CCOs, CMOs and CSOs chat creativity in Canada: Part One

Agencies and brand marketers met for an informal discussion on how local strengths and business models stack up on the global stage.

Strategy_RoundTableTalk_groupImage courtesy of Shay Conroy

This story was originally published in the 2022 Summer issue of strategy magazine.

Moderated by Josh Kolm, Edited by Jennifer Horn & Chelsea Clarke

Ad land has had a tough go of it these last few years. Yet, Canadian agencies continue to punch above their weight, rising above constraints to stand amongst giants on the global stage. More and more of our shops are becoming international household names for creating work that defies conventions, spurs innovation and solves problems. To talk about Canada’s secret sauce, strategy, in partnership with the Globe & Mail, invited some of the country’s top CCOs, CMOs and CSOs to a roundtable discussion in Toronto. Check back for part two of the discussion tomorrow.

Where do you think Canadian agencies excel when it comes to creative disciplines?

Mo Bofill: Canadians have been really great at brand transformations. Really understanding the whole experience, from figuring out the strategic platform, to thinking about how we communicate that as a brand. And then building the design system that underpins all of that. I’m seeing a lot more of that from brands over the last few years.

Nancy Crimi-Lamanna: We’re really good at solving the hard stuff, and brand transformation and platforms are hard to solve for. I think it’s because we’re a small market, and therefore creatives and strategists get to work on a variety of businesses. It’s an incredibly rich learning ground, where our trajectory is much faster and much more steep. In bigger markets, you get to work on one client for five or six years, and I’m not sure you get the depth of experience you need to be able to solve big problems.

Ari Elkouby: Canadians know how to use advertising to solve a problem, not just raise awareness of an issue. There’s been some inventive uses of technology, and platforms that have been created, to solve a business or societal problem. Look at some of the winning cases like Juniper Park\TBWA’s “Signal for Help.” They could have said, “Hey, people are being abducted. Watch out for people being abducted.” No, they decided to try to solve it with a hand signal. Another example is IKEA and Rethink’s “ScrapsBook,” which is a solution to food waste. To me, that’s what separates Canada from other markets. The willingness to go that extra level deeper and figure out how to crack a problem.

Dhaval Bhatt: Canada can’t compete with larger big-budget markets like the U.S. on craft. We’re not going to outspend them on film production. So, for us, it’s always been about hacking solutions. We were always the ones hacking stuff, and now suddenly, clients all over the world want that. That’s where we have a great leg up.

Lori Davison: And there’s also something in the lack of scale that forces an intensity in Canada. I remember distinctly when I was agency-side, I was running the General Electric account and I went to New York for a meeting and my job was being done by as many people as there are sitting at this table. I thought to myself, “I’m working all these muscles that you guys are not.” Part of our culture is to lift above our weight. There are so many areas that we’re expected to do that – it’s the Canadian survival that drives us.

The way agencies are set up can have an impact on creative output. Are there certain models or processes that Canadian agencies have adopted that makes the work better?

Bofill: As Canadians, we’re massive collaborators in an industry where there is a rise in in-housing. You have brands that need to handle massive executions, with a lot of tentacles. I find that we don’t really have the traditional client-agency relationship – we’re actually an extension of their in-house team. And because Canadians are so nice, collaboration is easier, but we’re also transparent, honest and respectful. When you have happier people collaborating, you work quicker, there’s less friction, and egos are out of the way. Also, all of the leaders at this table are empathetic leaders. I find that there’s a lot more strength in the work when there’s empathy.

Elkouby: We often work with the U.S. and there is an element of hostility that they bring to the table without even having met you. But that’s usually immediately defused as soon as our Canadian-ism shows up. When we don’t show up looking to out-gun, or take credit, or grab the opportunity – we’re just there to cooperate – it makes the whole process run smoother. It isn’t like that everywhere and I think we take it for granted.

Sean McDonald: What’s interesting for us right now, having opened up in New York, is that we’ve noticed every client wants a more honest, genuine relationship where you tell the truth. They want to talk about what plagues you, or what excites you. I think a huge mistake that agencies make is not being honest with what they want. I think they’re hiding that they’re motivated by profit or what they want to achieve creatively. I also don’t think Canadians come from a background of aggressive sales – we come from ambition and overcoming obstacles. And from my personal experience, that’s welcomed by clients.

How do your agencies approach global ideas? Do you purposely look to create ideas that cross borders?

McDonald: I was talking with some people a couple years ago and I remember hitting the table saying, “We are a global agency!” Being a global agency is not defined by where you pay rent. Can you do work that has a global impact, that resonates globally? Publications might cover us as “Rethink, a Canadian agency,” but if you’re from the U.K., or from the U.S., you’re considered a global shop. I personally resent that, because the people sitting at this table and the people I work with, the marketers and the agencies, are all global talent. We also understand universal insights. For example, IKEA does a lot to invest in the understanding and comprehension of its brand, and shares that globally, which benefits us, and therefore we can create globally impactful work. It starts with ourselves, to know that we’re all global talent, and we can have a global impact. And that’s just a mindset.