Jim Little’s Big Coup

When Jim Little - Bell Canada's SVP of brand strategy, corporate communication and sponsorship - was asked to add marketing to his list of duties in 2005, there was a lot of in-house teasing.

When Jim Little – Bell Canada’s SVP of brand strategy, corporate communication and sponsorship – was asked to add marketing to his list of duties in 2005, there was a lot of in-house teasing.

The marcom job had high turnover. Bell was struggling to convey the connectivity of its services, and the ad recall rate was in the 20th percentile range. Colleagues joked Little wouldn’t have long to effect change before being bounced out.

Little’s mandate – to build a national campaign that unified Bell’s various business units – required a complete rethinking of the company’s communications strategy.

‘What makes Jim special – why he deserves to be Marketer of the Year – is that he wasn’t thinking about his job; he was focused on what he truly believed was the right thing for Bell to do,’ says Brett Marchand, SVP/MD of Cossette Toronto. ‘He says unification was his mission.’

One of the toughest challenges Little faced was creating a seamless campaign across English and French Canada. That meant turfing the

12-year-old ‘Monsieur B’ spots in Quebec. Axing an icon like comedian Benoît Brière was something that kept him awake at night. ‘We were forcing people within and outside the company to accept a national platform,’ he says.

Initially, Little asked three agencies – Grip, Cossette and Rethink – to present informal pitches. He waded through 50 ideas and 50 sketches. Late in the process, Cossette creative group head Christina Brown and AD Fern Breslaw suggested the idea of a comedic pairing of beavers. ‘The idea was not fully developed,’ says Little. ‘I don’t think it was even their number-one idea. But as soon as I saw it, I thought it fit the context that we were thinking about.’

For her part, Brown says they were ‘thrilled’ that he got it. ‘We knew we needed a ‘selling language’ because the one-platform [concept] is really the story. It had to be unified by a common voice.’ In fact, it was this approach that won the account back for Cossette after Bell’s brief dalliance with Toronto-based Grip.

But there were hurdles to overcome, including the hokeyness factor. It also wasn’t original: Bell’s competitors were also using animals. Still, Little persisted and faced the critics head on by launching a self-referential spot featuring the two kibitzing beavers waiting to audition for the job as Bell Canada’s ‘spokesanimals.’

In November 2005, Bell Canada did a split launch: It was the beavers versus the pixels (another national platform campaign based on Vancouver-based Rethink’s pixel-styled ads originally developed for the youth segment) to determine which strategy worked best.

The initial reaction to Frank and Gordon was ‘neutral, maybe negative,’ admits Little. The industry was not ‘gaga’ over the beavers, because it was such a simple idea, he says. ‘But that was the point. Making it simple was the brand position – it was about brand clarity.’

‘You have to be tough to do what he did,’ says Brown. ‘He’s a gutsy guy.’

On Dec. 23, 2005, Little pulled the plug on the new Pixel campaign and threw all of his resources at Frank and Gordon. ‘It was high stakes time,’ he says. And there was no turning back.

Now, it was all up to the dynamic duo. Luckily for Bell – and Little – the pair struck a chord during the Olympics in February 2006. ‘We knew it had broken through the marketing buzz when viewer recall during the Olympics reached 80%,’ says Little. (It’s now at 95%.) Since the campaign’s launch, Leger’s public tracking poll shows it’s the most noticed, most liked and even the most hated commercial on the airwaves.

‘The pure creative community, bless their souls, don’t have to sell stuff, but people liked it and it was unequivocally breakthrough,’ says Little.

Frank and Gordon are now the definitive and ubiquitous spokesanimals of the company and all of its divisions. They cross all media and if you want to learn about Bell Canada’s services, you go to www.frankandgordon.com.

Plus, Bell coaxed 100,000 lapsed clients back into the fold last year. Retention rate for the telecom is at an all-time high.

‘If anyone would have said three years ago that one person was going to champion a national campaign for Bell in two languages across all avenues of their businesses – a campaign launched at the Olympics, and was the most liked campaign there – I would have said it was not possible, yet he did it,’ says Marchand.