Cannes Special: Beyond advertising

Canadian agencies are creating more than just campaigns, expanding into everything from shopping experiences to architecture to office environments.

Of all the hazards involved in a job in advertising – say, depression brought on by demanding clients, or repetitive strain injury, or perhaps cirrhosis of the liver – it’s usually not necessary to wear the protective gear of a construction worker. But when Chris Staples finally saw his work for the new FreshCo grocery store coming to life last year, he had a hard hat on and caution in his eyes, as the sounds of hammers, saws and drills buzzed around him.
That’s because he and Vancouver-based Rethink Communications were straying far outside the usual domain of an ad agency. And as he walked through a mock store created in Orangeville, ON., that was built to test the look and feel of the new Sobeys-owned discount grocery player (which now has 59 stores in Ontario), the hard-hatted Staples took in the location’s entire graphic vocabulary that his company produced, from the in-store signage, to the private label packaging, grocery bags, gift cards and even staff uniforms.
“Typically, a client will ask you for a name and a logo and a few brochures,” says Staples, partner at Rethink. “The work rarely gets into the physical world of store design – and definitely not into things like uniforms.”
But there were bumps along the way, as Rethink navigated that physical world.
“One of the key parts of the FreshCo brand is this really bright, almost fluorescent green colour,” notes Staples. “It’s a tricky thing: if you go too fluorescent it can look like a used-car lot. You have to get it just right, and lighting really affects how colour looks in a store, so there were a lot of discussions: is the colour exactly right? Does the lighting need to change? We repainted the test store a couple of times.”
If that’s an unfamiliar challenge for an ad house, agencies across Canada are facing a lot of them as they seek to flex their creative muscles and help out their own bottom line by taking greater roles in shepherding clients’ brands. Some, like Rethink, Toronto-based Juniper Park, and Montreal’s Sid Lee, are articulating brands in physical space through store design; others like Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) Canada are sometimes moving away from pure advertising in favour of creating new ways for their clients to offer value to consumers.
CP+B recently developed a web-based tool for its client Tourism Toronto that was designed to help visitors more deeply appreciate the city. “People who live here, love it,” says Shelley Brown, CEO of CP+B Canada. “But as a visitor, it can be a difficult city to consume. So what can we do about that? How could we actually go about changing the experience – as opposed to doing an ad that says, ‘No, we have great restaurants! Honest, we do!’”
The Toronto Trending tool, which rolled out in May, aggregates comments about the city and other information in real time, so tourists (and locals) can see what people are saying on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and elsewhere about restaurants, clubs or interesting neighbourhoods.
“That’s not in any sense an ad,” notes Brown. “It’s simply taking the life of the city and making it more accessible to somebody who might want to visit.”
While the raison d’ être of ad agencies is communication, more of them are developing projects that don’t necessarily have communication at their core. “The driving force is, ‘Let’s actually change something about the world, let’s provide something to people’ – and then we may indeed use communication to make sure they know about it and understand something about it, but the actual core isn’t the ad anymore,” she says.
According to Brown, agencies traditionally haven’t asked themselves, “‘How do we actually provide something to people that they will find inherently useful, because it will change how they think, how they behave, what they do, how they spend their money.’ That seems to us like a really fascinating change that’s happening in the industry overall.”
Juniper Park, a subsidiary of BBDO Worldwide, is also branching out into unfamiliar areas. In April, Denver-based PepsiCo asked the Toronto agency (which has developed big programs for the company on brands like SunChips and Lay’s) to help design the look of its 26,000-square foot headquarters of the new Global Nutrition Group.
“The goal,” explains Juniper Park’s president Jill Nykoliation, “was to create a space that immediately telegraphed, on a visceral level, the vision and culture” of the division, which includes PepsiCo brands Quaker and Tropicana.
“We were really setting the visual language for the enduring story of what that brand is about,” says Nykoliation. Visitors to the office space are greeted by an explosion of colour: mural-size pictures of orange groves, an outdoor marketplace in the developing world, a close-up shot of a trio of grains, animals in a field, and a multicultural sampling of beaming children. The agency also consulted on textures and placement of visual artefacts within the office.
It’s work that is made easier by the central role – literally – that design takes in Juniper Park’s culture. When the agency relocated to its new downtown office on Adelaide Street West, its team of about nine designers was placed in the middle of the second floor. “That’s where the activity congregates,” observes Nykoliation. “The way designers think about architecting a brand for its longevity, that’s really the soul of what we do – and then the advertising guys have to put a timely activation to it.”
Gannon Jones, the CMO of PepsiCo’s Global Nutrition Group (and one of Juniper Park’s biggest fans), explains his appreciation for the agency: “Juniper Park creates brands, not campaigns. Creating rich brand narratives – the story, imagery and ethos of a brand –  coupled with their strong design discipline, allows their work to go well beyond what traditional agencies are tasked to do.”
If there’s one Canadian firm grabbing attention around the world for going beyond the traditional purview of an agency, it would have to be Montreal-based Sid Lee.
Two years ago, the local architects Jean Pelland and Martin Leblanc shuttered their firm Nomade Architecture to create Sid Lee Architecture, an independently owned company whose offices, nevertheless, are integrated within the main Sid Lee operation. “We’re in the same environment, so when you go get coffee, or walk in the corridors, or print stuff at the copier, you mix, you exchange – you see people from different branches,” says Leblanc. “We’re in a campus, really. It’s like a university.”
“That makes quite a bit of difference,” suggests Pelland. “That’s very common now in design universities that offer design programs and architecture programs. The way to go about it is mixing and matching all these different professionals, so they benefit from one another, and share different point of views. We happen to have that in a commercial environment, which is extremely relevant to people. When we hire people now it becomes part of our pitch to them: they will, in our environment, meet people that they wouldn’t have a chance to meet in any other architectural firm.
“There’s quite a great deal of artists that work at Sid Lee, so it’s really nice for architects to mingle and get a different taste of what
is creativity.”
Last December, that team of artists took the wraps off a long-term project that was initiated when Leblanc and Pelland still ran Nomade.
Bota Bota is a five-storey floating spa, anchored at the foot of Rue McGill in the Old Port of Montreal, that had been an old ferryboat. And while the project originated with the architecture practice, the Sid Lee communications agency was brought on to market the spa, with some assistance from the company’s video production arm, Jimmy Lee.
Around the same time, Sid Lee Architecture unveiled its work on the St. Catherine Street flagship store for Vidéotron. Once merely a cable company that ran so-called “dumb pipes” into people’s homes, Vidéotron now offers a variety of ways to access broadband data, including 3G wireless service and cable internet.
But how best to illustrate the transformation into a dynamic company that can bring the world to its customers? “They didn’t come to us with a given program, they just said, ‘We think we need to have a flagship, we’re at that point in our company, we want to launch new products, we need a better platform, a better space to explain what Vidéotron is,’” says Leblanc. “Sid Lee’s work was to come up with this whole idea of what it means to be a flagship for Vidéotron.” Sid Lee Architecture took it from there.

“With Vidéotron, what you’re selling is bandwidth, whether it’s your phone, cable TV or internet,” says Leblance. “How do you experience what bandwidth means for you, and how can it change your experience? The store was about how Vidéotron can offer you the universe of bandwidth product.”
Sid Lee Architecture chose to depict bandwidth metaphorically, with a visualization of Montreal’s famous street energy. The store’s outside curtain wall façade serves as a blank backdrop for a series of lines that represent the energy on St. Catherine Street. Drop by in the morning, when foot traffic is sparse, and the lines are moving slowly; return in the evening, and the lines are buzzing with activity, like the street itself.
“By themselves, the lines don’t seem to mean anything,” acknowledges Leblanc, “it’s when you enter the store that you can see the universe of what’s possible, you can see what bandwidth can give you.” The store is a riotous showpiece, with TVs and interactive screens, for the potential of broadband.
The physical location, in other words, embodies the new Vidéotron brand. “When you talk about a brand, which is mostly what’s happening in an agency, they ask, ‘What is that brand? What are the values related to it?’” says Leblanc.
“I think architecture and space to make the experience palpable, believable, is an asset for communications agencies. The idea of it is: ‘We should bring that brand to that space.’ But it’s much more than putting a logo or the colour of the company on the wall. It’s: ‘What’s the experience? How do you live that brand?’”
Whether it’s crafting a store experience, shaping a brand identity or developing new tools for consumers, agencies on the leading edge are embracing their metamorphosis. 
“Advertising was an interruption,” notes CP+B’s Brown. “We deliberately set out to find ways to interrupt you in your daily life with our message. And the bargain is we would make it entertaining or interesting enough that you would not change the channel. That model now I think is over, and now what we have to do is figure out: ‘What can we do for people? What can we provide them that is meaningful?’ Because people will avoid the ad if they can. And they can, and they are. So you simply cannot spend your way through any more. You’re going to have to actually provide more.”