Labatt likely to have company in indie agency revolt

As a Canadian expat who has worked extensively with Canadian, U.S. and European clients - and who three years ago co-founded StrawberryFrog, a non-traditional, independent agency in Amsterdam - I have found it fascinating to observe the reaction of the Canadian ad community to the formation of Grip.

As a Canadian expat who has worked extensively with Canadian, U.S. and European clients – and who three years ago co-founded StrawberryFrog, a non-traditional, independent agency in Amsterdam – I have found it fascinating to observe the reaction of the Canadian ad community to the formation of Grip.

People gave Grip an extraordinary pummeling for weeks after its January launch and judging by the numerous negative comments made in articles, letters to the editor and opinion columns across the Canadian media – many of you helped mete it out.

But Canadian ad people may not realize how this drubbing has been perceived internationally.

I’ll be frank: Canada is regarded as a talented and progressive ad market, but it has been made to appear reactive and narrow-minded by its eagerness to slam a startup agency trying to do something new. I honestly cannot imagine the European industry dismissing it out of hand as the Canadian industry has done.

In fact, within the large Euro ad centres a non-traditional agency model like Grip, one that is top loaded with senior creatives and has been designed to deliver on a major client’s clearly defined expectations, would almost certainly be greeted as an exciting new industry development.

But more to my point, the European ad market, for a certainty, would have no dispute whatsoever with the essential premise underlying Grip – that is, the idea that the traditional agency model is flawed.

Many large, respected European advertisers have been saying this for years. Like Labatt, they have complained that the multinational agency network model is too costly and encumbered by process, and they have backed this talk by shifting major accounts to small independent shops.

Both Unilever and Coca-Cola, for example, work on a regular basis with tiny Mother, of London; Diesel, the Italian-based international clothing brand, works with Amsterdam’s KesselsKramer; and Adidas works with 180, also of Amsterdam.

At StrawberryFrog, my own startup, as well at BlueberryFrog, our guerrilla marketing arm, we’ve developed a totally new business model with 35 full-time staff in Amsterdam and a collective of dozens of talents across the globe wired together over the Net. We specialize in cross-border campaigns for clients such as Sprint and Levi Strauss. Our most recent win was the global creative business for blue-chip consultancy Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

Make no mistake, there is a revolution under way in European advertising. The myth of the indispensability of the huge agency networks has been shattered. The dominion of the corporate dinosaurs carrying the names of once-famous dead men is over.

Small challenger agencies are coming to the fore, particularly when working for challenger brands. These agencies have proven repeatedly that the combination of innovative business practices, smart strategic thinking, top creative talent and the effective use of modern technology can overcome the barriers of culture and geography.

The more clients are coming to appreciate this, the more they are clamoring to be part of the revolution.

I predict the revolt will hit Canada’s, not to mention America’s, shores soon – and the impact will be dramatic. International advertisers are going to make tough cost-cutting demands on their North American subsidiaries. ‘Our European division can do it,’ they will say, ‘so why can’t you?’

In response, these corporate branch offices will turn to their European cousins to see what their new practices are, and the exchange of ideas will begin in earnest.

The genie is out of the bottle. Among large mainstream Canadian advertisers, Labatt, perhaps due to its connection to Europe through Interbrew, has been one of the first to figure this out. But it will have plenty of company on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border before long.

Let’s face it, the complexities of managing a North American account out of Toronto, New York or Los Angeles are considerably less than those involved in handling a pan-European account out of London, Paris or Amsterdam. Bottom line: If we can do it, so can you.

Here’s another prediction. This revolution will rock the traditional ad world to its foundation. Over the years, the multinationals have become experts at managing their sprawling business operations and meeting their shareholders’ profit expectations. Unfortunately, these skills are not relevant to clients’ advertising needs and serve only to underscore the extent to which the traditional agency model is indeed flawed.

Most clients, moreover, are in the process of tearing down hierarchies in their own operations. Needless to say, an advertiser that reinvents itself as a lean, mean adaptive enterprise is going to take a dim view of agencies that cling to tradition.

As always, the future belongs to the bright and motivated, the daring and the bold.

Those who resist the change sweeping the industry may not realize it yet, but they are rapidly on their way to becoming part of advertising’s history.

A former Montrealer, Scott Goodson has been a co-owner and CD at Stockholm’s Welinder Advertising and ECD of J. Walter Thompson Canada. In 1999, he started Amsterdam-based StrawberryFrog with several partners, including fellow Canadian Brian Elliot, his one-time high school hockey teammate. Goodson can be reached at scott@strawberryfrog.com.