Quebec creatives take to the streets

Michel Proulx asked himself a question: 'Am I having fun?' Sure, the 39-year-old liked his job as group creative head at Montreal-based Cossette Communication-Marketing, working on major accounts such as Molson. But something was missing.

Michel Proulx asked himself a question: ‘Am I having fun?’ Sure, the 39-year-old liked his job as group creative head at Montreal-based Cossette Communication-Marketing, working on major accounts such as Molson. But something was missing.

‘I was looking at my life saying, ‘Am I really having fun?’ and it was as immature as that,’ he says. ‘Because not having fun is not doing great stuff.’ So two months ago, after five years at Cossette, he picked up and left his job for the freedom of freelance.

Proulx isn’t the only one. He’s part of a flood of senior creative people leaving the security of their jobs at what some say is the prime of their careers. Along with Proulx, the wave includes Sylvain Daoust, ex-senior art director at Cossette, Richard Peloquin, former art director at Cossette, Denis Desrochers, ex-art director at Publicis, and Charles Paquin, ex-Publicis copywriter.

While some blame the general lack of direction in the Quebec industry, others say the problem is aging ownership at agencies and a lack of respect for creatives. Either way, more and more people in the Quebec industry are choosing quality of life and a chance to pick their projects over long-term accounts and dealing with mind-numbing administration.

For Proulx, the decision was mainly about quality of life. ‘It’s having time for yourself and maybe picking your projects as well,’ he says. For the past year, he had been talking with his agency partner, Steve Gagnon, an art director at Cossette, about going freelance as a team. Gagnon left in January, and when Proulx left in May, the two formed Arthur & Merlin Communication Création (along with a third partner, senior copywriter Benoît Pilon), based in Montreal.

‘Having a light infrastructure like we do, we can provide great creative for a great price,’ he says. ‘There’s this market of smaller companies that don’t have access to agencies, and we also serve agencies. And with all the agencies shuffling people around, it’s like a vacuum. There are not so many senior people in Montreal.’

And it’s not just happening on the creative side. Raymond Boucher, chairman and CEO at BBDO Montreal, sees account executives leaving as well. ‘I think that senior account people who’ve been doing it for a long time really get the weight of being senior strategists on major pieces of work and also being responsible for running those accounts,’ he says.

Proulx says the last time he saw a wave like this was more than a decade ago, when young hot creatives were crowding senior ones out the door and into the freelance field. This time, while some say layoffs might be a factor, it’s also about simply getting tired of agency life.

‘Most of the creative people have been at the agency for 10, 15 years and the agency doesn’t give them the power to teach younger people to be good creatives,’ says Philippe Meunier, VP, CD of Montreal-based Diesel. ‘They’re fed up with the research, with the lack of vision, they’re always fear-driven by the client and they just give up everything.’

Meunier says part of the blame falls on the shoulders of agency presidents. ‘The big problem is the owners of the agencies in Quebec,’ he says. ‘They all want to start their retirement, so they don’t want to take chances and spend money on good creative people. So all the senior creative people in agencies are leaving to go freelance.’

Brigitte Mittelhammer, VP, director of client services at Montreal-based Tam-Tam/TBWA, says some agencies simply don’t respect their creatives, pointing to the recent dumping of the entire creative team at Publicis.

‘When Gougoux talks about changing his wardrobe because he just fired all his creatives and hired seven new ones, what does that say about the respect he has for these people?’ she says, referring to Gougoux’s infamous quote in Info Presse last month. ‘We’re talking about creative people. They’re emotional, they’re passionate, and he talks about changing his wardrobe? No wonder they’re going freelance for God’s sake.’

But there’s also a big downside to freelance, along with the loneliness of working for yourself, says Mittelhammer: ‘There’s a price to pay because you have absolutely no control over your product.

‘Let’s say you create a campaign. An idea can be great on paper but if it’s not protected and well-produced all the way through, your idea can become totally different and distorted, so your creative will suffer because you can have 10 people touching your creative product.’

But that doesn’t concern Proulx, who has numerous Coq d’or awards under his belt from the three years he freelanced before his time at Cossette. He says that quite often, an outside perspective helps a campaign’s creative spark tremendously. ‘It depends on the kind of relationship you have with agencies,’ he says. ‘In my experience, I was rarely left unsatisfied at the [creative] level. I was there all along in the process – briefing, client presentation, pre-production and so forth.’

Sparking good creative and gaining freedom seem to be driving the move to freelance, not money. Rates vary anywhere from $100 to $150 an hour, and Proulx estimates he made about the same money as a salaried group head as he did when he freelanced for three years before Cossette.

‘If people are going freelance for the money, it’s wrong,’ he says. ‘I don’t think that’s the main idea. There’s always the risk of maybe not working for the next few weeks and some people can’t live with that kind of insecurity. If you want to make big bucks, find an agency.’

For now, with the aforementioned agency shuffling, he’s not seeing any shortage of work, despite the influx of freelancers in the marketplace. ‘The market has like maybe 30 senior people,’ he says. ‘There are vacuums at some places and there is business for everyone.’