Canadian work has always been pretty good, even if Canadians would be the last to acknowledge that. But the Canuck currency outside of the U.S. has gone up, culminating in an impressive showing at Cannes, where Canadian agencies scored eight Lions (and Toronto production company Untitled was the second most awarded shop in the Palme d'Or race). Canadian shops, including Toronto's Zig (soon to be a holding company affiliate), TBWA and Taxi (look for more on that company in an upcoming issue) were among the winners, as were two DDB-affiliated agencies, who talk hockey, beer and ads here.
Downtown Partners, Toronto
Toronto's Downtown Partners contributed to Canada's impressive Cannes wins with the Bud Light campaign "Immunity/Sexy Accent Voice Modulator/Cuppa" and the spot that topped this year's Super Bowl rankings, "Good Dog." The work of Downtown Partners has long attracted attention in the U.S., with its work for Bud Light winning awards and Super Bowl acclaim, and now even the name Downtown Partners has been imported to the U.S. with the launch of Downtown Partners Chicago.
The 25-person agency has only really been in business as a separate entity for two and a half years. Creative director Dan Pawych had been at Bozell Canada, working on Budweiser, and as that agency was winding down, Frank Palmer, the founder of Canada's Palmer Jarvis, recruited Pawych and four others to launch a unit of his shop to handle Bud Light work for Canada's Labatt Breweries, which licenses Bud in Canada. Palmer Jarvis would merge with DDB in 1997 and that year, the new arm, PJ DDB Downtown was launched, operating as part of the larger agency organization, with access to resources and creatives from the larger agency. But as the new shop progressed, that arrangement became unwieldy.
"We saw that this place had a lot of potential but that it really had to function separately," says Pawych. The agency branched off in December 2001, at the same time as it acquired the account for Pepsi's Quaker, Gatorade and Tropicana, and has grown significantly since. The shop handles Bud Light and Alexander Keiths work for Labatt, and also works directly with Anheuser Busch in the U.S. on Bud and Bud Light. Recently the agency also acquired the accounts for Canadian sports retailer SportChek, CFL football team the Toronto Argonauts and Mega Bloks, an international toy manufacturer based in Montreal. The agency's work for Budweiser is familiar to Canadian and U.S. ad enthusiasts alike. Downtown Partners spawned the Bud Light Institute idea with the "History" spot, which introduces the institute as a behind the scenes friend to men, facilitating making manly pursuits and beer drinking by inventing such occupiers of female time as Tupperware parties, Soap Operas and feminism. DTP is also behind the Super Bowl spot "Clown," as well as "Fridge" and the "Breakup," installment of the True campaign, in which two clueless wonders discuss a recent breakup, with each of their swaggering statements met with a game show buzz and a "False" flash onscreen.
Lately, the agency has tackled the low carb craze with the "Treadmill" and "Toe Flex" spots, which have been picked up for U.S. airing. A spot for Gatorade done last year proved to be a little too trenchant-it featured a boy watching a row of TV screens in a store window, specifically a hockey game on one of the sets. When Canucks strongman Todd Bertuzzi throws a mean check onscreen, the unfortunate target is thrown across all of the other scenes on the other TVs (Bertuzzi was suspended this year for a brutal attack on another player and the spot was pulled).
The agency is an independent entity creatively, reporting financially to DDB Canada. "I've had a lot of calls from the U.S. and other agencies asking how we did it-they are intrigued," says Pawych. "For whatever reason, it works. We've been not only financially and creatively successful; we've had the luxury of dealing with major U.S. clients, which is a rarity in Canada. It's an interesting case study for the network as well." In terms of differences between the U.S. and Canadian clients, Pawych says it comes down to pace of work and, of course, budgets. "You have smart clients in both places who know the business inside and out," says Pawych.
The new Downtown Partners Chicago will maintain much of the original shop's branding, in terms of logos, and positioning, says Pawych. While the new DTP was launched partially as a way to handle a new piece of Walgreen's business, he says, "I think the plan is, if it works out well, this could become another brand for them. It's basically picking up the philosophy of this place and making it work in the U.S."
DDB Canada (recently rebranded such from Palmer Jarvis DDB) has consistently been on top of awards rankings in Canada and recently added a Gold Lion for the B.C. SPCA Pet Adoption campaign out of the Vancouver office and a Silver for a campaign for the Ontario Provincial Elections, from DDB Canada in Toronto. Both campaigns are exemplars of what the agency does especially well-simple ideas delivered with seemingly low-key, sometimes unnerving or darkly tinged humor. The Elections spots, directed ably by Canadian Tim Godsall, illustrate the ill effects of non-voting by showing other daily life circumstances in which people allow others to speak for them. The funniest features a helpful office worker volunteering a colleague for a difficult and unrewarding project.
As the work of any country (save Japan or Thailand maybe) becomes harder to distinguish from any other, the perennial question surfaces: is there a Canadian ad look? "It's interesting, because I look at creative from all over the world and we're obviously most associated with the U.S.," says Alan Russell, VP-chief creative officer of DDB Canada, based in Vancouver, and a Cannes juror this year. "But I think the Canadian approach to advertising is mid-Atlantic. It's a hybrid between U.S. and U.K. work. It's an awkward question to answer, but I do think you can spot the difference between Canadian and U.S. ads. In the U.K. the humor is probably more dry and sarcastic, U.S. humor is brasher. Canada sometimes falls in the middle. I sometimes wish we could be more out there and provocative while still being relevant."
Maybe, but DDB Canada's reel steers well clear of that dreaded middle ground, fairly overflowing with delightful comedic work that is sometimes startling in its honesty. The agency gained some notoriety for the darkly funny B.C. Dairy spots, which depict human heads attempting ordinary daily activities without the benefit of bodies. Another campaign featured children playing the role of aggressive hockey parents-in one, a daughter urges her mother to brawl after a minor shopping cart mishap. The new installment of that campaign takes a darker twist. In the recent spots, the adults revert back to being hockey parents, but are seen lambasting kids for poor performance in informal play, like hide and seek and potato sack racing. In one particularly edgy execution, a mother berates her child during Pin the Tail on the Donkey, finally spitting, "I can't believe I missed Pilates for this!" and storming out. "We did dial it up a bit," says Russell. "In many ways with the first campaign, we were just breaking the ice with it. I think the role reversal in the first spots eased people into it because we weren't looking at them directly. The second campaign just shows the ludicrousness of not treating hockey as just a game. It's a bit darker and more direct." The agency didn't set out specifically to be the masters of dark comedy, but humor is a consistent thread, says Russell. "To attract attention, you have to entertain," he says, pointing to the success of the Dairy campaign with its touchy teen target. On the print side, the Dairy campaign has translated to ads depicting heads falling out of parachutes. A particularly arresting campaign for the United Way uses the charity's cupped hand logo, placing it directly into the lives of people in need. In one ad, the hand is placed between a young girl and the open door of a passing van, in another it's positioned under a person standing precariously on a bridge.
With a relatively huge volume of work, the DDB affiliation and a growing international outlook, Russell says one of his mandates to keep a small shop feel to the place. The head count in Vancouver is about 125, including a design arm, interactive department Tribal DDB and a media and direct operation, which Russell says is a fairly similar breakdown to the Toronto office (an Edmonton office houses about 25). "I have five creative teams in this office and people are always blown away by the amount of work that comes out of here. It's funny now that the perception is that we're one of the big guys. We're trying to stay small in our size and our attitude so we can be more reactive and go after the kind of clients that fit with our culture and approach."