperament here is similar to that of his native country, and because he ‘loves the nature of the market.’

His tenure in Toronto has certainly not been without its rough patches. There was, for example, a memorable spat with the agency’s departed creative director, Jamie Way. After leaving Chiat/Day in November, Way went public about his differences with his former boss. Fong promptly fired back in the press, openly questioning Way’s creative standards.

On the up side, the agency has also picked up some choice pieces of business – notably AGF Management and a substantial portion of the Sears Canada account – since Fong took the reins. And new co-creative directors have been appointed, in the persons of Pat Pirisi and Benjamin Vendramin.

In December, TBWA/Chiat/Day also announced that it had acquired respected Vancouver agency Bryant, Fulton & Shee, giving itself, for the first time, a truly national scope.

Strategy sat down with Fong at his Harbourfront offices on a snowy morning recently to talk shop.

Q: Having had the opportunity to view the Canadian advertising industry from an outsider’s perspective, what’s your view on the state of things?

A: [Laughs.] Well, as you know, I’ve got controversial views. People take exception to that. But it’s very simple. [Canada is] the ninth-largest market in the world, but on a world ranking in terms of its impact, [it is] underwhelming… There is great talent here. But for some reason we’re under-leveraging that talent. You occasionally see quirky ads, and for a minute they become bright shooting stars. But like all bright shooting stars, they diminish in the ether very quickly.

Q: So how do you explain this lack of stellar work?

A: I’ve heard a lot of explanations. People have said to me that it’s because we get so much pick-up work. There’s some truth in that. But there’s also some truth in the fact that we allow a lot of pick-up work. We often allow clients to democratize down the needs and values of Canadians in general. They say, ‘Well, it’s no different here than south of the border, so let’s just pick up this [U.S.] work and reapply it.’ So we ourselves are the creators of that.

Q: But how do you convince a huge global client of the need to create original advertising for Canadian consumers?

A: What you need to do is show how Canadians are different. I’ve worked in 15 markets, including the U.S., and the same argument has come up time and time again. The big difference in some markets – the ones that actually [break] through and say, ‘Enough is enough’ – is that you have people with sufficient passion to say, ‘Hold on, let’s really examine this. Here are the differences and here are the similarities.’ In the case of similarities, it can be just a matter of reapplying work. But at the same time, there are some dissimilarities that mean we need to start being truer to the consumers we have here.

Q: So how do you apply this kind of thinking to the work coming out of TBWA/Chiat/Day?

A: First, we are crystallizing in our own minds what it is that defines ‘Canadian,’ and then how we help that definition – or how we help change that definition. That takes a lot of work. It’s far easier to say, ‘Oh forget that. Advertising is advertising. Let’s just go and create whatever we want to create.’ I think what we’re doing within our own work is continually questioning. We’ve set a vision, which is: How do we help Canada in the future? [That] doesn’t mean creating another ‘I am Canadian’ ad. It means looking at Canada and trying to truly understand those needs.

Q: How has the last year unfolded for you?

A: A lot of it has been about reshaping the agency’s direction and energy and sense of standards. That’s probably been the most important thing – because we’d lost a lot of that over the last five years.

I think we are getting there. People have a greater sense of standards now. We have a clearer sense of what we should be about. This is the year that we leverage that and start producing work that lives up to it.

Q: What are the plans moving forward?

A: There are certain benchmarks that I would like this agency to stand for, certainly in terms of strategic thinking, creative thinking and media thinking, as well as in its interactive and direct marketing practice. I would like us to be leading edge in every one of those areas. That is really the standard we’re aiming for.

Hand on heart, was the work [coming out of this agency previously] pushing the envelope? Hand on heart, no. Are we capable of pushing the envelope? Hand on heart, absolutely. So what we’re doing is redirecting a lot of our energy to doing that.

Q: Pushing the envelope? It sounds like you’re looking to do stuff that creates a bit of controversy.

A: No. I want to create solutions. I want people to say that our work is absolutely, frighteningly good. You look at the work from [TBWA/Chiat/Day in] Los Angeles, and it’s all about that. You’ve got the Apple work. It was followed by Nissan work that was like that. The Taco Bell work was like that. It was all very, very good work that actually made the industry look up. Consumers noticed it and said it was outstanding work. And a lot of that work translates straight through into popular culture.

Q: Is that what Canadian advertising should be striving for? To become more a part of pop culture?

A: Perhaps that is one of the issues with the industry. We don’t see ourselves as being instrumental in molding the lives of Canadians or Canadian society. Whereas in a lot of countries where advertising has made an impact, they do see that. We’re creating popular culture. We’re part of it. [In other countries] a lot of the popular cultural icons come out of advertising. A lot of the language comes out of it. But here, it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem to really translate through, and there is something not quite right [about that].