13 August 2008
Liz Warwick
Liz Warwick

After the baby boomers created a strong inward-looking advertising and design industry in Quebec, a new creative generation is setting its sights on the global market.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of APPLIED ARTS, devoted to the visual communications talent of Quebec, and has been republished with permission.

Watching Quebec's communication industry is like seeing an orchestra on stage, a few moments before the conductor raises the baton and the music begins. There is a certain excitement, a sense that something unexpected may happen once the instruments begin to sound. The musicians are keenly aware that they are being watched, perhaps even judged, but whatever nervousness they feel is tempered by an energetic confidence, a sense that they are ready to embark on this remarkable new adventure.

Decades after Quebec developed marketing and publicity specifically focused on the province's unique identity, culture and language, the industry has moved into a new phase, looking outward to the rest of Canada and the rest of the world. There is a feeling that the time has come for Quebec to move away from being a regional powerhouse - albeit one that has been raking in awards both nationally and internationally - and set its sights on larger markets.

Above: Identica Branding & Design - Posters and original typography used to promote the 2008 Bicycle Fair.

"There are no more frontiers," says Benoît Bessette, vice-president and general manager of the Montreal office of Identica Branding & Design, which became a unit of Quebec's Cossette Communication Group in 2003. Founded in 1972 by a group of partners, including current CEO Claude Lessard, Cossette is one of the province's great success stories, having grown into an international, full-service company with offices across Canada and the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom, Shanghai and Moscow.

Bessette believes that Quebec is ready to expand its horizons, bringing something unique to the table: an energy and joie de vivre combined with an entrepreneurial spirit. "It will be our creativity that will help us break through any borders," he says. And then he adds, "Quebecois tend to be fighters. We understand that we have to stand up for ourselves, and actively promote our work."

Targeting international markets
For some in the industry, the need to look beyond Quebec's borders has become their central mission. Philippe Meunier, creative chief of Sid Lee (formerly known as Diesel), in Montreal, founded his original company in 1993 as a young graduate of the well-respected design program at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). Fifteen years later, he has set the company's sights on the international market, banking on his strategy of "Commercial Creativity." This trademarked concept gives clients access to a one-stop creative shop that includes graphic designers, architects, industrial designers, interactive designers, videographers and illustrators, as well as the usual full-agency advertising services.

Meunier says the baby-boomers who single-handedly created Quebec's communication industry had the right idea at the time, focusing their creative energy almost exclusively on the Quebec francophone market and allowing the industry to develop. But now it is time for a change. "They created a fortress around Quebec, but today that fortress is killing us," claims Meunier. The money and the markets are in the U.S. and abroad.

However, it's entirely possible for a Montreal-based company to manage a national or even international brand, says Meunier. He points to Sid Lee's success with the promotional campaign for adidas Originals—with its trend and fashion products - which included working with a team of architects to create stores in Berlin and New York. "Montreal is an extremely creative city, but we need to show this to the rest of the world. There is a creative energy here that you don't find anywhere else in North America." To underscore that talent, the walls of Sid Lee's new office in Amsterdam will serve as a showcase for works by Quebec's artists and designers.

Above: Sid Lee - Packaging design for Du Village cheeses.

Promoting Montreal as a creative hub
To see how far Montreal has come in the past two decades, one need only stand outside the offices of bleublancrouge, just steps away from St. Catherine Street, one of the city's main commercial thoroughfares. Fifteen years ago, it was like a dusty village byway, lined with boarded-up buildings, a few seedy sex shops and only a couple of department stores to visit. Today, St. Catherine Street boasts big-name brands such as Gap, Banana Republic and Urban Outfitters, as well as smaller trendy boutiques.

"Montreal is going through a creative effervescence, says Sébastien Fauré, senior partner and president of bleublancrouge. In the communication industry, he sees a new generation of leaders who have traveled extensively, are bilingual or even multilingual, and are attracted to Montreal for its quality of life. "If you want a balanced life, the city is hard to beat," he says, pointing to affordable real estate, access to green spaces and a cosmopolitan lifestyle.

Fauré, who is also president of the board of the Association des agences de publicité du Québec, says that to promote Montreal as a creative hub, the provincial ad industry organization has created a Web portal that will be launched internationally this fall. "It will contain all the best work, all the innovation that is happening here," he says proudly. It will also serve as a way for creative workers abroad to ind out about jobs and immigration to Quebec.

Fauré sees an industry ready to grow. "The future looks healthy. It's not going to be easy, but we're fighters and we're entrepreneurs. The boomers built the industry, but it's the Gen-X and Gen-Y that need to bring it to the next level." Even if each of the 50 members of the Association succeed in obtaining only one international project this year, that will still represent a significant increase in visibility, he says.

Above: Taxi Montreal - Double billboards demonstrate that to make food better all you need is cheese.

Keeping an edge
Growth may pose special challenges for small shops fearing to lose their creative edge. "We want to grow, but we want to stay very creative. What sets us apart, our weapon, is our creativity," says Mario Mercier, associate, creative and founder of orangetango, a marketing communications company offering design, interactive, advertising and other services. His office, across the street from Sid Lee's, is located in Faubourg des Récollets, an industrial area of Old Montreal that has undergone a dramatic revival, teeming with young information and communication companies, and newly constructed condos.

"Clients come to us because they want a bit of audacity," says Mercier. But to ensure the final product reflects a unique sensibility requires clients to become intimately involved in the process. Their decision makers must be at the table, says Pierre Bernard, associate, strategy and president of orangetango, which can be a challenge when working with very large companies, or ones not based in Montreal. Yet it is possible, as shown by orangetango's work, to promote Chilean wines as well as Italian "terroir" products across Canada.

Staying small allows orangetango to choose interesting work for small clients, rather than taking on whatever they can to feed the beast. Explaining what could be termed a "theory of constraints," Mercier points out that orangetango often works with groups, such as theatre companies or non-profit organizations, that don't have a great deal of money. "We want to help them but we have to make a living. So we have to be super inventive."

Above: Orangetango - Posters for Festival du jamais lu.

A small market with a big interest in design
While the city's clients don't always have world-sized communication budgets, they display a keen interest in the power of arresting graphic design. "People in Montreal are aware of the efficacy of design, but I’m not sure how many of them are ready to pay for it," says Louis Gagnon, creative director and partner at Paprika, a graphic design firm started 17 years ago and now counting 10 employees. Gagnon says that even small firms - such as restaurants and boutiques — understand the impact of high-quality graphic design on consumers' impression of a product or brand.

However, when anybody with a computer and a modicum of design sense can set up shop, Gagnon, like many others, worries about the long-term viability of the industry. "The biggest challenge is to establish a certain respect for the profession," he says. A design studio can bring a depth of analysis and experience to the creation of a brand or the development of a publicity campaign, suggests Gagnon. Money spent on good graphic design is an investment, not an expense, he adds.

Paprika’s other partner and business head, Joanne Lefebvre, points out the "game is changing" in Montreal for design firms. As ad agencies offer clients bigger boutiques of creative services, many are becoming direct competitors with dedicated design studios. "Still, we have been very lucky," says Lefebvre. "Over the years we've been on a lot of shortlists. And lately we've been very, very busy."

Beyond Montreal
Outside Montreal, design firms have their own concerns, faced with the challenge of being away from the big city's pool of clients and talent. For many in the Quebec City and National Capital Region, this means pursuing government work. Kolegram, a Gatineau-based design studio founded in 1992, serves clients in both the private and government sectors. But it has felt the weight of the of the sponsorship scandal and the Gomery Commission's findings on the bidding process for federal contracts. "It's very much focused on lowest cost now, with no interest in the value that we can provide," says Jean-Luc Denat, vice-president and creative director.

He also points out that it can be hard to find workers with the right set of skills in a smaller city, especially since the top-notch university programs — Denat specifically mentions UQAM — are clustered in Montreal.

Nicolas Cazelais, Kolegram's president, wholeheartedly supports the notion of Quebec moving into international markets but notes that regional firms such as his may need to regroup, form partnerships or merge in order to be strong enough to compete. For its part, Kolegram acquired Iridium, an Ottawa-based design firm, in 2006, to gain more of a footing in the high-technology sector.

Kolegram's drive to find work abroad got a high-level boost in April, when it announced that it became the first Canadian agency to design and art direct Black Book's 23rd edition of the AR100 & CSR (Corporate Sustainability Reports). The AR100 is a high-profile New York-based design competition for annual reports, honouring the best 100 of the year. "It's a special opportunity for Kolegram to demonstrate, on a truly international scale, the high level of quality and creativity of our creative team," says Denat.

Above: Kolegram - A Kolegram invitation and Poster for Status of Women Canada.

Embracing a changing model
Along with the traditional media, Montreal is developing a pronounced expertise in interactive and digital marketing, thanks to strong local gaming and high-tech industries. Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image, a digital marketing agency, points out that though interactive design is only 10 to 12 per cent of the advertising market, "it is growing all the time, as more and more people are going online, and businesses realize that it is a cost-efficient means to reach them."

Still he is only half joking when, referring to the industry, he says, "We're at the awkward teen phase in all of its pain. Our voices are cracking. We have tons of pimples. We're not kids any more, and we're being asked to sit at the adult table." While clients aren't putting the majority of their budgets into interactive and digital marketing, there is nonetheless a strong interest in the possibilities afforded by new channels, such as social networking sites like Facebook, affiliate programs and e-mail campaigns.

Joel himself uses these new technologies extensively to give his company what he terms "a human voice." He writes a blog entitled Six Pixels of Separation and regularly publishes a Podcast about digital marketing. He invests time in these projects, he says, because "in a world of accountability and transparency, where people don't want to hear jargon and marketing pap, the blog is an opportunity for us to speak as human beings and to share our passion for the industry."

The possibilities offered by interactive and digital technologies are changing how agencies are structured and operate. "There are a lot of new models," says Nicolas St-Cyr, creative director and partner at Toxa. The company offers traditional creative services such as branding, strategy and project management, but has also produced an award-winning television series and accompanying Website entitled Montréal en 12 lieux (Montreal in 12 places) and publishes a print magazine about urban living, called Urbania. "Agencies are becoming multi-platform," he says, noting that agency Taxi, founded in Montreal, started this trend in 2003 with when it launched the TV-production house Chokolat.

Toxa, St-Cyr notes, has its own film production and editing facilities and can create content for TV, Web and print media. So Toxa can not only propose a wealth of ideas to clients, but also ensure the realization of the projects. Using all these different media, he adds, "brings so much visibility to a brand."

With so many channels available, says Dominique Trudeau, design and interactive creative director at Taxi Montreal, the challenge becomes deciding which ones best serve the brand. "You have so many cards on the table, you have to pick and choose to get the best possible mix." For Trudeau, that can mean using new technologies, like a Podcast, to promote cheeses for the Dairy Farmers of Canada, or an interactive Website, for the morning-after pill Plan B, in which viewers are encouraged to share their "oops!" which might necessitate the use of this contraceptive. Or it can mean using simple strong graphic design to create posters, to be displayed in bus shelters for local restaurant Chez Lévêque.

The ability to concoct the right creative mix that will best serve a brand requires talent, and Trudeau says Montreal has that in spades. "There is talent here and not just in graphic design, but art in general, like music, fashion and film." The industry is also strengthened by the collegiality that exists among its members. "We all know each other, we're like a little village," says Trudeau. Yes, there is competition, he adds, but the focus is on improving the industry overall. "Here in Quebec, we encourage our industry to get better."

Liz Warwick is a Montreal freelance writer ().

Above: Toxa - Mixing media quite readily, Toxa created both an award-winning TV series and accompanying Website entitled Montréal en 12 lieux (Montreal in 12 places), providing "a bold new way to discover and explore the city."