Ideas man: Yellow Pages Group’s Bob Nunn

Bob Nunn uses non-traditional tactics to keep Yellow Pages relevant, 99 years after its launch

Bob Nunn uses non-traditional tactics to keep Yellow Pages relevant, 99 years after its launch

Bob Nunn remembers his first day at the Yellow Pages Group well. It was Aug. 14, 2003 – the day of the ‘Northeast Blackout,’ as it’s now known. With no access to lights, computers or even phones, Nunn had an opportunity to indulge in one of his favourite activities: dreaming up big ideas. He envisioned gathering as many of YPG’s 400,000 advertisers as possible under one roof, to demonstrate that YPG’s success is that they’re all in it together. When he first pitched the idea, his higher-ups thought their new Toronto-based director of brand and user experience was crazy.

‘The price tag was huge,’ says Nunn’s boss, Jean-Pascal Lion, VP marketing at

Montreal-based YPG, who laughs as he recalls being shocked by Nunn’s seemingly outlandish suggestion. But Nunn was able to make a strong case for organizing a thank you event for the advertisers, and quickly won internal approval by proving there could be metrics applied to such an exercise to gauge its effectiveness. It didn’t hurt that YPG’s CEO, Marc Tellier, is a big advocate of taking risks. ‘If you give him an idea, he says, ‘Make it bigger,” says Nunn.

Nunn’s vision came to fruition last fall in the form of a year-long ’99 ways to say thank you’ campaign, developed with Toronto-based agency The Hive, which was positioned to celebrate YPG’s 99th year in business. Invitation-only events at arenas in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto featured performances by Jay Leno and the Barenaked Ladies, while Quebec advertisers were entertained by comedian Mario Jean and singer Daniel Bélanger in Montreal. When asked if YPG plans to do something on such a broad scale again, Lion chuckles: ‘Eventually, or something else. He has lots of ideas, my friend Bob.’

Nunn, a self-described ‘brand mechanic,’ was drawn to YPG because he saw the opportunity to make a big impact. The seasoned ad man, who’s woven his way from agency to client side at the likes of BBDO, Manchu Wok, Doner Canada and Firestone Canada over the years, has seen the rise and fall of the interruption model of mass media advertising, and is inspired by brands that have been built without it. He points to the success of massive brands like Starbucks, Google and YouTube, which have all achieved iconic status largely through word of mouth and by delivering unique brand experiences. ‘ is just crossing the 10 million unique visitor mark – that’s a lot of interaction with my product,’ says Nunn. He felt he could make a big difference at YPG by improving its relevance and maximizing the synergy between its print, online and mobile offerings.

One of his early efforts on the mobile front was the 2005 guerrilla launch of HelloYellow, a free, voice-activated mobile search application. It appeals to drivers searching for local businesses from their cars, so Nunn and his team, which included Montreal-based AOR Cossette, crafted a street effort that entailed yellow-clad promo teams at Esso stations around the Greater Toronto Area giving out free gas top-ups. ‘It’s very contextual – 75% of our ad spend goes on proven methods,’ Nunn explains. ‘With the other 25%, we get a little crazy.’

HelloYellow is now being transitioned to Yellow Pages 411. Instead of dialing a dedicated HelloYellow phone number, seekers will now receive a prompt when they call 411, asking if they’d like to use the free Yellow Pages service that will allow them to find YPG-listed merchants. The transition has already been made in Western Canada in partnership with Telus, with a supporting awareness campaign by Cossette’s Toronto office. Nunn says the shift to 411 makes sense for YPG, because it already owns the online people-finder Canada 411.

Since Yellow Pages offers mobile applications as well as – now one of the top 10 most-visited sites in Canada – Nunn felt it was important to expand the brand’s identity beyond simply a directory. He spearheaded the launch of the YPG ‘Find Engine’ tagline, which aims to embody the key brand attribute of ‘finding’ to make it relevant across newer Yellow Pages platforms.

‘The beauty of the brand is that it’s associated with something very precise – a directory,’ says Lion. ‘The difficulty is that the minute we play in other fields beyond directories, it becomes a challenge to communicate other brand attributes. This is how, very creatively, Bob has developed ways to play with the brand. It can be associated with more than purely directories.’

Taking it a step further, Nunn, along with higher-ups including Lion and Tellier, rewrote the company’s mission statement last year. The resulting mandate – to find the best seller for each buyer – is perfectly aligned with the new ‘Find Engine’ tagline.

Nunn explains that people using his product most often have something very specific in mind – they’re not just searching for fun. ‘It’s the finding that drives us,’ he says.

To arrive at the new slogan and mission statement, YPG invested heavily in market research, including four years of working with focus groups, and some very hands-on feedback-gathering tactics. ‘We [Nunn and Lion] were out delivering phone books door to door in Vancouver. You learn from that,’ says Nunn, adding that many people wanted to make sure it was an official YellowPages, not a knock-off. ‘Online is growing and exciting, but I was struck by how important the print books remain to people, and how appreciative so many were to receive them.’

The Yellow Pages brand isn’t the only ‘find’ tool in YPG’s arsenal; in 2006 the company acquired Trader Canada, which publishes over 100 classified ad-based publications, including Auto Trader and the Bargain Finder. Nunn opted to focus first on the Trader jewel, Auto Trader. Its AOR before the takeover was Toronto-based John St., and Nunn wanted to see what they could do. ‘We wanted to rejuvenate the brand,’ he says, but he wasn’t bowled over by the agency’s initial work – he like the strategy, but not the creative.

John St. knew it would have to work hard to keep the business from going to YPG’s AOR, Cossette, so it treated its next meeting with Nunn like a new business pitch. The resulting ‘Come meet your match’ positioning, which played on the concept of online dating, was exactly what Nunn was looking for, and John St. kept the business.

Nunn’s ad-savvy and relevance-driven connection approach also affects his agency partners. Arthur Fleischmann, president of John St., says Nunn’s ability to rattle off details about ground-breaking campaigns from around the world raises the bar for his agencies. ‘Knowledgeable clients are the best kind,’ says Fleischmann, adding that Nunn’s excitement about the ad business is contagious. ‘Often, you only see that kind of passion in the young and naïve. He’s earned his stripes and still maintains a really fresh, energetic passion for the business.’

Next on Nunn’s agenda, YPG has quietly begun rolling out a new product that allows advertisers to include video content on their ads. Dubbed YellowTube, it will allow restaurants, for example, to post virtual tours of their offerings to entice potential customers. ‘Once it’s sufficiently populated, we’ll start advertising it,’ says Nunn. With Nunn’s penchant for the

non-traditional and freedom to ‘go a little crazy’ with his spend, the YellowTube launch effort will likely find you soon.