Less pick-up, more ROI

Heroes & Villains' Emma Hancock makes the case for Canadian-made creative.

By Emma Hancock

Made in Australia. It’s the first thing I noticed when I arrived Down Under after being transplanted as an expat two years ago. As an island with a population one-third less than Canada, it would be understandable if they imported most things. But they go out of their way to domestically manufacture as much as possible. The same goes for their advertising.

Leading up to my first big campaign in Oz I expected the client to ask, “Have we seen the U.S. work yet?” It never happened. Apparently Australians are not interested in repurposing ads from other places. “International work tends to function at the ‘lowest common insight’ level, designed to track well even if it doesn’t shoot the lights out,” explains Colin Jowell, partner at Sydney-based agency UDKU.

Americans also continue to create homegrown work thanks to hefty budgets. But what about using international work, particularly if it’s from just north of the border? I asked Adam Reeves, CD at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, who replied, “No one has ever asked me to look at the Canadian work, probably because they always run the U.S. work. But then again, no one has asked me to look at the Macedonian work either.” Not all that surprising but pretty disappointing.

Here at home it feels like we’re creating fewer homegrown ads. The last time I worked for a multinational, a good part of my day was spent upholding the benefits of Canadian creative. Unbelievably, foreign work was routinely secretly handed to the client by management from the other lead agency, with the precarious allure of “Hey, it’s already in the can and it’s almost free.” Everyone knows this kind of practice makes more money for the agency in the short term, but what about the long term?

“When creative as pick-up is mandated, it erodes whatever brand voice has been established in Canada, which means we have to invest more back into the brand message, eroding any cost savings,” says veteran CD Gary Westgate. So why do it?

“The power belongs to the CFO. So the decision to pick up creative from another country is the CMO feeling procurement’s pressure to save [every] penny, especially those who can’t project the direct added value they will generate short term,” explains Anne-Marie Leclair, partner and VP of strategy at Lg2 in Montreal.

If the decision really comes down to money, then here’s another way to look at it: Let’s say you’re a company in Canada that has $5 billion in sales and you’re torn between whether to use a cheap foreign ad or create something original, which will cost an extra $2 million. If those Canadian-made ads perform even a bit better (perhaps because they’ve made a deeper connection with the consumer) and lead to a 1% increase in sales, that could generate $50 million in increased revenue and$7 million in incremental profit.

But what if it’s about more than costs? Jowell’s view is this: “No one got fired for importing an ad…it’s a safe option.” But is it really the safe option – or just the politically-correct one? As Michael Adams, president of the Environics Group of Companies and author of bestseller Fire and Ice, puts it, “Most Canadian units of multinational companies are forced to pick up U.S. creative by their U.S. masters, who do not appreciate the differences between the two markets.”

Will the pressure to pick up foreign creative eventually kill our desire to shoot for the stars? In my correspondence with George Lois, he reminded me that “the solution to each new problem or challenge should begin with a blank canvas and an open mind, not with the nervous borrowings of other people’s mediocrities.”

So what are the implications for the future of the ad industry in Canada when cheap foreign work becomes the new normal? If we’re going to thrive, we all have to believe that Canada can deliver on a world stage – and that this matters. We have to believe that “Made in Canada” actually makes things better. As the late Michael Paul, former CD of Dentsu Canada, used to say, “Perhaps the greatest risk is not taking any risk at all.”

Emma Hancock is a founding partner of Toronto-based Heroes & Villains Advertising.