Vancouver: Indie haven or branch plant capital?

Vancouver has long been home to the innovative indies of the Canadian ad world. B.C. shops had a reputation for smart, daring advertising that often took a different tack from efforts produced by the nationals and multinationals....

Vancouver has long been home to the innovative indies of the Canadian ad world. B.C. shops had a reputation for smart, daring advertising that often took a different tack from efforts produced by the nationals and multinationals.

But with TBWA/Chiat/Day’s recent acquisition of Bryant, Fulton & Shee, formerly the largest independent in B.C., Vancouver indies are becoming a rare breed. Palmer Jarvis, Campaign Communications, Lanyon Phillips, Koo Creative – all are former independents snapped up in recent years by multinationals and larger Canadian agencies.

Still, the handful of indies remaining on the scene say they’re doing just fine in this David-versus-Goliath marketplace, with some even saying the acquisitions just make them stand out more in their chosen field. That doesn’t mean, however, that some aren’t looking to make a deal of their own.

‘If we found a good match – a multinational that would enhance us – that would make us a better agency, I’d look at it,’ says Alvin Wasserman, president of Wasser-man & Partners Advertising, which employs 48 people at its agency, design studio and interactive division in Vancouver. ‘I’ve looked at offers over the years but nothing really has done that.’

While Wasserman would like to see his agency grow, he admits he’d have a tough time giving up the kind of control he and his employees have over their own destiny right now. It’s the reason most people start their own businesses, no matter what the field.

‘If we want to make a decision, we don’t have to go anywhere for it,’ says Wasserman, who worked as branch manager and creative director for McKim Adver-

tising in Western Canada (before it became BBDO), founding Wasserman & Partners in 1995.

‘We make our own rules and don’t have to wait for New York or Toronto.’ That much-coveted independence, of course, sometimes translates into working harder to get gigs and being more entrepreneurial than the bigger, more connected agencies.

‘Once in a while, if you’re part of a multinational and part of your account is trading here, you pick up the phone and suddenly you have a new piece of business,’ says Wasserman, whose agency billed about $30 million in 2000, making it the city’s biggest indie.

As with most smaller agencies, Wasserman says that one of his shop’s strong points is the personal service offered its clients.

Betsy Linnell, marketing manager at Wasserman client Whistler Blackcomb Mount-ains says that she was so impressed by the personal attention that she once asked if the ski resort was the agency’s only client.

‘The campaigns they do for us are wonderful, but I’m more impressed with the level of service they deliver,’ Linnell says from her Whistler, B.C. office, adding that she speaks directly with Alvin Wasserman and his partners regularly.

Stuart Ince, partner at eight-year-old i2i Advertising and Marketing, says his six-employee shop also prides itself on close relationships with clients.

‘It’s about clients having constant access to both [partner] Cam [Ivenson] and myself. If people want to phone us directly, they can and do,’ says Ince.

Ince says he sought to work for a smaller agency – Vancouver’s now-defunct WHAM Communications – after working at multinationals in the U.K. He was looking for an alternative to the ‘departmentalized environment and the closed-door scenario.’

‘We don’t have any of that,’ he says of i2i. ‘We have a total open-door environment where we have access to everybody at all times. We find that creates a great flow of communication, and that really helps our clients.’

Chris Staples, partner at Rethink, sees only pros for independence, saying that they have more freedom in accepting and turning down clients, because they’re not beholden to shareholders.

‘Most of the decisions we make are based on creative potential and passion for the product, not our bottom line,’ says Staples, who worked at Palmer Jarvis before opening Rethink 18 months ago. ‘If you’re in a multinational network there’s immense pressure to deliver profits to the multinational corporations.’

Staples says that not every client is right for Rethink, which espouses an advertising theory different from many. ‘We really believe that most advertising is a waste of money and that people intrinsically don’t like advertising,’ Staples says. ‘The only way to stand out is by doing advertising that, one, is very different from advertising that any of your competitors are doing, and two, gives something back to the viewer.’

Rethink’s current TV spots for A&W Restaurants, re-introducing Chubby Chicken, are a case in point. They feature an over-enthusiastic spokesman plotting outlandish ways to get people to try the new fare, such as delivering samples door-to-door. A shot of dogs chasing chicken-laden mailmen and kids stealing the popular poultry from neighbours’ mailboxes makes the chicken hawker rethink his plan.

But while Staples may only see the sunny side of independence, Bob Stamnes, partner at 13-year-old Glennie Stamnes Strategy, points out an obvious downside. ‘The negative is that we don’t have all that money that [multinationals] have.’

So to help supplement the agency’s straight advertising work, Glennie Stamnes has branched out over the years, creating a separate digital company called Populux four years ago, and opening a Winnipeg shop two years back. The agency now employs a total of 45 people, 38 of them in Vancouver.

‘If we relied solely on regional Vancouver business, that would have been a foolish thing to do,’ says Stamnes, who also used to work at Palmer Jarvis. ‘Our business has thrived because, like others, we branched out.’

Glennie Stamnes Strategy is also known for getting involved in all aspects of its clients’ business. In the case of IGA, that meant designing a magnetic card-reading system at checkout to automatically donate a percentage of each purchase to buy computers for the local school district.

That’s the kind of work that really appeals to Stamnes, who stresses that ‘marketing and creative do not necessarily equate to a TV spot.’

‘If we never do another ad in our lives, that would be okay with me,’ Stamnes says, ‘because it’s all about building a company’s business and doing that creatively in a marketing context.’

Being visibly different from the multinationals – by providing a variety of services, having close client relationships or focusing only on financial services or tourism markets – is what many independent agencies see as their selling point. But the challenge lies in getting clients to recognize those differences.

‘There are some clients that will sometimes gravitate toward a bigger agency more, it seems, for the sex appeal of the agency rather than what they deliver,’ says i2i’s Ince. ‘And I think that’s a little unfortunate.’

But a client’s recognition of those differences can spark a great kinship. Take Mountain Equipment Co-op’s relationship with Rethink.

‘Mountain Equipment Co-op is a fairly unconventional organization, and that’s what led us to looking at an unconventional agency,’ says Alan Etkin, the Internet co-ordinator for the not-for-profit outdoor-gear company. Mountain Equipment has never had an AOR because it has to keep costs at a minimum for its members, but when it needed some help launching an e-commerce Web site, it went to Rethink.

The agency designed an eye-catching ad for the back of Mountain Equipment’s popular catalogue to help make people aware of its Web presence. The spot featured a laptop computer in a campsite setting, designed to look like a tent.

For independent agencies that can communicate how they stand out from the multinationals, the acquisition of their fellow indies doesn’t seem to be a threat.

‘Because we’ve always operated as an alternative to the larger-agency feeling and the larger-agency style, I think [having fewer indies around] makes us a stronger alternative,’ says Lorne Craig of Big House Communications, which was incorporated in 1989 and has 10 employees and four partners. ‘The more people who join forces with the larger agencies and provide that big-marble-boardroom-desk kind of feeling, the better we’re positioned as a lean, efficient and fun place to do business.’

But as multinationals increasingly become the norm in Vancouver, the question remains whether the overall quality of the city’s creative will change from wild and daring to conservative.

‘You can’t argue with [the multinationals'] success, but what I think you can argue with is the vanilla – the blandness,’ says Stamnes. ‘In some respects [multinationals] have become the things they tell their clients they shouldn’t be.’

For Wasserman, it’s too early yet to tell how the shifting landscape has changed the quality of the work coming out of Vancouver. But the real worry, he says, is that the multinationals will start shifting people out of Vancouver and into bigger markets, such as Toronto and New York. ‘Our biggest risk is not that people will suddenly get shy here and stop producing good work,’ Wasserman says. ‘I think the biggest risk is having our people shuttled around on the international system.’

But for now, with the Vancouver scene still in flux, anything is possible. ‘We’ll talk to anybody who wants to talk about business and how to grow,’ says Craig at Big House. ‘Heck, maybe we’ll go out and buy somebody ourselves. It wouldn’t be the first time a mouse swallowed an elephant.’