Benoit Briere. Two years and 28 spots later, recall of the spots among local consumers hit 42%. REGIONAL FOCUS CANADA;ADVERTISING FIRM QUIETLY SHINES SPOTLIGHT ON CLIENTS, NOT ITSELF

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The largest Canadian-owned ad agency, Quebec City-based Cossette Communication-Marketing, isn't the sort of agency that waits for anyone to pass the ball.

Last year it hit the court running when it promised to assist investors in starting the Toronto Raptors team, the first Canadian NBA franchise, in exchange for the Raptors' resulting ad business.

The agency helped complete the franchise application, devised a ticket-selling strategy and even helped name the team. The tough gambit turned out to be a slam-dunk.

"Traditional advertising agencies would just do a bunch of ads to go with the NBA pitch," said Ian Seville, Cossette's exec VP and general manager. "But the way we look at our business ..... we're problem solvers in all communication disciplines."

This method of problem solving had helped Cossette triple its billings to $215 million from $73.1 million 10 years ago. But it's the biggest agency no one has heard of; it keeps the lowest profile of Canada's biggest agencies, preferring to quietly and gradually expand its business instead of engaging in celebrated mergers.

Cossette, aside from an eponymous marketing and communications division, also has separate divisions including Impact, for research; Geyser, brand development; Optimum, public relations; Blitz, direct marketing and promotions; and Grapheme, graphic design and production.

Laval University professor Claude Cossette started the shop as a promotional agency in 1972 in Quebec City, later opening offices in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The network works with clients nationwide, but Cossette also takes a strong regional approach.

The agency's independence from international networks frees it from potential client conflicts, but it sometimes aligns itself with other agencies to benefit a client's business-for example, for Nike and Saturn Corp.

"We're not defensive about territories, because it's the right thing for a client," said Jack Neary, creative director at Cossette's Toronto office.

Cossette's 200-odd clients include IBM Corp., Coca-Cola Co., Nike, Gilbey's spirits, General Motors Corp., Scotiabank, Reckitt & Colman, Bank of Bermuda worldwide and McDonald's Corp. Yet it maintains a low profile, sometimes winning blue-chip clients after beating out higher-profile rivals.

"You know, we come in on little feet in the night and steal some of our more arrogant competitors business from under them," Mr. Seville said.

"Cossette can give us a full integrated approach based on the wide variety of its divisions," said Kevin Wulff, president of Nike Canada, Toronto. "Communication among the divisions is almost seamless."

"This is a very creative agency, but their creativity is expressed in various key areas," said Peter Beresford, senior VP-national director of marketing, McDonald's Restaurants of Canada. A Cossette spot for McDonald's sponsorship of the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, was named most outstanding TV spot for all the fast-food chain's offices worldwide.

"You have to have excellent creative, and Cossette has a proven track record," said Rosanna Cavallaro, director of marketing communications, Bell Mobility, Toronto. "They consistently give us great copy and great ads."

Cossette goes the extra mile for clients with a monthly focus group of 300 consumers testing ad recall-and its numbers look very good. When the agency created a gibberish-speaking cleaning woman character for Lysol cleaner spots, 67% of interviewed consumers recognized her in recall tests-compared to the 75% who recognized Canada's prime minister. The spots also brought Lysol a significant share gain.

Similarly, Bell Canada came to Cossette in Quebec City to preserve its local customer base following phone deregulation. In 1993, Cossette broke TV spots with then-obscure local comic Benoit Briere; 28 spots later, unaided recall of the spots has reached 42%, as opposed to the more typical 10% for most ads.

The agency shows its confidence in its corporate philosophy of basing its renumeration directly on the results of work for clients.

"You have to have the passion and the courage to reinvent, day after day .....the most powerful, effective communications solutions," said Mr. Seville. "To play to win, you have to have courage. If you play not to lose, it's a safe game. Our clients and our people are playing to win."

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