It’s not glamorous. And it works

They say that creative is a young man's game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don't have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here's a chance to meet four who can.

They say that creative is a young man’s game, but while twentysomethings hopped up on double espressos can keep those wacky ideas coming, many don’t have a clue when it comes to long-term strategic brand building. It takes time to produce a multi-year campaign that achieves recognition levels of 95% (such as Monsieur B. in Quebec). It takes discipline. It takes experience. Not many Canadian CDs can do it. Here’s a chance to meet four who can.

Philippe Garneau on Philippe Garneau
Title: partner & executive CD, Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering, Toronto
Age: 42
Education: U of T (honours English)
Work history: Philippe Garneau & Associates (freelance copywriting); Foster Advertising; Campbell Ewald; Lowe Goodgoll; Doyle Dane Bernbach; Chiat/Day; Vickers & Benson; Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering
All-time favourite ad: Canadian Tire bicycle spot [by Doner Canada, directed by Bill Irish, The Partners Film Company, Toronto]
Favourite TV show: Six Feet Under
Pets: Dachshund, two seal-point Siamese cats (respectively, Charlotte, Dr. Wu and Caspar)
Favourite sayings: ‘Lend everyone your ear, but never give them your voice.’ (bowdlerized Shakespeare); ‘If you are eager for the kernel, you must tolerate the husk.’
Favorite tagline: ‘What makes you different, makes you beautiful.’ (Maybelline)
Pithy advice to aspiring strategists: Don’t think you know everything right away. Why would ours be the only discipline that you can ‘get’ when you’re 25?
Most memorable project: Creating the ING Direct brand in Canada

‘Iconoclastic,’ ‘revolutionary’ and ‘wrongheaded’ are among the sticks and stones frequently hurled at Philippe Garneau because of his contrarian view of traditional advertising, and his beliefs about which part of marketing is the horse, which is the cart, and which should take the lead.

Another derogatory dart is ‘spoilsport,’ which is often tossed at all three partners in Toronto-based Garneau Würstlin Philp Brand Engineering because they adamantly shun the creative awards circuit.

‘Oddball’ might have been added to the adjectival arsenal if Garneau’s critics had witnessed an example of how far he’ll go to discover what he terms ‘the DNA of a brand,’ far in advance of designing any ad campaign.

After landing the W.K. Buckley account following a four-year courtship, he donned a hairnet and stuck his entire head into a giant vat to inhale the company’s famously foul cough mixture.

The result of that noxious experience was twofold. First, says Garneau, ‘if I get a cold any time before the year 2005, I’ll be surprised.’ And second, it reinforced his beliefs about the strategic shift the 80-year-old company should pursue.

It wasn’t that Buckley’s catchy tagline, ‘It tastes awful. And it works,’ created in the early 1980s by Bensimon*Byrne D’Arcy, needed a heave-ho, Garneau explains. ‘But by just making funny commercials about how awful the mixture tastes, the client was losing the dimension of how well its products work.’

How did Garneau’s team rebuild from that template? ‘By dividing the marketplace into a two-horse race with a manifesto that there are two kinds of people in this world, those who just want to feel comforted and those who want to get better, and Buckley’s is for the second kind of people. We then positioned that branding above Buckley’s whole family of products [which includes caplets, rubs and Jack & Jill cough syrup].’

Did it work? Superbly, says Buckley’s marketing manager, Jennifer Meehan. ‘It delivered probably the biggest market share increase our company has ever had, despite the fact that it was a very soft season for the category [because consumers caught fewer colds and flus than usual].’

In just three months, the low-budget campaign – featuring profoundly unglamorous TV spots in which eight company employees read and respond to genuine letters from customers – beat out biggie Robitussin for the number-two position in the Canadian market.

‘Of course, the creative community loathed it and said we had thrown away a great brand with a cheesy campaign,’ says Garneau. But it was the opinions of the customers, who began sending even more letters to Buckley and giving star treatment to the employees in the ads, that counted – along with that of the client which was, says Meehan, ‘that the campaign isn’t the flashiest or the prettiest, but it’s the reality, it’s us.’

The fresh round of brickbats the Buckley’s campaign attracted from professional colleagues bounced right off Garneau’s hide – just as easily as another firestorm of criticism did when his agency’s controversial, bare-bones campaign for ING Direct hit TV screens. Garneau got the last laugh when consumers embraced the plain-speaking ‘Dutch guy’ spokesman and entrusted some $5 billion in deposits to the virtual bank.

So the upshot is that ‘it’ll never work’ negativity actually strengthens Garneau’s resolve to stay the course he and his partners charted when they became ‘refugees from an ad community that was only interested in impressing itself,’ often by insulting consumers’ intelligence and dignity.

‘If Martians landed on earth and looked at half of the advertising that’s being done, they’d think we were a species of cruel misogynists with very low regard for ourselves as human beings,’ says Garneau. ‘Bruce [Philp] and Michael [Würstlin] and I didn’t want to do that kind of thing anymore.’

So all three walked away from big agencies where they were highly regarded and amply rewarded. Garneau gave up an enviable vice-presidency at Vickers & Benson, which he had attained while still in his 30s, along with a salary he says was larger than that of 98% of Canadians.

‘Until I saw the light,’ he recalls, ‘I was fortified by a sense of my own invincibility and I was surrounded by people who felt the same way. But it was like living in a palace of mirrors and we were getting further and further from any marketplace we could possibly sell to.’

At the new Garneau Würstlin Philp shop, launched in 1996, Garneau says the partners vowed to ‘serve a more noble process…and direct our resources to saying: let’s make this a much, much higher bar to cross than amusement. Let’s not just celebrate trivialities.’

What many saw as a foolhardy venture is paying off handsomely. Garneau says that client enthusiasm has resulted in his agency quadrupling its staff from the original three to 12 during its first six years. GWP’s client list now includes Rogers Communications, Delta Hotels, Ferrero Rocher and Royal LePage, as well as ING Direct, Grocery Gateway and The last three on the list, he points out, ‘didn’t even exist four years ago but now they’re part of many people’s everyday lives.’

So what role does strategizing, or brand engineering, play in the agency’s idealistic framework? ‘First of all,’ says Garneau, ‘although ‘brand engineering’ is an overused term today, it was newly minted back in 1996. I hate putting the modifier ‘strategic’ in front of ‘creative director.’ But the truth is, today everybody should be a strategic creative director because the stakes are so high.

‘There’s just no place today for the head I-know-how-to-recognize-a-cool-idea guy.’