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From left, 123w founders Scot Keith, Bryan Collins, Rob Sweetman and Jeff Harrison jam creatively in their new office space. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
From left, 123w founders Scot Keith, Bryan Collins, Rob Sweetman and Jeff Harrison jam creatively in their new office space. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Canada’s newest ad agency opens its (garage) doors Add to ...

There is no receptionist. It is not clear where a receptionist would sit.

Canada’s newest advertising agency is light on the extras, by design. And also because there is limited room in the Vancouver garage that serves as the offices of 123 West Communications Inc., and belongs to one of its founders.

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The agency, named for Vancouver’s longitude, officially launches Wednesday with a challenge to the industry’s existing business model. It’s an on-demand model, run by a group of ad veterans, and using a roster of experienced freelance creatives, hired project by project. The business is designed for low overhead and as much project specialization on each project as possible.

“It’s like we’re casting a film. A different film gets certain talent. … The clients only have to pay for the people and the time that they use,” said Scot Keith, one of the four founders and director of business at 123w. “It allows us a little more flexibility. It can reflect changes in the business.”

That means no need to fire people when an account is lost. No need to hire frantically to bring on skills a new client needs that the agency does not already have.

The founders of 123w know the traditional agency model well, with a couple of decades each in the business. Mr. Keith was general manager at Lowe Roche and Zulu Alpha Kilo and is the president and founder of Kommunity, another Vancouver agency that he will continue to run. The garage belongs to Jeff Harrison, a former creative director and partner at Rethink. Bryan Collins and Rob Sweetman, a well-regarded team of creative directors, also worked at Rethink and Dare.

Like the founders, their network of freelancers is heavy on experience at major agencies – and award show metal. Many of them were displaced by the tumult that hit the industry in the wake of the financial downturn.

“When you hear the word ‘freelancer,’ it was almost code for a person who couldn’t get a job at an agency. But what happened, particularly after 2008, it was the one time in particular where I saw loads of ultratalented people out of work,” Mr. Keith said, adding that ageism is sometimes a factor in the industry. “Once you get north of 35, beware.”

The founders saw an opportunity to create a one-stop shop to call on that pool of senior talent.

Alan Russell is one of them. The 61-year-old has made Advertising Age’s list of top 10 creatives; has worked at agencies including Palmer Jarvis, Grey Canada and BBDO Canada; and has a collection of awards that would make Don Draper envious – from Cannes, the One Show, the Clios, D&AD, and so on.

And yet in 2009, when DDB Canada was forced to cut costs to respond to severe changes in the business, founder and CEO Frank Palmer asked Mr. Russell – who was pulling in a chief creative officer’s pricey salary – whether he would take a retirement package. The departure was friendly, Mr. Russell said.

He believes 123w is a model for how more advertising work will be done in the future.

“There’s always going to be these really large accounts that are going to want to have a big multinational agency, for various reasons. … There’s definitely a place for that, but at the same time, in this market, people want this new model that will allow them the flexibility, and get great creative products, probably at a lot lower cost,” he said.

It can also mean faster turnarounds. Ahead of its launch, 123w has been quietly working with a few clients already, including Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. “They demonstrated a hair-trigger responsiveness,” said Robert MacLean, director of customer and integrated communications at CP.

The agency did some work for a fundraising event, and the experience has led CP to consider doing more projects with them.

“When you go into some agencies today, it’s like meeting the army. There’s account directors, there’s CDs [creative directors], there’s ACDs [associate creative directors], and a legion of foot soldiers,” Mr. MacLean said. “[With 123w] I know who’s doing my work. They don’t do the switcheroo, and give you a junior team. They don’t charge me $350 an hour.”

Mr. MacLean responded to the ability to “cherry-pick the talent” from a roster of names he recognized. The freelancers are not has-beens or unknowns, he said. “It’s a sweet deal. I can assemble an all-star, experienced team – one that I could never have or afford at a more traditional agency.”

Traditional it is not. In early meetings, prospective clients have been amazed by the fact that they run an agency out of a garage, 123w’s Mr. Collins said.

“It was good enough for Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, so it’s good enough for 123w,” Mr. Sweetman said, laughing. But the scaled-down model is designed to appeal to marketers who are constrained in a time of tightened advertising budgets. “We really feel that this is the model for the future.”

GETTING THE WORD OUT

How do you advertise an advertising agency with a different business model, in an industry where every agency claims to be different?

You put the business model to work on your website.

To promote the launch of 123w, the founders turned to fiverr.com, a website where people from all over the world offer up services – ranging from recording a jingle, to taking photos, to doing a Christopher Walken impression – all for a $5 fee.

The entire website is built on a shoestring with videos from people on the Fiverr service. A ukelele player sings the intro to the site; the partners’ profiles are described by a spoken-word poet, a man juggling torches on a unicycle, a beatboxer, and a one-woman a cappella group. There are contributions from the Cook Islands, Louisiana, and India.

“We wanted to talk about this collaborative model and low overhead,” said founding partner Rob Sweetman. Five-dollar freelanced videos fit the bill, he added. “We wanted to do something fun and different.”

The male rhythmic gymnast/interpretive dancer in powder-blue lycra is most definitely different.

Susan Krashinsky

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