Quebec’s ad industry succeeds by focusing on the domestic market

Benoit Brière is one of the most successful advertising pitchmen in Quebec. During the past decade he has portrayed dozens of zany characters in about 100 commercials for Bell Canada, a record of durability that few in the country can match.
But Brière - whose body of work is known in local ad circles as Bell Canada's 'Mr. B' campaigns -- has achieved this success despite the fact that he is largely unknown outside the province.

Benoit Brière is one of the most successful advertising pitchmen in Quebec. During the past decade he has portrayed dozens of zany characters in about 100 commercials for Bell Canada, a record of durability that few in the country can match.

But Brière – whose body of work is known in local ad circles as Bell Canada’s ‘Mr. B’ campaigns — has achieved this success despite the fact that he is largely unknown outside the province.

BCE estimates he has about 80% name recognition in Quebec, but when the company tested his ads on English audiences it found they didn’t work as well. So it only runs them in French.

Separate campaigns like Mr. B are the Quebec advertising industry’s raison d’etre. And by the looks of it they have done a pretty good job. During 2001, Quebec advertising industry revenue growth significantly outperformed that of other North American markets.

Canadian and U.S. advertising sales dropped 4% and 7% during 2001, according Nielsen Media Research (Canada). But according to estimates supplied by media consulting firm Carat Expert, Quebec ad sales stayed stable during the same period, and should jump by close to 2% this year.

Some of the Quebec ad industry’s relative strength is the result of a recovering Canadian economy. ‘With the Conference Board (of Canada) predicting 3% growth, advertisers are opening up their wallets again,’ said David Béland, Carat Expert’s research director.

But strong economic growth doesn’t explain everything. Quebec advertising industry polling and focus groups consistently show that people like locally produced ads better than those made outside the province.

According to BCE, language is an important element that justifies the additional expense of separate ad campaigns targeting Quebecers and other Canadians, but there are also cultural aspects like Quebecers’ nuanced taste in self-mocking humour. And no one embodies that self-mockery better than Brière with his hilarious portrayals of stereotypical Quebecers.

But Brière’s over-the-top appeal is almost incomprehensible to non-francophones. And that is good news for Quebec’s ad agencies who produce similar targeted advertising.

Nowhere was the industry’s success more evident than at Quebec’s advertising creative awards show held May 30 at Théâtre St-Denis. Close to 1,800 spectators spent between $137 and $232 on tickets to the ceremonies to honour the industry’s top professionals.

Bell received a special award for the exceptional success of its advertising over the years, much of which has been produced by Cossette Communication Group. More telling was the audience response when Brière appeared on the overhead video screen – a good indication of where the ad pros think the credit belongs.

However, Philippe Meunier, VP (creative) at Diesel Marketing, says advertisers should not overestimate the Quebec difference.

‘Cultural aspects are very important when defining campaigns,’ said Meunier, who was president of the jury in this year’s competition. ‘But a good idea will work well in any language. Just look at the effect advertising coming into Quebec from other markets has.’

Peter Diekmeyer is also a columnist for the Montreal Gazette. He can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com