Five Canadian creative game-changers

The past 20 years have gone by in a blur.

The past 20 years have gone by in a blur. When I first arrived from the U.S. I saw an industry that took a fairly myopic view; some of the best agencies didn’t seem to care what was going on beyond our borders. A big idea then was a moving or funny TV spot. Today a big idea from an ad agency might not be an ad at all – it’s whatever solves the problem, maybe a coat or a play. Old rules are flying out the window and creativity is booming. Recent years have seen Canada at podiums around the world.

I was pleased to be asked to identify a list of top ad moments as strategy marks its 20th. I will no doubt do the head slap later (“How could I forget THAT?”), so I’m sorry in advance. But what fun to look back all the way to 1989.

Made you look: Weather Network, 1999

Could the best print of the last two decades be in the outdoor space?

My favourite print breaks its physical boundaries and acknowledges its surroundings. Back in 1992 it took just one word on a billboard to tell Canada McDonald’s was going beyond burgers for the first time. “Pizza” (with two golden arches flipped 90 degrees for zeds) is an all-time classic. The Weather Network’s breakthrough OOH campaign made the sky the medium. Billboards pointed up, next to lines like “Told you so” and “Written, directed and produced by God.” Ultimately, two boards across the street from each other formed quotation marks on the iconic Weather Network yellow, framing the sky.
Ten years later, the heavily awarded James Ready outdoor used the medium in another whiplash-inducing way, selling off the majority of the billboard to keep their beer cheap.

Integration schooling: ‘Bud Light Institute,’ 2001

Television dominates the best-of list, and picking a single best is nearly impossible. Vim’s “Prisoner,” Canadian Tire’s “Bike Story,” Carling Black Label’s “The Legend is Black,” Special K’s “Resolution,” A&P Canada’s “Fresh Obsessed,” Molson Canadian’s “Rant,” Eaton’s “Aubergine,” Familiprix’s “A-ha!,”  Viagra’s “Bleep” and the Breast Cancer Society of Canada’s “Cam’s Breast Exam” – all world-class, as great today as the day they ran. But for sheer comedic brilliance and PR- and awards-worthy 360 executions, the “Bud Light Institute” gets top billing.

Launched with classified ads for the position of CEO and Head Ferret Trainer, the TV campaign was always augmented with extras (day-after-Valentine’s cards, CDs, etc.), and we all looked forward to seeing the next insane round. The zenith: “History” explained that the Institute invented the Tupperware party, shoe sales, feminism and 24-hour online shopping to free up time for the guys to have a cold refreshing Bud Light.

Canada’s digital Rorschach test: Mini’s ‘Inkblot,’ 2004

At a time when most online marketing was treated as direct mail, “Inkblot” was Canada’s first digi-effort to engage an audience at a brand level. Normally, to get information from a prospective customer you offer an incentive or a contest; what Inkblot offered was real entertainment and interaction.

The Inkblot psych exam was a unique approach to a fairly traditional CRM brief. The piece started with relaxing music and a soothing voiceover. Viewers then saw four inkblots and were asked for a response. The first three were nonsensical and the fourth was Mini-shaped with options to select “makes me wonder about trunk space” or “makes me wonder how fast it goes from 0 to 60.” The piece took almost five minutes to accomplish what could have been done in five seconds. “Inkblot” and subsequent Mini digital work (“Black Sheep,” “Dominatrix,” “Quartet”) redefined consumer engagement, winning Gold Cyber Lions in 2005, 2006 and 2008.

Changing the face of advertising: Dove ‘Evolution,’ 2006

With two Cannes Grand Prix and well over half a billion views, Dove “Evolution” may stand as Canada’s most famous ad. It was the right message at the right time in the right space, putting the issue of women’s poor self-esteem at the hands of the media and ad industry front and centre.

The climax of Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” it prompted countless brands to consider cause marketing, one of today’s most notable trends. Equally, it underscored the obvious benefits of taking storytelling online, without a 30-second time restriction or TV media budget. Demonstrating the true potential of YouTube, “Evolution” is as famous for its spectacular ROI as its powerful message. Every client wanted an “Evolution” with little understanding of the very different rules for online success.

The conversation it was designed to start has yet to die down, and the ad world has evolved dramatically in the three years since.

Big ideas beyond advertising: ‘15 Below Project,’ 2008

The client was homeless people. The medium was a coat. The Salvation Army distributed thousands of these innovative coats, easily insulated with newspaper in winter months and folded into a backpack or pillow as needed. On eBay, a celebrity auction of 15 signed coats (Elton John, Robert Plant, R.E.M., Jon Stewart) raised funds to make more.

’15 Below’ is what can happen with a media-neutral starting point and a whatever-it-takes philosophy. It’s also testimony to the merits of creative collaboration beyond the agency’s walls: an ad agency plus a top fashion designer delivered something exceptional.

The best people in our business – the ones who will have the most relevance to clients well into the future – are not ad-makers: they’re problem-solvers.

Canadian ad timeline

Canadian Tire “Bike Story” (Doner Schur Peppler)
Carling Black Label “The Legend is Black” (MacLaren:Lintas)
Life Savers “Good Times Roll” (Carder Gray DDB Needham)

Nissan “Manifesto” (ChiatDay)
ROM “Bug Your Parents To Come To The Museum” (Geoffrey B. Roche and Partners)


Dove “Litmus” (Ogilvy)
Lovecraft “Job Titles” (Two Cities Advertising)
McDonald’s “Pizza” (Cossette)


Delta Faucets “Call for a Brochure” (MacLaren:Lintas)
Kodak “Shoot” (Y&R)
Molson “I Am Canadian” (MacLaren:Lintas)
Nestlé Nescafé “Puts you in a Café State of Mind” (McCann Erickson)
Red Dog “You Are Your Own Dog” (BBDO)

Costa Rica Tourism “180 Degrees” (BBDO)
Maple Leaf Foods “Big Stick Bologna” (Roche Macaulay & Partners Advertising)

Chrysler Minivan “Snowball” (BBDO)
Fruit of the Loom “Stuck” (Leo Burnett)


Timex Indiglo “Blue Dot” (Ogilvy)
Visa “Monkey” (Leo Burnett) 

7 Up “Tribe” (BBDO)
Krinos “Foods From The Cradle of Civilization” (The Holmes Partnership)
Special K “Fat,” “Resolution” (Leo Burnett)

A&P “We’re Fresh Obsessed – ‘Beef’” (Rethink)
Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup “Never Bored” (Ammirati Puris Lintas)
Weather Network “Told you so” & “As seen on TV” (Holmes and Lee)
Zellers “Skirt” (Ogilvy)


Eaton’s “Aubergine” (Ammirati Puris Lintas)
Molson Canadian “The Rant” (Bensimon Byrne)
Playland “Turnstile” (Rethink)
Toronto Symphony Orchestra “Afraid” (Pirate)

Clorox “Dog Tired”& “Bad Aim” (DDB)
Molson “Wheelchair” (Taxi)
Sunlight “Go Ahead, Get Dirty” (Ammirati Puris Lintas)

Milestone Radio – Flow 93.5 “Silhouette” (Taxi)

BC Lottery Corporation “Shopping Channel for the Super Rich” (TBWAVancouver)
Bud Light Institute “History” (Downtown Partners)
Familiprix “A-ha!” (Bos)
Irving Mainway “Cruisin’ to Win Contest – ‘Randall’” (Target)

Ikea “Rug” (Zig)
Mini “Inkblot” (Taxi)
Science World “Boardroom” (Rethink)

Leo Burnett website (Arc Worldwide, Toronto)
Pfizer Viagra “Bleep” (Taxi)
Telus “Balloons” (Taxi)
Vim “Prisoner” (Zig)


Breast Cancer Society of Canada “Cam’s Breast Exam” (Zig)
Knorr “F Word” (DDB) “See more side effects” (Taxi) 


Dove “Evolution” (Ogilvy)
Random House “The Gum Thief” (Crush)
Vancouver Sculpture Biennale “Art You Can Feel” (Rethink)

“15 Below Project” (Taxi)
Dove “Body & Soul” (Ogilvy)
Holiday Inn “Long Goodnight” (John St.)
Post Cereals “Diamond Shreddies” (Ogilvy)

James Ready “Share Our Billboard” (Leo Burnett)

Jump to:

Ken Wong: 20-year review – The marketer’s view

Hugh Dow: Beyond transformation – 20 years of media

Frank Palmer: Frank’s big five – The ad biz revolution

Covering 20 years: The strategy cover challenge winner and finalists