Agency rehab: rebuilding creative credentials

Some agencies have a creative reputation right out of the gate. They're usually homegrown shops built on the hard work and principles of their creative founders. Examples in Canada include Toronto-based agencies Taxi and Roche Macaulay & Partners, and Vancouver-based Rethink.
That's not to say that Canadian outposts of large multinationals can't also be known as creative powerhouses. Palmer Jarvis DDB has maintained its creative edge through both Canadian and multinational ownership. BBDO Canada, TBWA Chiat/Day, MacLaren McCann and Leo Burnett have all had their stints as Canada's hot shop.
However, it is harder work for these Goliaths to maintain this status and it's a much longer road to recovery if that reputation has faltered.

Some agencies have a creative reputation right out of the gate. They’re usually homegrown shops built on the hard work and principles of their creative founders. Examples in Canada include Toronto-based agencies Taxi and Roche Macaulay & Partners, and Vancouver-based Rethink.

That’s not to say that Canadian outposts of large multinationals can’t also be known as creative powerhouses. Palmer Jarvis DDB has maintained its creative edge through both Canadian and multinational ownership. BBDO Canada, TBWA Chiat/Day, MacLaren McCann and Leo Burnett have all had their stints as Canada’s hot shop.

However, it is harder work for these Goliaths to maintain this status and it’s a much longer road to recovery if that reputation has faltered.

Heidi Ehlers, an ad agency recruiter with Toronto-based Black Bag Creative Recruitment + Career Management, says it doesn’t take six weeks or six months to turn an agency around, but at least two years – and everybody has to want it – from the receptionist all the way through to the CEO.

Ehlers says she has never seen an agency so dramatically transformed as Palmer Jarvis when Ron Woodall (EVP, creative strategies) was brought in by Frank Palmer more than 10 years ago to engineer the change.

‘[Palmer had] the smarts to stay out of the pudding until the pudding was set. I think that’s the really hard part, to stay out of it.’

Ehlers also points to Grey Worldwide, which has been under the creative guidance of VP ECD Marc Stoiber, for the past 18 months, and is starting to show the results of creative retooling. Stoiber hailed from PJ DDB, and therefore brought over some of Woodall’s techniques.

It’s a lot harder to attract talent to agencies without a hot creative reputation, Ehlers adds, and therefore, those agencies should hire the best people they can get right now to get them to the next step. To rebuild in the shortest period of time, she cites the blueprint Larry Tolpin (now managing partner and CCO, Duncan & Associates, Los Angeles) used for BBDO Canada.

‘[Tolpin] went in and hired a creative dream team, the best talent money could buy and rebuilt the agency. A lot of times creative directors will come in and surround themselves with juniors. Yes, you should have juniors because they bring an enthusiasm and irreverence. But, by and large, I believe that one senior at $160,000 can get to a solution faster than four juniors at $40,000. But it takes the leaders with the courage to lead leaders.’

Paul Lavoie, president and CD of Taxi, was CD at Cossette in Montreal before starting his own company and is very sympathetic to the challenges a large shop faces in being consistently creative.

‘Over the years, clients have gotten more savvy and understand the key thing they want from agencies is ideas. Larger agencies are often slow at this because they don’t have to fight for new business – they have relationships built through their networks so they don’t tend to want to invest in [creative].

‘The decision to invest is the decision to hire the right creative person. If you look at Marc Stoiber [at Grey], he’s definitely energizing that place.’

Rejuvenating a creative reputation is a difficult job, says Lavoie. He warns that making changes too quickly can scare away clients.

‘Look at J. Walter Thompson before Rick Kemp. [Scott Goodson] came in, wanted to change everything, had these parties downtown and it wasn’t who they (JWT) were. Kemp came in and did it slowly and did some good work.’

In fact, Rick Kemp, who stepped in after Goodson’s (now principal at StrawberryFrog, Amsterdam) one-year stint at the bat, has done such a good job as SVP, ECD at J. Walter Thompson in Toronto since mid-1998 that he’s recently been picked to fill that same role at JWT Chicago.

Kemp chose a slow, methodical approach to rebuild JWT’s creative department, a strategy that really began to pay off about three years later, when work for Kraft Dinner, Nabob, Kit Kat and Halls started to cut a swathe through the award shows.

It wasn’t easy. Kemp inherited what he kindly describes as ‘The Island of Misfit Toys.’

‘The people were all very talented but they were in the wrong roles,’ explains Kemp. ‘They weren’t matched up against our client base very well. Their approach and the kinds of ideas they put on the table were, for the most part, outside the comfort zone of most of our clients.’

The real skill, he says is being able to do breakthrough work within that comfort zone. Because there was a lot of client unrest, earning their trust was a major priority.

‘[We had to] build a strong relationship that would allow us to do the work and allow them to take some risks. I told them, ‘You’ve got all these famous brands in your portfolio and yet your communications aren’t famous.’ It was our job to create advertising that was as famous as the brands.’

Kemp says there is a danger in turning off clients by pushing the creative envelope. ‘We were being a little outrageous but that was okay because it was not work that misrepresented the brand to people. All the work we did was validated in research in some way so we were pushing the right buttons with people.’

On the talent side of the equation, Kemp slowly replaced some of the existing staff with mature creative people who could hold their own with packaged goods clients and talk smartly and strategically with them in meetings.

‘I said, ‘If we work hard, you’re going to come out of this with a great reel. You’re going to be changing an agency, not maintaining the status quo.’ And, ultimately, I think that’s more satisfying. And it’s on big, tough packaged goods businesses, not dog walkers.’

Kemp agrees there has to be endorsement and complete support from the top of the agency to really enable creative change. He received that endorsement first from John Clinton, who now heads Grey Worldwide in Toronto, and then from current JWT president and CEO Tony Pigott.

‘Both wanted to be a creative leader in the community and had the belief that if we did that right, everything else would fall into place,’ says Kemp. ‘You will attract great people, attract business and you’ll grow as an agency.’

What John Clinton began at JWT, he has continued at Grey with the hiring of Marc Stoiber about two years ago. Stoiber says his real challenge was to get good creative talent to join Grey.

‘Grey is a very solid, business-oriented agency, but as far as creative goes, it’s definitely not the first agency that comes to mind. That goes right back to the early days of Grey. The name Grey comes from the founding fathers of the agency who couldn’t figure out what to call their agency so they looked at the building they were in and it was grey so they said, ‘Let’s call the agency Grey.’ That’s not a very auspicious start for a creative hot shop.’

Stoiber, with Clinton’s blessing, is writing a new chapter at Grey. While recruiting creative talent, Stoiber has been promising that they’d each get three award-show-worthy campaigns a year for their portfolio.

To deliver on that promise, he has been looking for little opportunities within big clients like Unilever and Procter & Gamble as well as taking on smaller clients with shoestring budgets such as the Toronto Fashion Week event.

‘You start building a book of great ads that you can start showing to prospective new clients. You can also show it to existing clients, who might not do much work but if they are excited seeing this stuff, they might do more.’

To top it off, he says, the shop has attracted some medium-sized clients such as Sunoco who want great creative and need lots of work throughout the year.

Stoiber is also using some of the techniques he picked up at Palmer Jarvis DDB, such as the peer review system. All ads are posted and the entire creative department judges them. He says this eliminates the ‘tyranny’ of the creative director and doesn’t allow egos to become over-inflated.

‘It requires a lot of courage because it means the creative director can’t rule over everything and people have to put their egos on the shelf and take the word of their peers.’

Leo Burnett also has a peer review system, but its Global Product Committee includes the work from all of the network agencies. Every quarter, CDs from various offices are invited to review all work created in that quarter. Ads that rate a score of seven or better are included in a reel that then goes to all offices.

Last quarter, Leo Burnett Toronto netted 11 sevens for its efforts, a score that Judy John, chief creative officer, says is very good.

But that’s not the only motivation her creative team has to excel.

‘We’re financially tied to our creative performance as an office. I don’t think a lot of agencies do that,’ says John, explaining that bonuses are connected to financials and a portion of them are even tied to how many scores of seven-plus the agency delivers.

John has headed up Leo’s creative department for the past two and half years with a mandate to revive a creative reputation that had hit a slump. She says a number of processes and changes have been put in place to encourage creativity.

For instance, the office has moved to a hub concept where business leaders are on the creative floor along with most management. John says communication has improved and there’s more group involvement in the work.

‘Everyone in our office is accountable for the work and that includes client service, creative and management. You can attract great creative people but you really need the whole team, including client services and the clients, to get great work produced.’