Shewchuk: Canadian marketers are more innovative

Martin Shewchuk calls himself 'Joe Average' and indeed he looks the part, with his shaggy hair, faded jeans and untucked button-down shirt. 'I don't live a very exciting life,' he confesses. 'I think clients relate to me on that level.'
But as it turns out, Shewchuk's life hasn't been so boring. Last year, he became the first Canadian director in two decades to win the Film Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival for his Waiting For Guffman-inspired Ontario Toyota Dealers cinema spot. (He was with Radke Films at the time and has also directed ads in Europe and the U.S. over the past six years.)
When Shewchuk replaced Rick Kemp as EVP and ECD at J. Walter Thompson in Toronto a few months ago, he brought with him an impressive resume, including a 15-year stint at Leo Burnett, where under his creative tutelage the Toronto agency doubled its billings with 'breakthrough' campaigns for Pillsbury Pizza Pops, Fruit of the Loom and Cadbury, among others.

Martin Shewchuk calls himself ‘Joe Average’ and indeed he looks the part, with his shaggy hair, faded jeans and untucked button-down shirt. ‘I don’t live a very exciting life,’ he confesses. ‘I think clients relate to me on that level.’

But as it turns out, Shewchuk’s life hasn’t been so boring. Last year, he became the first Canadian director in two decades to win the Film Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival for his Waiting For Guffman-inspired Ontario Toyota Dealers cinema spot. (He was with Radke Films at the time and has also directed ads in Europe and the U.S. over the past six years.)

When Shewchuk replaced Rick Kemp as EVP and ECD at J. Walter Thompson in Toronto a few months ago, he brought with him an impressive resume, including a 15-year stint at Leo Burnett, where under his creative tutelage the Toronto agency doubled its billings with ‘breakthrough’ campaigns for Pillsbury Pizza Pops, Fruit of the Loom and Cadbury, among others.

Below, Shewchuk discusses how the ad biz has transformed over the years, his goals for JWT, and why Canada is a generation away from creative hotbed status.

Now that you’re back in the agency business, are there any significant changes that stand out?

There are some rare exceptions, but multinational clients have been realigning strongly with their multinational agencies more and more over the past six years. When I was at Leo Burnett, almost half of our business was with non-aligned clients.

This is beneficial to us, because our teams are often asked to work on business for the U.S. This agency, under Rick Kemp, has become recognized as a J. Walter Thompson centre of excellence. Having cracked some problems for brands here in Canada, the idea is that the thinking can be exported. For instance, the Smirnoff Ice work that came out of this office ran around the world.

How did JWT establish its reputation within the network?

In general, Canadian clients and agencies are more innovative and daring than their American counterparts. I think Canadian creatives are ultimately trained to be more innovative because we have smaller budgets. We know we can’t just rely on throwing money at a project.

So there’s smarter, original thinking that goes into solving a problem, and we’re taught to look for a relevant, consumer human insight. When we play in the international field in Cannes, the percentage of ads from Canada getting shortlisted is well above our population proportions to the rest of the world. I think that’s a very positive sign.

Can you give any examples of how Canadian work is more insightful than that of the U.S.?

Everyone knows that college kids eat Kraft Dinner in mass quantities. This is a uniquely Canadian idea. In the U.S., they don’t call it K.D. They call it macaroni & cheese, and it’s a mom-directed advertising campaign. It’s pretty typical.

Here, you have a client who understands what Kraft Dinner means to kids of all ages. In the U.S., you couldn’t sell that execution [where the college kid cooks K.D. in a washing machine at the Laundromat].

Our Nabob spot [where the dog is returned to the pet store when he gets into the coffee beans] is another example. It’s difficult for traditional packaged goods clients to buy into the idea that we’re not going to reveal the product until the end. What we’re seeing with Canadian clients is that they understand the power of humour, and that not taking a risk is actually the biggest risk of all.

I can’t imagine a spot for menopause in the U.S. taking a humorous tack like Shoppers Drug Mart did [with the commercial by TBWAChiatDay, where a woman turns on the air conditioner in winter]. And the recent Weather Network campaign [from Toronto shop Holmes and Lee, involving auditions for freezing rain and snow], shows how low production budgets can lead to something really fresh and out there.

It’s actually much more fun to work here. At a big multinational agency in the U.S., you may work for months on just one product for a test market. And then it never sees the light of day. A lot of people will tell you that they can go a year without producing a spot, whereas here they’re doing 10 spots. It’s more rewarding.

How is Canada viewed internationally?

Europeans don’t see Canada as a hotbed, but if you talk to the U.S. offices of multinationals, I think you would find they view us as a crown jewel. As for the pure daring and wit that we see in a lot of European advertising, that is a lot more frightening to our clients here, and to the public at large too. The kinds of complaints that are registered with the Advertising Standards Council of Canada you would never see in Europe.

But if you talked to people in the U.K. 25 years ago, they would have told you that advertising on the whole was pretty bland and conservative. And then slowly, the industry got a taste for humour and that built on itself, to the point where Brits by and large welcome new campaigns on the brands they know and love.

Part of it too is that a fairly recent innovation in Canada has been cinema advertising. It’s a freer medium. So now we have a whole generation of kids that have been raised on seeing great cinema ads in this country. I think we’re a generation away from being seen by the whole world as a creative hotbed.

What’s your vision for JWT and what changes are being implemented to get there?

One goal is to be perceived as the best agency in Canada. Another is being named International Agency of the Year [by Advertising Age]. I don’t believe we need to change anything, as the operation is well on its way.

Our clients see that full integration is clearly in effect. We have a group of companies who are all experts in their field, such as Go Direct, which is a separate direct agency in Vancouver and [the PR firm] Hill & Knowlton. There is a real understanding of the clients’ desire that agencies do more than a traditional TV campaign.

We look at projects from a media-neutral perspective. We bring in all the stakeholders of all the companies, and start there. It’s not ‘let’s start with the TV and print advertising.’

[However] our reel includes brands that are household names, and it demonstrates an ability to do good work for packaged goods clients. Almost all the spots [for Kraft Dinner, Nabob, Kit Kat, Aero, Cheez Whiz and Halls] represent a resuscitation of a brand. Those campaigns represent a success story, in that they’ve all had sales success behind them on brands that were either flat or in decline.

I think the industry is tired of the fake ads, the PSAs. These brands will make us famous.

In my case, I lean towards an everyman view of the world and I encourage the teams to always consider the everyman in the advertising. I try to make sure the average consumer in the target relates to the situation or the idea.

Do agencies sometimes lose sight of the consumer in the quest to be creative?

Absolutely, and that’s the double-edged sword. You can’t have innovation in our business without pushing the envelope and sometimes failing. I’ve had my share of failures where I tried to push it too far, where the consumer has rebelled with either complaints or poor sales. You have a pretty instant judge of whether your advertising relates or not.

But if you don’t encourage people to push the envelope, you will become stagnant. Clients are testing their work a lot more. So testing will reveal [when you've gone too far] right away.

Some creatives are complaining about all the testing and suggest that it’s limiting. Would you disagree?

I don’t disagree with the idea that testing constantly keeps bringing work back to what’s been done in the past, but the upside of that is that testing will reveal when you have a really fresh and original idea. It will come through in the testing because it is measured against what’s been done before. So I think in many cases it helps you decide that you have something breakthrough on your hands. It just helps you test whether it’s good or bad.

How does JWT convince its clients to take risks?

We don’t have to. The relationship is based on listening. The Institute of Communications and Advertising (ICA) used to do these secret polls where they would talk to clients anonymously. The chief complaint clients had about agencies is that they don’t listen and sometimes clients felt their agencies had a separate agenda.

I don’t see any arrogance at JWT, where it’s ‘we’re the creative geniuses and we know everything.’ It’s more like, ‘We’re willing to look at what you suggested and if it works that’s great, and if it doesn’t, at least we tried. Let us demonstrate to you what we think works.’ Nine times out of 10 they say we’re right.

Those agencies doing superior work listen to their clients. That doesn’t mean they have to agree with the client. It’s a great relationship when you have a healthy disagreement. But you shouldn’t condemn clients’ suggestions or concerns. You listen and try to clearly understand what the issues are, and then you make an effort to address them or demonstrate why they can’t be addressed. I think for most clients, that’s all they’re asking for.