The Next Hot Spot for U.S. Test Market Is in Canada

Shops Pitch Montreal as Ideal for Experimenting With New Ideas, Products

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Regional ad agencies usually resent being forced to handle out-of-the-way project work while bigger-market shops scoop up all the agency-of-record glory, but a coalition of agencies in Montreal is going to unusual lengths to do just that. "Being a regional market is no longer a pain in the ass," said Sebastien Faure, president of agency BleuBlancRouge. "Now it's an opportunity."

Mr. Faure's agency is one of several normally competitive shops in the city who are banding together in a bid to sell Montreal as a living, breathing, marketing laboratory -- and they are taking that pitch to marketers in a planned multi-city U.S. road show. The rationale is that Quebec's relative cultural isolation -- its language barrier prevents much outside media from seeping in, and vice versa -- makes it an ideal place for U.S.-based marketers to experiment with new ideas and approaches before rolling them out to wider audiences.

And a few already have.

Mastercard, for instance, made its first foray into employing GPS technology in its digital efforts there in 2006 while working with local agency Marketel. (It asked consumers to identify the most "Priceless" experience they'd had in the city on an interactive map, and the results helped the company introduce a more universal "Priceless" iPhone app this year.)

"We were looking at ways to deepen consumer engagement with 'Priceless,'" said Lili Tomovich,VP-marketing for Mastercard Worldwide. "It turned out to be a perfect test market for us."

More Mazdas
The logic of Quebec as a test market has dawned on some U.S. agencies as well. Southfield, Mich.-based Doner, for instance, created an elaborate alternate-reality game for its Mazda client there that had consumers searching local media for one of 33 keys that would start a Mazda3, which was given away to the winner. The effort led to a 30% surge in sales compared to the year-earlier period.

So now the challenge facing Quebec agencies is to find more Mazdas and Mastercards -- marketers who do business in Quebec and could benefit from using it as a lab. To do that, a coalition of the market's leading agencies, including Sid Lee, BBDO Montreal, BleuBlancRouge, Cossette and Palm & Havas are launching what they call their "trade mission" to major ad markets.

Later this month, they'll be in Chicago -- along with Montreal's mayor -- in a bid to attract those sorts of brands. They've reached out to the likes of McDonald's, Motorola, Wrigley and Kraft, among others, to attend a Cirque du Soleil event at the Chicago Theater at which they'll make their case. Afterwards, the group hopes to also hit New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta with their pitch.

Thus far, there are few firm commitments, but no lack of outreach. "The first time, they ask 'Why are you calling?' The next time they ask you if you're crazy, and the third time, its, 'Hmmm, when are you here again?" said Mr. Faure. "The fact is you can't take a risk with 100% of your budget, so why don't you give us 5% for a market with 1.3 million people and see what happens?"

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