Cossette Communication-Marketing had its roots in a Quebec City graphic design studio founded by Jean-Claude Cossette in 1962. Mr. Cossette offered his creative services to a regionally based Francophone market, and the business remained modest.
In 1969, the shop decided to expand into advertising and hired Jacques Genest from MacLaren Advertising in Montreal to manage its transformation. Three years later, the core of the present business took shape when five employees led by Claude Lessard bought out Mr. Genest and reorganized the still struggling agency as Cossette Communication-Marketing. (Mr. Cossette, who had pursued a life in academia, ended his association with the company in 1982.)
Starting in 1972, Cossette began diversifying its client services and branched out across Canada. It established seven affiliated companies to house its specialty services: Blitz, promotions and direct marketing (founded 1979); Optimum Public Relations (1980); Graphème, graphic design (1981); Impact Research, consumer research (1987); Geyser Creation, branding (1989); Optimum Fusion, sponsorship (1993); and Cossette Interactive, new media (1995). In 1999, about 40% of Cossette's revenues came from these divisions; the remainder came from traditional advertising.
Along with this expanding repertoire of services, Cossette also expanded geographically. To better compete for national accounts, Cossette opened branches in Montreal (1974), Toronto (1981), Vancouver (1985) and Halifax (1999). It also expanded into the U.S. with the opening of Optimum Washington in 1997.
To protect its corporate culture, Cossette has usually developed its new ventures from scratch. There have been two exceptions: Kenmuir Brickendon Jones, Vancouver, formed the basis of Cossette Vancouver, and Pulse Marketing in Halifax became Cossette Atlantic.
The Cossette brand was controlled by a limited partnership group organized as a holding company named Groupe Cossette Communication. Although it began with the original six founders, the group included 10 partners by 1999. By that time, the agency was the largest in Canada and stood among the top 40 in North America. Courted by global ad groups, the partnership chose to remain independent and expand internationally itself. It went public in June 1999 to raise capital to finance these goals.
Creatively, Cossette rose to prominence with a series of outdoor campaigns for McDonald's restaurants developed for the province of Quebec, a predominantly Francophone market with an Anglophone minority. In one campaign, Cossette announced a new menu item by turning the trademark golden arches on their side and using them in place of the letters "z" in the word "Pizza!" The result, rendered in McDonald's signature red and yellow, was a one-word logo that linked the product with the brand in both languages. For the first time, the restaurant chain had allowed its trademark to be used in a playful manner; thereafter, it carried the "Pizza!" graphic into other countries and relaxed its rules governing use of the arches logo.
Working across cultural barriers
For Cossette, the campaign established its ability to work across cultural barriers. Its McDonald's billboards have collected several Canadian and international prizes, including an Obie Award in New York (1988) and a Gold Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival (1992).
The McDonald's account also provided a model for Cossette's handling of other accounts. In 1977, McDonald's gave the agency responsibility for one Francophone region of Quebec. Following a series of successful campaigns, the agency's responsibilities were widened to include all of French Quebec, then English Quebec until finally it won the entire national account in 1991.
That pattern of winning a small portion of a client's business and then gaining the rest of the national account with a hands-on demonstration of its expertise was repeated with clients such as Bell Canada, General Motors Corp. and Coca-Cola Co., although it has had less success with Molson Breweries and Air Canada.
In 2001, Cossette was Canada's top agency with earnings of $83.4 million, an increase of 12.4% over the previous year, and billings of $377.7 million.
Cossette continued its international expansion with small acquisitions, including New York agency Post & Partners in 2001 and U.K. branding specialist Identica in 2003.