Quebec takes on the world

The unprecedented showing for Quebec-based agencies at this year's Cassies may herald a new surge in strength for shops from the province.

The unprecedented showing for Quebec-based agencies at this year’s Cassies may herald a new surge in strength for shops from the province.

Leading the way was Montreal-based Diesel, which won a third of the 18 awards handed out. Diesel has now found itself the spear point of agencies that are shedding their provincial roots and winning national clients in competition with others that have long had an English Canada-centric bias working in their favour. The struggle for parity is far from over, but already some are doing so well they’re landing international accounts.

In the last three years Diesel has vaulted into the ranks of internationally recognized agencies with work for the multi-billion-dollar hotelier MGM Mirage and live entertainment company Cirque du Soleil. More than 50% of its revenue now comes from outside Quebec. Along the way, it has torn a hole in the myth that planning is a discipline best practiced in Toronto.

‘Fundamentally, we see Diesel as a national and, more and more, an international boutique,’ says Jean-Francois Bouchard, president. Given the agency’s international client list, which also includes U.S. companies Bose, Bright Smile and Sight and Sound and French company Wines From France, that’s not an idle claim.

Bouchard credits winning the Cirque account in 2000 as being a great ‘carte de visite’ (door opener) for subsequent account wins, particularly MGM Mirage, which operates hotels in Las Vegas where the Cirque shows have some of their biggest and exclusive runs.

He says the agency’s influences have always been international and relates an encounter he had with someone at this year’s Cassies Awards.

‘She was talking to us as if we were a Quebecois agency. And I’m really not comfortable with being called that. What I was telling her was that we’re a North American agency – a Canadian agency that happens to be based in Montreal.’

That’s a sentiment echoed by the granddaddy of Quebec-based agencies, Cossette, which has come so far from its roots in Quebec City that the industry doesn’t see the agency as ‘Quebecois’ any more. In fact, Cossette may well be the most international of any Canada-based agency, with operations around the world, including in Europe, Asia and the U.S. In the last fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 17% of the agency’s gross income came from outside of Canada. That number is expected to increase to 30% this fiscal year.

And at home Cossette has big national clients like General Motors (Saturn and Saab), Bell and McDonald’s.

‘We’ve evolved past the point of our origin being that relevant,’ says Dom Caruso, president of the Toronto office. ‘The Quebec City market was not huge so right from the beginning we’ve had an integrated view of how to address a marketing campaign. We found the market was of a size that meant we had to be diverse in our skill set [given that you might need] a promotion or direct campaign, or some publicity around [a brand] as well as some ads. That became part of our DNA and we’ve replicated that in every market that we enter.’

Others, like Jacques Duval, president and CEO of Montreal-based Marketel (a part of the McCann Erickson network) is less ready to shy away from his Quebec roots, but simultaneously insists it’s more than possible to be a national agency while operating there. When he points to his agency winning Air Canada’s national business in 1992 (after a client consolidation) followed by all of its business in 1994, he says: ‘First of all, we always were and still are a national agency based in Montreal.’

Are Quebec-HQ’d shops’ national agency status currently gaining profile farther afield?

‘There’s certainly more interest as opposed to ‘use a Quebec agency for French only,” says Duval, whose most recent Air Canada work featuring Celine Dion is currently airing nationally and will roll out in 2005 in both the U.K. and the U.S. ‘There’s definitely more of an opening in the world.’

Over at Taxi Montreal, which also has its share of national accounts and which is pursuing U.S. work together with its Toronto office, president Daniel Rabinowicz says: ‘The trend generally is for Quebec agencies to be winning more national and perhaps international assignments. Because I think there are more agencies in this market that have shown they have the ability to do so. Take Bos, for example. They’re highly respected across the country and they’re certainly deemed capable of doing national assignments. The same is true for Diesel.’

While Bos has no international clients, the 16-year-old agency has national clients that include Couche-Tard, The Weather Network, Microcell, Yoplait and Ricola. It also does special projects for Honda. The agency, which has $80 million to $85 million in annual billings, also offers a media buying service. Tellingly, 70% of its media billings come from outside Quebec. André Beauchesne, VP and partner at the Montreal-based agency, says Bos has managed to grow its base because it ‘fits’ with clients.

‘If you compare Bos with other advertising agencies or groups in Canada, most of them are based on their revenue centre,’ he says. ‘At Bos, our structure is not based on that. We have two offices, one in Montreal and one in Toronto, but it’s one revenue centre. In Montreal we have creative teams in both languages and it’s really integrated. It offers something that clients like; even within one agency, you’re [usually] dealing with two groups but there is really one group as far as Bos is concerned.’

Diesel’s Bouchard has much the same to say, noting that the shop’s staff speaks 12 different languages. The agency has also struck partnerships with schools in the U.S. that feed them articling students from all over the world. He says all of this creates a comfort level that makes Diesel at home in Europe or the U.S.

Says Bouchard, ‘For us francophones, having a client in Paris isn’t exotic – it’s almost business as usual. And when we go down to the States, especially on the east and west coasts, everybody has an accent. They don’t care about the fact that we don’t seem to be locals. There are no locals in New York City or Las Vegas. They accept and even embrace our cultural differences pretty easily.’

However, the majority of agency folk concede that a Quebec-based agency still has to establish itself in Toronto in order to ‘make it.’ For example, Serge Rancourt, president of Publicis, which works on L’Oréal and CIBC among others, doubts agencies without a presence there can make a dent in national client lists. ‘It’s been difficult for a Quebec-based agency unless they open an office in Toronto. Because in the past a lot of them have failed. They couldn’t really break through the Toronto market.’

Open a Toronto office? Taxi (1996), Bos (1999), Cossette (1981) and Publicis (1999) have all done it, and it has led almost immediately to more work. Others like Republik are actively looking to come to Toronto for the first time. Says Republik president Robert Beaudoin: ‘We’re talking to [agencies] in Toronto and trying to strike a deal to have a real partnership, be it an exchange of shares or money or working partnership.’

Or maybe open a New York office? Cossette is already there with Cossette Post, a conversion of what was formerly known as Post & Partners. Clients include Amica, Mastercard and the U.S. Coast Guard. Taxi is also in New York, but is tight-lipped about operations there. Rabinowicz does say people should expect ‘a lot of news about growth over the next little while.’ He adds: ‘New York is arguably the toughest market in the world to make it in. If you want to aim high and be ambitious, and if you’re gutsy, you go to New York.’

Not all agencies believe a move to Toronto or NYC is necessary. Diesel’s Bouchard derides Toronto-centrism as ‘an old way of doing business,’ saying progressive clients and countries no longer work this way.

‘They just shop for the people who can do the best job. We’re not saying that we don’t want a Toronto office. It’s just that it seems like an old way of doing things. Our goal is not to multiply offices, it’s to multiply talent.’

Westward ho! And eastward and southward…

How Quebec agencies are expanding national (and international) rosters

A variety of agencies with Quebec roots are branching out across the rest of the country. They’re picking up an impressive roster of clients along the way.

Most recently, Montreal-based Bleu Blanc Rouge won the Burger King national account (the agency’s one other national account is Belron) in August after having the French part of the business since 1998. When Burger King’s U.S. agency, Y&R, lost the account to Crispin Porter, Leslie Root, chief marketing officer for Burger King Canada, decided to give BBR a shot for three reasons. ‘BBR changed its senior management staff and added some heavier hitters to our creative team,’ she says. ‘We gave them a crack at our ‘Extreme Whopper’ campaign this summer and it was brilliant. I was sold.’ (Burger King saw double-digit growth in volume for the third quarter in the fast food hamburger segment, outpacing competitors, she says.)

It has also turned out to be more cost effective using a Montreal agency over a Toronto shop because production costs and agency fees are lower, says Root. This is partly attributable to the fact Burger King now doesn’t have to necessarily do separate English/French campaigns.

Montreal-based Publicis Canada, part of Paris-based Publicis, boasts a larger national roster, including international brand identity work for client CIBC that appears in the U.S. and Asia. In winning the CIBC account in 2001 Publicis beat out 90 competing agencies, including U.S. shops. When the client toured the semi-finalists’ offices, there was a moment of panic because the then very small Publicis was in the process of moving and had no office to show. Instead it showed a model of the new offices and subsequently won the account. Its national roster has since grown to include Purolator,

Wal-Mart, L’Oréal, Nestlé (PowerBar) and Allstream among many others.

Taxi opened in Montreal in 1992 and since 2000 has won some key national accounts including Reitmans, Jergens, Pfizer (its DTC business for Rx drugs and some for healthcare professionals), and most recently Molson (for the Bavaria brand). In the case of Jergens, it started out as a Quebec-only account, but president Daniel Rabinowicz says the client was so happy with the work that it was broadened to national. However, he does say that all the others were won subsequent to opening a Toronto office.

Montreal-based Republik is another small agency that has managed to wow with its work and land national clients. Axa Canada, the Paris-based insurance company with headquarters in Montreal, awarded Republik the account in 2002 based not just on physical proximity and language but also on the strength of its people. Robert Beaudoin, president, Republik, explains: ‘We said although we’re a small agency, we have highly seasoned professionals who would be working on the account, both on the strategic and creative sides. We demonstrated that during our presentation and won over PALM [Publicité] and BBDO.’