That’s deep

If advertising were a football game, then agencies in Vancouver would be known for their inclination to go 'deep.' That's because compared to other large markets in Canada, the prospect for new work is rather bleak so the game plan has consisted of finding ways to do more with those clients already on their list. For the most part, this has meant moving beyond straight advertising into areas like branding and design - in other words, solving any business issue that needs ideas.

If advertising were a football game, then agencies in Vancouver would be known for their inclination to go ‘deep.’ That’s because compared to other large markets in Canada, the prospect for new work is rather bleak so the game plan has consisted of finding ways to do more with those clients already on their list. For the most part, this has meant moving beyond straight advertising into areas like branding and design – in other words, solving any business issue that needs ideas.

At the moment, you’re probably thinking that this trend isn’t exclusive to Vancouver and you’d be right. But due to a shrinking pool of marketers over the last decade, agencies in the West have likely ramped up non-traditional offerings with more conviction than their peers elsewhere.

In describing the landscape, Dick Haddon, president and CD of Cossette Vancouver, says the local market hasn’t really recovered since it lost so much business in the 1990s, when the head offices of Ikea, Canadian Airlines and the Japanese automakers absconded. Added to that, he explains, B.C. has maintained its reliance on resource-based industries (these organizations tend not to spend too much money on communications, save for PR), and tech start-ups. ‘The middle is broad but thin – consisting of retail and services,’ he says. ‘Agencies here need to make their own opportunities. They need to be proactive.’

Thankfully, say many Vancouver-based agency presidents, it’s much easier to secure relationships with the decision-makers on the client side in a smaller market. Explains Andrea Southcott, president of TBWAVancouver: ‘We get into the engine room with them, and the job becomes more about [other forms of] marketing…. In Toronto, it’s more about what the brand needs to say…[while] in Vancouver, it’s not just about advertising, but what [aspect of] the business needs help, whether operations or product development.’

Perhaps the trend towards design on the West Coast manifests itself best at Rethink. While from the outset, the shop founded by Chris Staples, Ian Grais and Tom Shepansky has incorporated the discipline as an ‘integral part of its mandate,’ lately there has been a significant play to boost that side of its business. In the last year, Staples et al have hired three designers – ACD Jeff Harrison, formerly with Karacters Design Group (a division of DDB Canada); designer Jaime Barrett, previously with Diesel Montreal; and most recently, senior designer Isabelle Swiderski, who hails from Vancouver’s Metaform Communication Design.

Says Grais: ‘All clients want to be fully integrated, whether it’s the design of their stores, uniforms, signage, etc. They realize that it’s harder and harder to get messages to stick, and you need to have smart ideas delivered in a very clear and consistent manner.’

Both Grais and Staples believe their shop has an advantage over larger agencies where such work is handled by a separate unit. For one thing, they have their designers working alongside the rest of the creative team, and account people have added the discipline to their remit. ‘In larger agencies, the profit centres are squabbling behind the scenes – it’s inefficient and acrimonious and a nightmare for clients,’ says Staples.

Certainly, several marketers have signed up for the ‘holistic’ approach that Rethink boasts. Bell Mobility is one of them. The company is relaunching its Solo youth brand to combat Virgin Mobile and Telus Mobility and has asked Rethink to redesign its logo (the word Solo now consists of dashes meant to connote the network), as well as innovative clear plastic packaging, merchandising materials, and a complete ad and Web campaign.

Also, the shop is handling a re-brand for Burnaby, B.C.-based Future Shop that includes not just TV advertising, but everything from the electronics retailer’s flyers to uniforms and business cards. That work will hit streets in August. In the same month, a refreshed Bootlegger will be introduced to Canadians – including a new logo (a ‘B’ shaped like a pair of jeans, as denim will be the Vancouver-HQ’d chain’s new focus), store design, and P-O-P materials. All done by Rethink, which also counts Vancouver-based Flow Yoga as a client.

And recently, the agency was instrumental in the debut of Dose, CanWest’s free tabloid geared at youth. Rethink was not only behind the half-pill-shaped logo and quirky advertising, but the look of the street boxes and ‘everything from stationery through proposals for potential clients,’ says director of marketing Mark Shedletsky. ‘In this case, the design preceded developing what the brand essence was. We decided on a name first, and then spent time figuring out how the name could morph into a design that represented everything.’

Karen Nishi, VP strategic planning at Wasserman & Partners Advertising moved to Lotus Land eight years ago after spending almost a decade in Toronto, mainly on the marketing side at Campbell’s. After a couple of years with Molson, she was brought on at Wasserman specifically to handle branding assignments. ‘There aren’t that many clients and what we’re doing is working deeper with them at a more strategic level,’ she says.

Nishi believes branding at Wasserman is on the upswing. Recent work includes the rebranding of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, which had university status but carried a ‘baggage of blue collar trade.’ Wasserman did a great deal of work internally at BCIT and came up with a new tagline. (See ad below.) The shop also just developed a new ID for Tourism Kelowna. She explains the town had a very dated, folksy, small town image, and research indicated the public was unaware that Kelowna was situated in the Okanagan, or that it featured golf clubs and recreational real estate. The resulting positioning statement ‘ripe with surprises,’ is meant to move Kelowna from a ‘peaches-and-beaches family destination to focusing on its adult-oriented recreational possibilities.

‘If you hire a branding consultancy, you get a document at the end, and then you have to translate it to implement the brand,’ adds Nishi. ‘But if I’m working on it internally, I take it all the way through the process. There are a lot more checks and balances, as well as consistency that way. And so much of branding happens between the lines – ‘here’s what I heard internally’ – you would miss out if you just received a document.’

Even when Wasserman does work on traditional advertising, the agency often goes ‘deeper’ with those brands. President Alvin Wasserman reports that along with new spots for White Spot, a Vancouver restaurant chain, the shop influenced the design of its menus – and even the pricing of dishes. Ditto for London Drugs. While TV advertising is due to break this summer, Wasserman has also become more involved in the design of the retailer’s flyers.

‘A lot of what was traditionally below the line is now more mainstream,’ he points out. ‘Vancouver players do some broadcast, but if you’re sitting waiting for broadcast, you’ll be waiting a long time.’

Perhaps that’s why even at Vancouver’s DDB Canada, there is a stronger emphasis on non-traditional forms of marketing. Says Bill Baker, SVP and managing director: ‘In the past couple of years, people from Karacters have become involved in every pitch.’

That certainly was the case with two fairly new clients – BC Ferries (see sidebar) and Mountain Equipment Co-op. With the MEC business, a win DDB recently shared with Republik Advertising & Design in Montreal, duties include reenergizing the co-op’s store design, catalogues and Web site.

Peter ter Weeme, VP communications and marketing of Vancouver-based MEC, says the co-op picked DDB to oversee the development of its ‘brand articulation and creative platform.’

He adds: ‘In DDB, we have a whole suite of divisions, each with a level of specialty but all working under a corporate philosophy and with a certain degree of integration. We felt they demonstrated the greatest level of understanding of what we were looking for.’

Of course, MEC has never had much cash for marketing. According to ter Weeme, the retailer spends about $200,000 a year on advertising, mainly consisting of print in specialty mags like Pedal, Outpost and Gripped.

But while figuring out how to speak to customers when ad budgets are tight is one thing, DDB’s Baker says that even when marketers are willing and able to open their wallets, agencies should think beyond the 30-second spot. For one thing, it helps build trust. He explains: ‘We ask clients: ‘What’s your business issue?’ And it might be environmental design, PR or direct marketing. We say: ‘Let’s not jump to the conclusion that advertising will cure your issues.”