How agencies renewed support for small businesses

"Shop local" was a rallying cry in 2020, and several shops used their skills to keep momentum going during new lockdowns.

Dropped Big Bills_9x16 (1)

For small businesses, the challenges they’d been facing were apparent throughout 2020. With these businesses already bearing the brunt of pandemic restrictions, renewed lockdown measures amid a second wave prompted several ad agencies to develop initiatives to once again address challenges for local businesses in their communities.

The renewed support for all things local rang particularly true to ad agencies in Toronto, many of which started out (or still consider themselves) small businesses. Zulu Alpha Kilo staged a strike for “out of work” store mannequins, pointing out how lockdown restrictions hit small businesses unfairly harder than big-box competition. The Local Collective worked with the Roncesvalles BIA to show residents what the main street would look like if all its stores became “for lease,” with a direct call-out to the likes of Amazon.

In addition to a wave of organic press coverage, Local Collective co-founder, president and CCO Matt Litzinger tells strategy that the campaign resulted in a 900% increase in post engagement on the Roncy BIA’s Instagram channel and a nearly 800% increase in growth rate. Almost 1,000 new followers subscribed to the RVBIA’s Instagram because of the campaign.

Outside of awareness, there have also been more direct efforts to help businesses keep the figurative lights on. Ahead of the holidays, No Fixed Address created holiday gift tags that cost an eye-popping $20.20 – a price customers may be willing to handle since sales of the tags support more than 100 businesses that are part of the Riverside BIA – the Toronto neighbourhood where NFA is located.

The gift tag idea came from NFA president Jordan Doucette walking through Toronto’s east end in the run up to the Ontario-wide lockdown on Boxing Day and realizing the existential threat such measures could have on the businesses in the area.

Rather than once again telling consumers to shop local, the tags provide a dual benefit of not only supporting these businesses, but also giving the shopper who purchased the tag the recognition they may want, Doucette notes.

“The one thing I take away from 2020 is the ability to use creativity to help solve problems. It was such an apparent problem and one we knew was going to impact us in the future,” she says. “We said, ‘It doesn’t take much effort on our behalf to bring this to life and help others.’”

And many agencies are still putting their skills to work behind the scenes. After an agency-wide creative mash-up last spring – in which staff were tasked with tackling a brief about a business or idea it would create to benefit entrepreneurs – BIMM established “Project Helium.”

The project – which allows businesses to apply online and answer questions about why they started their business and how COVID has impacted it – enables businesses to receive free creative services from the agency and the opportunity to be promoted on the initiative’s Instagram and Facebook pages.

For instance, BIMM promoted Alliston-based Peake Barbecue’s story on social and how the establishment pivoted to takeout after revenue declined by 70% in mid-March. Peake’s is described as like “going to a friend’s place for dinner,” but due to the pandemic, it will take “at least a year to dig out of” its financial situation.

“We, as an industry, spend so much of our day helping people who can afford marketing. But the people who actually need it the most can’t afford marketing, nor do they know much about marketing at all,” says Roehl Sanchez, CCO and partner at BIMM.

“There seem to be a gap, and although many agencies do things to win awards, this is really trying to help another small business, being one ourselves, in any way we can.”