Getting to relevant

Last year at Cannes, when I met with Brett Channer, then CEO/CD of Toronto-based Saatchi & Saatchi Canada, he shared some ambitious plans to reinvent the agency. At the time he mentioned a three-phase reno, and likened it to looking at a house: first it's one thing, then, oops, need new plumbing, then, oops, new electrical, and in the case of the agency's home base, ultimately, not even the neighbourhood passed muster.

Last year at Cannes, when I met with Brett Channer, then CEO/CD of Toronto-based Saatchi & Saatchi Canada, he shared some ambitious plans to reinvent the agency. At the time he mentioned a three-phase reno, and likened it to looking at a house: first it’s one thing, then, oops, need new plumbing, then, oops, new electrical, and in the case of the agency’s home base, ultimately, not even the neighbourhood passed muster.

A year later, as we met again at the Majestic, Channer reported that the reinvention is complete, and that he’s stepping back into a creative role as chair/ECD, having just hired a new CEO to handle the business side.

The blueprint for the renovation was simple: be more relevant to client needs. Getting there, for a traditional agency, was not. It entailed a reorientation from mass marketing to more of a one-to-one focus, with deeper expertise in areas like retail and consumer insight, and requiring true media neutrality and total integration.

On the ‘getting closer to client needs’ front, Stuart Payne, the incoming president/CEO, conveniently hails from client Toyota Canada. Channer also recently cherry-picked eight new creatives. One is Wells Davis (ex of Taxi), who as EVP consumer planning is responsible for leading development of deeper consumer insight strengths for Saatchi. And while the POP expertise, for now, is coming via the U.S. – out of Saatchi X – Channer hopes to develop this practice in Canada as well, due to retail’s importance to clients in this market. The shop’s

new interactive/CRM unit will also focus on one-to-one consumer motivation.

With global clients doing less Canadian creative, Channer decided it was time to develop expertise and allocate resources in the areas that provide a closer relationship with the consumer. In fact, at his New York meeting with HQ seeking backing for the plan, Channer’s first slide was: ‘We’re not relevant any more.’

And key to this reinvention working, is a new way of working. To that end, Saatchi’s new Yonge & Bloor digs were designed with collaboration in mind. The result resembles a commune, in that everyone has the same amount of open concept space and there’s no window hierarchy. Channer himself has no office. The boardroom has no table – just comfy loungers (like the Lovemark chair above). This philosophy carries over to the new structure, which consists of creative hives. Rather than a dedicated client team approach, they mix up who works on projects to provide a fresh pov.

And Channer boasts: ‘We truly are media neutral,’ explaining that the only pre-buys are for premium space such as the Super Bowl, and adds that not buying tonnage has saved clients so much money the agency moved from a commission- to a fee-based system. Channer says neutrality is further ensured by the fact that media is in-house with no separate CEO or P&L. The team does, however, include a media CD, Esme Rottschafer, who reports to Channer.

The reinvention from mass to my with a specialty in local activation also complements the existing global team approach on brands such as P&G, on which Canada works in tandem with the U.S. And it creates opportunities to pull in resources from wherever expertise lies.

Channer reports that client reaction has been ‘absolutely positive,’ and while at first Toyota wasn’t sure about the fee model, they’ve now embraced it. As to HQ, Channer says: ‘It’s always nervewracking to invest in a flat market – I’m competing for money with emerging markets – but they believe it’s important to invest in the clients we have, such as P&G and Toyota.’

While the investment may be part and parcel of the global brand strategy, I’m viewing the reinvention as another great evolution story from Canada. If you have any thought leadership examples to share, see ‘Made in Canada: thought starters,’ page 52. Cheers,mm

Mary Maddever, exec editor, strategy/Media in Canada