San Fran market teaches survivalist ad skills

'The U.S. is a country of black and white and that pertains to pretty well everything - including the advertising.' This is the observation of Canadian ad veteran, Stephen Creet who is returning to Toronto in June to work as EVP and chief creative director at Cossette Communication-Marketing, after a four-year stint with Young & Rubicam's San Francisco office.

‘The U.S. is a country of black and white and that pertains to pretty well everything – including the advertising.’ This is the observation of Canadian ad veteran, Stephen Creet who is returning to Toronto in June to work as EVP and chief creative director at Cossette Communication-Marketing, after a four-year stint with Young & Rubicam’s San Francisco office.

‘The rich are much richer, the poor much poorer, smart people are really smart, dumb people really dumb, the fit are much fitter and the fat much fatter,’ he notes. ‘Canada is the melting pot with a healthy balance, and you just don’t see that in the U.S.’

According to Creet, who left BBDO Canada in 1998 to take his 20 years of experience south of the border, one key difference in advertising in the U.S. West Coast market, versus Canada, is the need to target ethnic groups separately.

‘Advertising (in California) is predominantly aimed at one ethnic group, whereas advertising in Canada is generally intended to appeal to everybody.’ For example, Hispanic advertising in the U.S. is generally very family oriented, Creet says, and those ads, many of which are created by Hispanic agencies, will run primarily on Hispanic channels. Government advertising often includes one campaign for the black community and a separate campaign for white people.

Another major difference, Creet notes, is that the stiff competition brought about by the tech recession, and expensive media buying costs, means there is very little room for mistakes. ‘The consequences are severe if your advertising fails. It has to hit the first time.’

In the last four years, Creet has witnessed Silicon Valley’s rapid descent from prosperity, one of the key reasons he cites for his pending return to Toronto. ‘When I came [to San Francisco], the dot.com boom was near hysteria. There was so much money to be made, people thought they were invincible. Agencies were turning business away.’

However that soon changed. ‘Probably one-third of (advertising) agencies out here have shut down in the last year or so and every agency has made severe cutbacks. When there is a pitch now, everyone is going for it, so the competition is fierce and the quality has to be high.’

While Canadian ad talent coming to San Francisco would have an advantage in what Creet describes as their ‘wide range of skills’ and ‘diplomatic temperament’ versus the American tendency to specialize in one area and rely on first impressions, he warns that the current market is bleak career-wise. ‘The market is going to take three or four years to recover and that’s optimistic.

‘It’s not enough to be good down here. You have to be exceptional to make any kind of noise.’

Ironically the tech recession has been fodder for some new spots. Y&R’s San Fran office helmed a government campaign to promote the beautification of Oakland. It builds on last year’s controversial campaign, which positioned Oakland against San Francisco, making fun of the latter’s economic demise, expensive housing and dreary summer weather. In the latest campaign, two TV spots airing this month will feature a black, matriarchal woman who represents the conscience of Oakland. The kindly woman becomes fierce when she witnesses people dropping litter in the street.

‘This is aimed at the urban core,’ explains Creet. ‘It has to be edgy enough to get the 18-year-old black male to pay attention.’ Print and outdoor elements are also included.

Another of Creet’s campaigns, expected to launch across North America and Europe later in April, is for the Internet company, VeriSign. It makes use of world architecture to promote the importance of trust. One spot, which features a family in a car driving across a suspension bridge in Scotland, makes the point that if you can trust the strength of a bridge with your life, surely you can trust an Internet transaction to be safe. Another spot shot in Rome makes the same point using the Parthenon, while the third features the Channel Tunnel. The campaign also includes print elements.

As for what he brings back to Canada, apart from all the hi-tech jargon, Creet’s experience in San Francisco has taught him how to work in an intensely demanding environment.

‘I am really looking forward to joining Cossette because I think it’s an agency that is remarkably well positioned to really go somewhere,’ says Creet. ‘It’s wonderful that they’ve acquired a shop in New York. It pleases me to see Canadians spreading out rather than other countries moving in.’