SAAQ’s Patrice Letendre goes for cutting edge creativity

Playing the long game, the Marketer of the Year uses shock and humour to make Quebec roads safer.

Patrice Letendre Portrait 2020 IMG_0394 (002)

This feature was first published in strategy’s Winter 2022 issue. Every day this week, we published one of the five Marketers of the Year for 2021. ICYMI, here are the other four MOYs: BMO’s Catherine RocheCanadian Tire’s Eva Salem, Arterra’s Andrea Hunt and Sobeys’ Sandra Sanderson.

By Danny Kucharsky

In 2021, students at Quebec universities were asked to sample car crash-flavoured potato chips that combined the taste of rubber, metal, blood and airbags. It was all part of a cannabis impaired driving campaign by the Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ), which is responsible for promoting road safety in the province.

The goal was to “take away the taste for driving stoned,” says Patrice Letendre, strategic advisor at the SAAQ, which is an important consideration since 21% of drivers killed in road accidents in Quebec from 2015 to 2019 had cannabis in their bloodstream.

Letendre has a track record in creating – alongside Lg2 – similar cutting-edge, internationally recognized campaigns that have helped make Quebec roads safer. Along with increased police surveillance, the PSAs spearheaded by Letendre have helped play a role in decreasing the number of accident victims on Quebec roads by 35% from 2016 to 2020, even as the number of vehicles on the road continues to increase.

Letendre notes that the last two years have had a major impact on the SAAQ. In the early days of the pandemic, the Quebec government asked all ministries to temporarily halt advertising to make room for pandemic awareness campaigns. Once marketing resumed, Letendre realized that COVID-19 had led to changes in driving behaviour and so he shifted the SAAQ’s strategy to focus on road safety problems caused by the pandemic, including excessive speed and distraction.

“Police told us they were seeing an increase in speeding because there were fewer cars and there was stress over closed schools, working from home, parents in long-term care homes, unemployment and financial problems,” he says. And with children returning to school in September 2020, more frazzled parents would be driving their kids, especially since many older school bus drivers weren’t returning to work. “We thought there may be a speed problem in school zones.”

Living Radar 1
Research has shown parents tend to speed as soon as they’ve dropped off their children, even though they’re aware of the 30-kilometre maximum speed limit in school zones. To motivate parents to slow down, Lg2 – which has worked with the SAAQ since 2012 – came up with the idea of a “Living Radar.” For the campaign, children were shown as potential accident victims, with backpacks sporting digital radars showing drivers how fast they were going.

“It was a wild success,” says Letendre, adding that SAAQ received requests for information from road safety authorities in Japan and several European countries about how they could use the living radar system in their markets.

“It brings prestige to Quebec to see that what we’re doing is attracting attention from around the world,” he says.

Another speed-related campaign, launched in June 2021, featured two singers calling upon people to “Partez plus tôt” (leave earlier) so that they wouldn’t be in such a rush while driving.

“We want people to say it’s not normal to go over the speed limit. We’re saying to people that if you leave earlier, you’ll be able to drive slower. If you take the time to watch a TV series on Netflix, and take your time to do a lot of other things, why don’t you take your time on the road?”

Although Letendre has been at the SAAQ since 1991, where he began his career as a researcher, it is in the last 15 years that he has been at the helm of its advertising campaigns. He has so far led the creation of 156 ads for SAAQ.

Letendre’s educational background makes him ideal for a job that combines road safety and marketing: he wrote his thesis on road safety while completing his Masters in Geography at the Université de Sherbrooke and has an MBA in marketing from Université Laval.

Leave earlier 6
He made use of that expertise in 2012, when he wrote the Report on Automobile Advertising Guidelines, which established Canadian rules to prohibit ads that present reckless, dangerous or prohibited road safety practices. Provincial governments and representatives from the ad and auto industries participated in the report.

Aside from winning numerous advertising industry awards, Letendre has been recognized internally for campaigns focused on impaired or distracted driving that have succeeded in changing driver behaviour. In 2013, he won the Zenith Grand Prize for Excellence for Communicator of the Year, given annually to a Quebec government employee.

In his marketing role, Letendre proposes advertising strategies, evaluates media plans and advertising concepts suggested by Lg2, monitors campaign budgets and participates in all stages of production and on post-campaign evaluations. His road safety strategic communications department team numbers 10 and is part of the SAAQ’s 55-person communications and PR department.

The SAAQ’s advertising budget, unchanged since 2007 at $5 million annually, is increasing to $6.5 million this year as it increases its investment in digital and social media.

After almost 20 years of focusing on the dangers of texting while driving, Letendre recently shifted SAAQ’s strategy to show there are other forms of distracted driving.

“When you think about all kinds of things while driving, you’re susceptible to having an accident because you’re not concentrating,” he says.

In “Lavage concentré” (focused washing), launched in September 2021, drivers were called upon to meditate and clear their minds of jumbled thoughts while in a car wash, so that they would be free to concentrate on driving. Another TV spot featured a woman saying that while she was thinking of all kinds of things while driving, she did not see the pedestrian she hit. “Now I don’t think about anything else,” says the woman in the spot.

Letendre notes that while SAAQ campaigns have played a role in improving road safety in Quebec, the success is also shared by legislators and police. “It’s a combination of awareness, legislation and control.”

Improvements in road safety can take years to be seen and it is hard to measure the direct impact of a single SAAQ campaign, which is in sharp contrast to commercial brand marketing programs.

However, Letendre doesn’t doubt that the organization’s campaigns have a unique way of bringing people’s attention to road safety concerns.

“We know our marketing strategies are working.”