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Heinz’s “Draw Ketchup” ad from Rethink Canada appeared during this year’s Canadian Super Bowl broadcast as part of a larger campaign, but proved so popular, it eventually came to air as far away as Europe.
Canada is, by nature, used to playing second fiddle to its southern and only neighbor. It has become an accepted fact of life that the bigger, badder, more boisterous United States gets the lion’s share of global attention, while a mild-mannered Canada is content to relax in relative obscurity.
Canucks have always known their value—some of your favorite musicians, actors and comedians likely hail from the “Great White North,” whether you realized it or not—but have been largely happy to fly under the radar. Folks usually pipe up that so-and-so is Canadian as a fun piece of trivia, and will point out a Toronto streetcar in the background of a movie supposedly filmed in New York, but that’s about the extent of the claims.
However, one element of Canada’s rich creative culture has been garnering more widespread attention than usual over the past few years: the country’s world-class ad agencies and the minds they employ.
“In terms of international business and U.S. business, historically, Canadian agencies used to primarily adapt work. They’d put ‘.ca’ at the end of American ads,” says Aaron Starkman, national chief creative officer at Rethink Canada, an independent agency spread across the country’s three largest cities: Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
“But what we’re seeing at our shop, specifically over the last five years, is the U.S. adapting our work,” says Starkman, whose agency was named Ad Age’s Creative Agency of the Year for 2021.
Rethink’s phone has been ringing lately with briefs not just for domestic brands; assignments from multinational corporations have been steadily flooding in, often with creative that’s ultimately destined for the American market or even further afield. The shop’s roster of clients includes the likes of Ikea, Kraft Heinz and Molson Coors, and just within the past couple years, Starkman says he has encountered the agency’s original Canadian work being adapted for and run in global markets.
Take its recent “Draw Ketchup” ad for Kraft Heinz, for example, which anonymously asked people to draw the condiment as they envisioned it (lo and behold, almost every participant doodled a bottle of Heinz 57).
Following the campaign’s Canada-only run earlier this year that included an appearance in the Canadian broadcast of Super Bowl LV, the Cannes Lion-nominated brand power message that originated in Rethink’s Toronto office started to gain traction among international audiences, eventually coming to be licensed to air as far away as the United Kingdom.
“The Canadian talent pool isn’t getting stronger, it’s always been strong. It’s just that now it’s getting noticed internationally and south of the border,” Starkman says, adding that humor and wit are often defining characteristics of Canadian-made creative work. “Maybe because it’s so cold here, you gotta have a sense of humor.”
Another hallmark of most Canadian agencies, be they 10-person boutique shops or multi-million-dollar behemoths with offices across the country: budget constraints.
It’s a known reality that as a smaller market—Canada’s entire population is about 2 million less than that of California—briefs typically do not come attached with bottomless coffers. But Canadian ad folks and, increasingly, client brands from “the States” have both come to view such limited budgets as a strength that speaks to an agency’s creative chops.
The bulk of Canadian agencies don’t work with a lot of money, so ads produced up north are forced to be genuinely clever, engaging and poignant; designers and producers can’t rely on hiring an A-list celebrity spokesperson when a brainstorming session dead-ends. Particularly when it comes to work destined for abroad, creatives in Canada are forced to punch above their weight with fewer resources than their U.S. counterparts.
“Because we’re 10 times smaller than the U.S., we don’t have the massive budgets,” says Scot Keith, CEO and co-founder of Vancouver agency One Twenty Three West, which handles domestic accounts including the Canadian Automobile Association (campaign below) and Destination British Columbia. He believes the Canadian ad industry is “much stronger creatively than it was 20 years ago.”
To “survive and thrive” as an agency in Canada, Keith says, any given workforce must have a jack-of-all-trades mentality that lends itself to doing any campaign necessary, whether that calls for experiential or social or anything else spelled out in a brief. And the result of that low-resource, high-power creativity? Work that’s on par with, if not better than, that produced by American agencies at a fraction of the cost.
“We get great value for your buck,” Mélanie Dunn, CEO of national agency Cossette, says of the monetary incentive currently offered by the Canadian dollar.
Since 2013, the last time the U.S. and Canadian dollars traded equally, the weakened loonie’s value has hovered around fourth-fifths of that of a greenback, giving non-Canadian brands—and anyone else looking to do business up north—a healthy leg-up in terms of purchasing power. At the time of publication, one Canadian dollar is worth approximately 81 U.S. cents.
That value proposition may have helped Cossette, which is headquartered in Quebec City and ranks as one of the largest agencies in Canada, net the uptick in American business it has recorded in recent years.
In fact, the storied agency has also noticed U.S. brands coming to it “to deploy American-only creative” over the past few years, adds Dunn, citing U.S. rebranding work the shop undertook for rail freight operator CSX two years ago. “There’s a new trend where we’re trusted for more than just local campaigns and deployments,” she says.
“I think Canada has a really unique footprint in [American advertising],” says Rethink’s Executive Creative Director Mike Dubrick, who is based in Toronto. “We’re close enough to the U.S. to have a fundamental understanding of this market, but we’re different enough to have a unique perspective on it.”
“That’s why Canadian comedians play so well in the States,” he laughs.
Whether either side wants to admit it, Americans and Canadians share more similarities than they have differences, but one critical contrast that has historically been recognized by those north of the 49th parallel is the disparity in professional opportunities.
The prevailing narrative for many Canadians who want to “make it big” in the creative industries has been that moving to New York, London or another famously artistic city is a requirement for success, says Craig Lobban, a creative director at 40-person shop Banfield, which works with clients including the Canadian government’s Health and Public Safety departments.
But in the past decade, and especially since COVID-19 made working remotely the norm, “People are recognizing there are opportunities to do good work anywhere,” he says.
Banfield, the oldest agency in Ottawa, Canada’s capital and sixth-largest city, has a handful of international clients including New Jersey-based telecom company SES and West Coast automation firm Ridecell, but Lobban and agency president Timothy Jones agree that the quality of work they produce trumps any office location.
“I worked with people early in my career, a few of the creative teams got that recognition and went to the States,” Lobban recalls of former colleagues who left the northland for Ogilvy, Mother and other shops in the U.S. “In the past, people probably thought their best opportunities were to go to the States. But there is opportunity to do [good work] here,” he adds. Work such as the shop’s campaign for Public Safety Canada, shown below, highlighting human trafficking.
The brain drain issue in Canada has become a two-front war as of late. Not only have some of the country’s brightest creative minds jumped ship for the U.S., but domestic competition has increased, too, with an influx of boutique small agencies arriving to crowd an industry formerly dominated by a few major shops.
With a rise in the sheer number of Canadian agencies—some of which have been started by former employees of their higher-profile competitors in Canada—there has emerged “a deeper sense of community within the ad industry,” says Mooren “Mo” Bofill, a co-owner and creative director of design at One Twenty Three West.
“But the negative part is there’s a lot more competition across the board,” she adds. But that agency-side struggle may come as welcome news to potential brand clients who could benefit from the wealth of talent in the Canadian creative scene.
Conducting business with cross-border clients is something that most Canadian marketers agree they’d like to do more of, but recognition issues have played their part in keeping many agencies in Canada focused on domestic work.
“I think a big barrier for Canadian agencies is just awareness in the States,” says Bofill, who estimates that 80%-90% of Canadian agencies don’t work with international clientele. “But I don’t think we push ourselves enough,” she says, calling the isolation of many Canadian shops a “self-inflicted thing.”
However, the era of ignorance when it comes to Canada seems to be rapidly coming to an end, with global companies handing creative duties to Canadian agencies more frequently than ever—and receiving world-class work that often wins top awards in the ad industry.
Look no further than last week’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. Canadian shops big and small received a sum total of 141 nominations this year, Strategy reports, which translated into 52 awards (including two Grand Prix wins for Ogilvy Toronto) by the week-long festival’s end—a record high for Canada.
WPP’s Ogilvy Toronto, in collaboration with its London office, took home a Cannes Grand Prix last week for Dove’s “Courage is Beautiful” campaign.
It’s a fairly new phenomenon for Canadian agencies to enjoy such resounding success in international competition, but the trend has shown no signs of decelerating since it first emerged in the creative award circuit four or five years ago.
“Us Canadians, we’re a very open country and mindset. The mix of our country leads us to be curious and open and leads to a very interesting perspective on projects,” says Isabelle Allard, a creative director at Sid Lee, a heavyweight agency founded in Montreal in 1993 that has since expanded to include global outposts in New York, Paris, Los Angeles and more.
Allard, who recently returned to work at Sid Lee’s Montreal headquarters after an underwhelming two-year interlude in the New York agency world, cites Canadian diversity as being part of its recipe for success. “The winning work at Cannes [from Canada] was about LGBTQ, it was about mothers, things that really matter in the world,” she says.
“The creative talent that is in Montreal— I really feel that the world should know more about us than just the main actors, Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil,” Allard, a Quebec City native, continues. “It’s definitely something that should be known more.”
The giant agency’s offices in Montreal and Toronto have come to handle the worldwide creative duties of major brands such as Hyundai, Netflix and the North Face, but there is still lots of ground to make up in pursuit of achieving equal recognition for Canadian shops. “I wish that in the future, bigger brands will see the talent that is in Canada and will reach out more and more,” Allard says.
Oh, Canada—your time as an underdog seems to be coming to an end.
In this article:
Ethan Jakob Craft is a general assignment reporter who divides his time between Toronto and New York City, writing about marketing as it intersects with pop culture, design, media and more. He has covered the advertising industry in both the U.S. and Canada since joining Ad Age in 2019 and can be found on Twitter at @ethanjakobcraft.