Preventing the fall

Despite rumours, the Quebec ad industry is not sick. Being sick implies some kind of diagnosis. Instead, many in the industry describe it as more of a general malaise.

Despite rumours, the Quebec ad industry is not sick. Being sick implies some kind of diagnosis. Instead, many in the industry describe it as more of a general malaise.

‘It’s really weak,’ says Philippe Meunier, VP of Montreal-based agency Diesel. ‘Right now, we’re at the bottom of the ocean. We have to gather and be stronger, but nobody wants to gather up and be present on the national scene.’

Sick or weak, the industry does agree on one thing: that something needs to change. Accusations of poor creative, a polarized agency scene and the globalization threat haunt the Quebec industry. And while some say this is nothing new, recent indicators – such as skyrocketing talent turnover and the Publicité Club de Montréal’s decision to investigate the problem – point to an impending crisis.

For its part, the PCM is holding a three-day forum called ‘Le grand virage de la publicité au Québec,’ this November to examine crucial issues. Nicole Dubé, president of special events for the PCM and advertising director for la Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec, says the last such formal event was held in 1978, making this one long overdue.

‘We’re facing a lot of challenges like globalization and head offices moving right now,’ she says. ‘We need more than two hours to discuss them.’

For now, the PCM is collecting information from associations such as the Association of Quebec Advertising Agencies and the Association of Canadian Advertisers, as well as polling agencies and clients to find out what they’d like to see on the agenda. Client input, which agencies say is essential, is promised by Dubé, as is follow-up. What agencies don’t want to see is another whining session about the future of Quebec creative, and many are curious and hesitant about the event.

‘It’s been a long time since there’s been research on this market,’ says Brigitte Mittelhammer, VP, director of client services at Montreal-based Tam-Tam/TBWA. ‘We tell our clients you need to do market research, you need to understand what’s going on, you need strong positioning, but the industry itself hasn’t done that type of exercise in a while.’

‘People are going to realize we need to do something quickly to have a stronger industry,’ says Meunier. He hopes the industry will join forces to create strength and presence, similar to what Toronto-based execs Alan Gee, chair and executive creative director of Gee, Jeffery & Partners, and Paul Lavoie, president and creative director at Taxi, have done in rallying Canadian representation at Cannes.

And people like Jacques Labelle, VP, creative director at Montreal-based Cossette Communication-Marketing, are adamant that to be of any use, the group of attendees must be mixed. ‘I would love to see the participation of clients,’ he says. ‘I hope we can bring [together] all the constituents so everybody can hear what the others think.’

But rather than just table issues like clients going gun-shy when facing good creative, or preserving Quebec perspectives in its native creative, industry members hope to see more pressing issues addressed.

Such as globalization. Larger agencies like Publicis and BBDO Montreal, both of which have offices outside of Quebec, are aggressively chasing more national clients.

Raymond Boucher, chairman and CEO for BBDO Montreal, which recently rebranded under the BBDO umbrella and dropped its PNMD name, says his agency’s national network gives it the power to go after national clients such as Alcan or Bombardier. ‘Our decision to rebrand ourselves BBDO is all part of that,’ he says. ‘We re-did our business plan, looked ahead and decided that’s the way to go.’

‘The landscape in Quebec has changed,’ says Yves Gougoux, chair and CEO of Montreal-based Publicis. ‘PNMD is now BBDO, there are rumours other agencies will sell as well, brands are becoming one brand and networks are becoming stronger. Those who are left behind are left behind.’

Boucher says he really noticed the polarization between large and small agencies at the recent PCM award show (known as the Coq d’ors), in which 87 of the show’s 155 awards were picked up by BBDO, Cossette (largely for it’s McDonald’s and Bell Canada work) and Bos. ‘After that, it goes down in breadth and scope of work, and some agencies, you just don’t hear their name at all,’ he says. ‘It’s quite staggering.’

But not all agencies are ready to go national in their client search. ‘The problem is resources. Only a few agencies have Toronto offices, so it’s a big problem for ourselves and other agencies,’ says Diesel’s Meunier. ‘We’re not there yet. To handle a national account, you have to be really strong and have a strong Toronto office. And I don’t think it’s good to have an office in Toronto to serve a client, yet make the creative in Montreal and ship it in.’

The polarization between the connected and indie agencies hasn’t gone unnoticed by clients either. ‘[Agencies like] Cossette continue to be on top of the game,’ says Claude Bernier, VP marketing for Boucherville, Que.-based home-improvement retailer Rona, ‘but the others – besides Cossette, PNMD and Bos – they’re small and not very active.’

And the big agencies aren’t sitting still, waiting for their smaller counterparts to catch up. Recently, Publicis shocked the industry by dumping most of its creative team to form M7, a whole new team. Gougoux says the move was the fruit of the last 18 months of work and $1.5-million spent in strategic planning for the agency’s future, which included a creative ramping up. ‘If each agency did its state of the union and invested and had the guts to do what needs to be done, this industry would be much better,’ he says.

Meanwhile, other short-term issues agencies are dealing with include bracing for the impact of the Canadian economy’s decline. They say they don’t feel it yet, but expect to soon. For now, most say billings are on target, but certainly not up to last year’s levels.

Steady investment from the client side is expected, despite a tightening of belts witnessed in the recent decision by La Fédération des producteurs de lait du Québec to cut magazines out of fall media plans.

‘People who’ve been producing Quebec creative for a while are sold on it,’ says Boucher. ‘But it might be more of an issue for somebody considering it, who hasn’t yet jumped into the pool.’