Calgary talent: Ad Rodeo judged it ready to rope in the big leagues

Calgary advertising has had a cloud hanging over it for years. Time was, if you put the phrase 'creative hotbed' next to 'Calgary,' you'd get one of two reactions: snickers or gapejaw stares.
Calgary either lost the respect of the country's marketers somewhere along the line, or never had it to begin with. I don't know which. It used to be a great place to shed your training wheels, build your book, and apply for real jobs in the Centre of the Universe, its West Coast satellite, or the Black Hole to the south.
Used to be.
The Calgary Cloud is starting to lift, and yea verily the sun is shining forth from on high.
Calgary has become a creative hotbed.

Calgary advertising has had a cloud hanging over it for years. Time was, if you put the phrase ‘creative hotbed’ next to ‘Calgary,’ you’d get one of two reactions: snickers or gapejaw stares.

Calgary either lost the respect of the country’s marketers somewhere along the line, or never had it to begin with. I don’t know which. It used to be a great place to shed your training wheels, build your book, and apply for real jobs in the Centre of the Universe, its West Coast satellite, or the Black Hole to the south.

Used to be.

The Calgary Cloud is starting to lift, and yea verily the sun is shining forth from on high.

Calgary has become a creative hotbed.

Witness the fact that we just put on the biggest ad award show in the country – the Ad Rodeo, which enjoys more community support than any other not-for-profit advertising event in Canada. This year there were 30% more entries than last year (over 800 in total), 1,200 people attending the gala event, and amazing sponsorship quality. Given that we only have about a million people, the economy is relatively soft, and we’re stuck between the Centre of the Universe and its West Coast satellite, this is no small achievement.

Yes, but was the work at Ad Rodeo any good? According to the judges, who were universal in their shock at the quality level, the answer is yes. Joe Paprocki, CD & partner of Huey Paprocki, Atlanta, says with shows the size of Ad Rodeo, generally about 20% of the work is truly worthwhile. But he was amazed to find that ‘about 80% of the entries were really great work, so we didn’t have to dig through a lot.’

Fellow judge Marc Stoiber, CD of Grey Worldwide, Toronto, agrees. ‘I worked in Calgary a number of years ago and I thought it was awful,’ he says. ‘Great for design work but that’s pretty much it. When I came back for Ad Rodeo I was blown away by the calibre of work and the sheer number of agencies. The work was incredible.’

An industry source said that after showing Luke Sullivan (author of Hey Whipple, Squeeze This and Ad Rodeo Week speaker) the entries showcase, Sullivan asked to be put in touch with a few agency presidents. He wanted to take about 30 pieces home to Atlanta to show his people the quality of work possible in a small market.

Not only is the creative quality deep in Calgary, it’s also wide. Ogilvy, MacLaren McCann, Parallel, Push, Brown, Highwood, and the usual major players in town came away with hardware at Ad Rodeo. But so did a number of start-ups and small shops like Juice, Swordfish, and (newcomers to Calgary) Bryant Fulton & Shee. Ah yes, let’s not forget the modestly-sized Fulcrum Communications, who picked up four Anvils, including Best of Show, for their stellar efforts on behalf of a porn video company.

Sean Mitchell sums up the Calgary attitude nicely. Sean, who handles ‘lead guitar & vocals’ for Calgary-based Swordfish, a two-man shop that came away with two Anvils, says: ‘We don’t sit around worrying if we’re a ‘world-class’ city/agency/creative…. We just do it up like we already are. That’s how an indie with a $60 budget for photocopying and bulk envelopes can walk away with the hardware. And that’s how Calgary locals [viz. Critical Mass] end up getting Mercedes Benz and Nike as clients.’

Let’s talk about Critical Mass. They are the local rockstars who effectively broke the back of the Calgary Cloud with their recent Cyber Lion at Cannes. They are a world-class organization, winning international awards and have offices in the U.S. and Stockholm. HQ’d in Calgary’s funky warehouse district, they are one of the most inspiring examples for Calgary creative. And they don’t have a single Canadian – let alone local – client. Not one. Zero. Zip. Nada. Nichts. And in most every agency in the city, at some point someone will have said, ‘If Critical Mass can do it, why can’t we?’

So the Calgary Cloud is abating, and everything will now be sweetness and light from this point forward, yes?

Not exactly. Local shops look to Critical Mass for inspiration precisely because they covet the international work. Calgary has the second-highest number of head offices outside Toronto. However, many of them are oil- and gas-related companies. These folks traditionally are not big marketers, although many parity players are suddenly being forced to differentiate themselves.

Failing an uptick in oil and gas, there are some high-tech firms here, some industrial B2B clients, a fair number of entrepreneurs and precious few consumer clients.

The lack of distant head offices has helped the creative community develop to this point, but the feeling is that it’s not going to be sustainable without a big injection of client loving. Many Anvil winners are subsisting on Kraft dinner right now. Given that Shell, Telus and a number of other big clients have left the market, there is a distinct lack of awareness of, and support for, Calgary creative among the bigger players.

So where will that client base come from?

Marc Stoiber is convinced that, despite a lack of local clients, Calgary is going to be the next big thing. ‘Calgarians are like Texans – no bullshit, no bureaucracy; they get stuff done. This is reflected in the calibre of people,’ saying Calgarians should not even bother with Toronto clients, but should look to the U.S.

‘Calgarians have to go south. They can do this better than anyone else in the country because they’re young, entrepreneurial, and they don’t have New York looking over their shoulder.’

So watch Calgary, and see how we do at playing in the big leagues. Certainly the talent pool is here, and a few are already leading the way. The question is, can we get the international credibility to become the next Minneapolis or Richmond?

One way to pretty much guarantee it is to tell us it can’t be done.

Mark Szabo is a strategist with Parallel in Calgary. He can be reached at mark.szabo@parallel.ca.