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DDB nurtures a creative culture

Possibly the best-known man in Canadian advertising now has another notch in his belt: another Gold in strategy’s 2007 Agency of the Year competition.

Many people understandably considered Ogilvy & Mather the one to beat, given the unprecedented success of its Dove work. But DDB Canada’s first-place showing, helmed by chairman and CEO Frank Palmer, seems to prove that slow, steady and consistent work ultimately wins the race.

This year, judges raved about most of the agency’s work, which included campaigns for Subaru, B.C. Hydro, Capital One, A Community that Cares and Canadian Blood Services. AOY judge Harvey Carroll, VP marketing, North America of Labatt Breweries, called the campaign for Subaru a ‘breakthrough.’

‘It delivers well on the brief, and at the same time is consistent with, and even helps to develop, the unique character and personality of the car,’ he said.

Judge Sloan Dinning, director, brand and marketing communications at Vancity, called DDB’s Capital One campaign ‘a disruptive approach in a conservative industry,’ adding that DDB ‘executed on it brilliantly.’

The agency has consistently been in medal or finalist standing in this competition over the years, earning Gold three years running from 1999 to 2001 as Palmer Jarvis DDB and Silver last year. Its annual medal haul at international awards ceremonies has also been impressive. DDB Worldwide has all but mandated its agencies around the world to be in the top three in their markets.

Then again, maybe it’s just Frank.

Talking to Palmer about his philosophies on keeping creatives creative, earning clients’ trust and building a dynamic agency culture reveals why the agency, which he started as Trend Advertising in Vancouver 38 years ago, is one of the tops in the country.

Palmer says what he thinks, which comes in handy for both quotes and cues on his leadership. He retains a fierce passion for the business but recognizes that ‘it’s only advertising; we’re not brain surgeons here.’ And his infamous jokester persona plays a role in his unique leadership style. ‘I am a character,’ he says, laughing, then explains, ‘It’s about constantly trying to put a spirit inside the company and keep it alive and different.’

And he may also be prophetic. ‘Ten years ago, when we were nobodies, we decided that we wanted to be the best agency in Canada when it came to creative and awards,’ he says. ‘That was our goal. Everyone knew it and strove for it.’

Mission accomplished.


For a big, modern shop, DDB is rather basic and old-school in its approach to nurturing good creative. Alan Russell, CD of DDB in Vancouver (who has worked with the agency for about 20 years now), says rule one is simple: no mediocre work.

A peer review system called Co-Create (used through the DDB network) means that decisions on whether or not creative ideas are working are not the exclusive terrain of the CDs. ‘Creative teams put work up on cork boards and then invite individuals to look at it one at a time,’ Russell says. ‘You get the input of the whole department. It’s a very open and collaborative way of working, as opposed to some traditional agencies, which have creative directors who say either yes or no.’

Account services people also voice their opinions at an early stage of the process, as do occasional passersby. ‘We encourage people to go out on the street with their ads, to stop people on Robson Street and ask, ‘Hey, what do you think of this?’ If you get people laughing and reacting to it, it’s a litmus test for whether the ideas are working or not,’ says Russell.

Coupled with this approach is a focus on building a winning agency culture: training courses at DDB U, conferences in Beijing, creative retreats to Whistler, B.C., and the occasional Friday afternoon movie are all part of the agency’s commitment to keeping staff creative and content.

DDB U, for example, is a year-round program, started eight years ago, that puts staff through courses led by professors and lecturers to learn how to better work with clients, manage accounts and resolve conflict. ‘[We're] adding to their development,’ says Palmer. ‘People get tired and stale.’

Palmer also hints at plans to beef up the agency’s talent roster. ‘We’re embarking on a whole new talent attraction program,’ he says. ‘DDB wants to be the best employer in Canada when it comes to advertising agencies, [because] it all comes down to how you treat people.’

At the heart of this big agency are its upstart roots. ‘It’s funny, around town people still talk about us as Palmer Jarvis or PJ, even after all these years,’ says Russell, who as CD in the agency’s original Vancouver location has witnessed its various incarnations over the years. ‘We’ve definitely tried, in many ways, to stay small. The spirit of Palmer Jarvis was always entrepreneurial and had a lot of Frank behind it. It was kind of like we were the underdogs. I’d still like to think about us that way, even though we’ve got the label of a big agency.’


Less than 4% of Canadians give blood. But about 50% of them will need blood, or know someone who will at some point. DDB’s aim for Canadian Blood Services was to create a social movement and alter the way people think about blood and their role in donating – beyond a onetime pledge – as well as reach a new generation of donors. The strategy behind the platform, ‘The Beauty of Blood,’ was to build a strong emotional connection with potential donors and engage them on a more personal level.

The integrated campaign included TV, radio, print, DM and grassroots efforts. A national 30-second spot called ‘Carry’ featured a man carrying another man over his shoulder. Arriving at a crowded sidewalk, he ‘releases’ the man into the street, symbolizing a return to society and to life. The tagline explained: ‘Giving someone their life back. That’s the beauty of giving blood.’

For the direct mail execution, the agency mailed thank-you cards – actually three cards in one, to demonstrate that with one donation, three lives could be saved. A grassroots initiative distributed 500 donation cans to clinics and local businesses nationally. There was no donation slot, just a message that read, ‘Saving a life costs nothing but your time.’

And for World Blood Donor Day on June 14th, they enlisted the help of recording artists like Liberty Silver and Thelonious Monk III to record the original song ‘We Shine as One.’ In addition to a live performance, a recording was distributed to select radio stations and available for download on the org’s website.

After the TV spot aired, an Ipsos Reid poll showed an eight-point increase in awareness, with recall at 56%. As well, about 32% said the ad encouraged them to donate blood. The thank-you card resulted in a response rate of 6%.

The World Blood Donor Day event also exceeded expectations, and visits to were up 53% over the previous year. Moreover, the World Health Organization proclaimed the Canadian launch of World Blood Donor Day ‘the most successful country launch to date.’ Also notable: the platform has been embraced by all CBS offices across the country as a long-term approach.


Vancouver-based grassroots community org A Community that Cares approached DDB for help in combatting growing violence, especially involving teens in gangs. The budget was small – only $16,000 – but the impact had to be big.

The agency had two objectives: in the short term, to start a dialogue with teens to shift their ideas about gang life; in the long term, to get the attention of the public and politicians to see gang violence as an important issue.

With little existing research, DDB first conducted one-on-one sessions with current and past gang members (sometimes in their homes), the RCMP Integrated Anti-Gang Task Force, student counselors and crime journalists. They discovered that teens were most attracted to the perception of glamour and easy money in gangs. However, that was quickly replaced by the reality of running from police and violence from rival gangs and even their peers. This was the basis of the insight and resulting campaign: that joining a gang is like contracting a fatal disease.

A 30-second film aired on networks, cinema and YouTube showing smallpox, HIV and cancer cells morphing into gang members under a microscope. The underlying message: gang life kills. As well, the agency created fake gang recruitment posters advertising the website, where they could learn more about the reality of being in a gang.

Guerrilla outreach included stencilled phone numbers and the URL on bus stops, schoolyards and washrooms. When called, the phone numbers provided realistic audio recordings of crimes that took place at the callers’ locations. Fake recruitment posters in skateboard parks and community centres also played on this theme. Those who called the numbers displayed in the posters found out that the gang members had met with unsavoury outcomes. Actual spent bullet casings engraved with the URL were strewn around target locations such as skate parks and other hangouts, and were also distributed to major media outlets.

The campaign was covered by major networks including Global and CBC, as well as national newspapers, generating over seven million total impressions. It also earned one of the highest MRP (Media Rating Point) scores in the country with a cost per contact of $0.00270, a 3.8 tone of coverage measure and an overall MRP media score of 81%.


In 2006, after four years, the Power Smart branch of B.C. Hydro discontinued its coupon and discount program, which had encouraged the use of LED Christmas lights. It was judged that the price-conscious light market was completely tapped out. DDB’s challenge: spark interest in LED lights without price rebates or promotional offers.

The insight: Over Christmas, neighbours can become a wee bit competitive when it comes to decorating their homes. Therefore, the agency decided to show, quite literally, that LED lights could be just as effective as incandescent bulbs.

They secured a billboard in a high-traffic area of downtown Vancouver, and consulted with B.C. Hydro mechanical engineers and a UBC student engineer to help design a red-nosed reindeer using 1,500 white LED lights and six red ones. Accompanying the display was a bicycle which lit up the board when it was pedalled. For 24 hours a day over five days, B.C. Hydro employees and partners did just that, with each hour resulting in a donation to a local food bank.

Other executions included a portable transit shelter ad with a hand crank powering 1,800 LED lights. Also, Christmas trees with bicycle-powered lights were positioned in two Vancouver parks where holiday displays were held, and anyone visiting could pedal to light up the tree. This was supplemented by interactive displays, transit shelter ads and actual trees and a snowman dressed in LED lights.

B.C. Hydro doesn’t actually sell the LED lights themselves, so they measure success by how much shelf space LED holiday lights are given at retail. In December 2006, that had increased to 45.6% – up 7.4% from the previous year.

The campaign generated over 14 million impressions of editorial coverage on TV, in newspapers and online, valued roughly at $1 million. As well, Lower Mainland food banks received about $18,000 in donations thanks to the five-day pedal fest.


A relatively new player in the Canadian financial services playground, Capital One wanted to dramatically build brand awareness relative to the Big Five and online banks. The strategy was based on insight that while Canadians are loyal customers, they view the big five banks in rather unfavourable terms. Enter Capital One, the champion of credit card holders frustrated by big banks and high interest rates, a positioning that began with former AOR Lowe Roche’s ‘Hands in my pockets’ work.

DDB envisioned the big banks’ greed as a problem that called for pest control. The resulting creative included three 30-second TV spots featuring homes infested with ‘vermin’ – greedy, middle-aged bankers in various money-grubbing scenarios including rattling piggy banks and searching under couch cushions. Says the exterminator surveying the scene: ‘Yep, you’ve got bankers.’ He then goes on to explain the benefits of switching to Capital One.

The campaign also got results. The Canadian norm for the Millward-Brown Awareness Index (AI) is 5; two of the ‘Exterminator’ spots received AI scores of 9 and 8 respectively. Capital One also received high unaided brand awareness scores: an increase of 7% following the launch of the campaign (from 20% to 27%). Consideration increased by 4% (from 9% to 13%) – double the objective of 2%. In less than two years, brand awareness has gone from 0 to 91%. And, based on the campaign’s success, three new follow-up ads began running this fall.


In Canada, Subaru was far from a name brand vehicle. It was a niche player with about 1.5% of the overall automotive share, and suffered from low brand familiarity and low purchase intent. DDB had to develop a strategy that would give consumers a reason to consider the vehicle amid aggressive sales expectations, a hard-to-please dealer network, pressure to run U.S.-developed work, major budget restrictions and anxious clients that knew they needed a home-run campaign. Phew.

After much research, the agency discovered that the issue wasn’t satisfaction but brand presence. Many Canadians still linked the brand with Australian Paul Hogan, part of a Subaru Outback campaign that had been over for five years.

Focus groups turned into impromptu strategy sessions. Based on growing consumer acceptance of Japanese competitors like Toyota and Honda, respondents were asked whether they knew the brand was Japanese. Many didn’t (‘Since when?!’). It was a fact that immediately legitimized the brand. The agency decided to leverage the benefits that consumers associated with Japanese cars – quality, reliability and durability – and added another to the list: driving performance, normally associated with European vehicles. The campaign became clear: show others, namely engineers from a German car company, as envious of this new Japanese offering.

In the cinema-turned-TV spot launched in August, four German engineers joy-riding in the Subaru Impreza to the tune of ‘Amadeus’ are scolded by the head engineer (in German) once they return to HQ. The announcer chimes in, ‘It’s the Japanese car the Germans wish they’d made.’

The campaign was supported by banners, site takeovers and rich online media. The microsite ( offered a behind-the-scenes look at German engineers exploring the new Impreza. OOH appeared in major Canadian markets. For example, copy from the fictitious Berlin Engineering magazine exclaims, ‘Mein Gott!’ in response to the new Impreza. The envy-filled tagline is placed beneath an image of the car.

A targeted DM piece continues the story. Arriving at consumers’ homes, it looked like an authentic letter from overseas. Inside, it’s a letter from Gunter, a German engineer who must clear his conscience by writing about his admiration for the Impreza. Gunter also includes personal photos (in a Fotomat envelope) full of handwritten notes detailing the virtues of the car.

As for those skeptical dealers, they embraced the campaign when it was unveiled at the National Dealer Meeting in July. They (along with the brand’s execs) have been unanimous in claiming that the 2008 Impreza launch is as good as or better than any campaign the company has produced in its 35-plus years in Canada.

Based on the strength of the launch campaign, early pre-orders exceeded expectations. Sales of the new Impreza are up 78% over the same period last year, and the most recent figures available at press time reveal that sales for September are up 21.9%.

Total headcount: 328 (Toronto: 144, Montreal: 8,

Vancouver: 143,

Edmonton: 30, Victoria: 3)

New hires: None

Big accomplishment: ‘My team. I’ve had the great privilege of working with some incredibly talented people this year, and I’m very pleased with what they’ve accomplished for our agency and clients,’ says Palmer.