As he sips on a glass of white wine and waits for his food to arrive, Claude Lessard pauses to eulogize the business lunch.
The chairman and CEO of Vision7 International, the marketing business he helped build from the foundations of advertising agency Cossette, remembers a time when relationships cultivated over a beer or a long lunch could win (or lose) even the biggest clients.
“[Technology] has brought a lot of change in the way we render the service, the way it’s measured, the way you deal,” said the genteel 64-year-old. “It’s less friendly than it was. It’s a more cold approach than when we began.”
With more than 40 years in the advertising game, Mr. Lessard has a unique perspective on how the landscape has changed. He has seen many independent agencies gobbled up over the years by large multinational holding companies – a trend that continues to reshape the industry, most recently with last weekend’s merger of Publicis Groupe SA and Omnicom Inc. If approved, that deal will create the world’s largest ad agency holding company.
Independent or multinational, ad agencies must struggle with a steady decline in profitability over the past two decades. Facing pressure to accomplish more with fewer people, their managers are too busy trying to meet the demands of their client’s cost-cutting procurement department to take executive lunches.
It’s a striking change for an executive who has built a career on the human touch. At 21, Mr. Lessard joined Cossette, then a tiny graphic design studio. Desperate to get a start in advertising, he wooed the bosses by offering to work free at first. By the next year, he was borrowing $5,000 to join a group of six employees who had decided to buy the firm, and to accelerate its transition into an advertising and communications company. With his knack for strategy, account planning and management, Mr. Lessard was a key figure in Cossette’s expansion, building the Quebec City-based outfit into one of the top agencies in Canada by the late eighties.
Just as food is on his mind now – the mussel chowder with bacon, to start – food brands have played a key role in the agency’s growth. Its oldest client is McDonald’s Canada.
In 1999, when Cossette went public, the company was one of the agencies vying for the fast food chain’s advertising business. Cossette had already done individual projects for the brand. But to become “agency of record” for McDonald’s, Mr. Lessard took a more personal approach. About 40 of McDonald’s Canadian licensees were given a vote on who would win the account. And so he boarded his private turboprop plane to visit as many as he could, from Vancouver to Newfoundland, in just a few weeks.
But his professional relationships have not always been so amicable. In 2009, Mr. Lessard faced a public and painful battle for control over Cossette when his own business partner, president François Duffar, attempted a takeover.
Mr. Lessard knew there would be a conflict when Mr. Duffar began talking openly about wanting to lead the company. But what he didn’t anticipate was that the takeover bid by Cosmos Capital Inc., led by Mr. Duffar, would bring in former board member and senior vice-president Georges Morin, breaking Mr. Lessard’s control of the company.
“That, I didn’t see coming. And that for me was a big surprise, and deception,” he said, reflecting on what became a nasty corporate fight.
With money from Connecticut-based private equity firm Mill Road Capital LP, Mr. Lessard won the fight for control and took Cossette private, with a new name – Vision7 – and an aggressive goal: global expansion.
“A company has to grow, or you lose the ambition of the people inside. A company that stays put is not very exciting,” Mr. Lessard said, digging into the day’s special – shredded oxtail ravioli in a red wine reduction. (“You can’t go wrong with the menu du jour, ” he said when ordering.) But the challenge du jour for Vision7 is a tall order for an independent agency.
The industry has been transformed by years of consolidation, as agencies joined growing multinational networks. While some of the merger activity has been driven by retirement plans of agency owners, it has also come from a need to cater to clients where the growth is – emerging markets. Bigger, globalized networks give agencies a leg up with advertisers managing campaigns in markets around the world.
For an independent, however, that kind of global reach is harder to achieve. Many small shops build offices abroad on an ad hoc basis as they win international clients – and in some cases, have to shutter these locations when the account is lost. Montreal-based Sid Lee, for example, whose clients include global brands such as Absolut Vodka and adidas, closed their office in Austin, Tex., after losing the Dell Inc. account.
Going private gave Vision7 the capital to invest in that growth. At the time, Cossette was seen as a once-great agency that had lost its freshness, and become “old and slow,” acknowledges Brett Marchand, whom Mr. Lessard named CEO of Cossette in 2010. (It’s a criticism some still lob at the agency.) He has been working to change that. After the takeover battle was over, Vision7 undertook a “brutal self-examination,” hiring consultants to interview ex-clients to root out the agency’s shortcomings. “We’ve done more in three years than we had in 15,” Mr. Marchand said.
The organization was a mess, with 54 operational units all doing business and reporting results separately. Now, there are three: the original ad agency Cossette; ad planning and buying services under Vision7 Media; and EDC, which oversees the company’s public relations, social media and experiential marketing firms such as Elvis Communications and Dare.
It also rebranded some operations, combining PR agencies it owned in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. to create Citizen Relations. The new firm has won awards, including being named Global Consumer Agency of the Year at last year’s Global PR summit, and is now the lead horse in Vision7’s global efforts. Vision7’s international billings have grown from roughly 42 per cent of revenues a few years ago, to about 50 per cent. Mr. Lessard says his goal is to boost that percentage to more than 60.
The company saw its second consecutive year of growth in 2012, and has won some new business. But it must also fight against being eclipsed on one of its most prominent accounts. The most talked-about campaign in Canada last year was for McDonald’s – and it was not Cossette’s. Omnicom-owned Tribal DDB Canada, which won McDonald’s digital business in 2011, launched a campaign that attracted worldwide attention. Through social media, the company fulfilled a bold promise that it would answer any question – no matter how insulting – about its food. Some of the videos went viral. It won awards in Cannes this summer.
“We’ve been competing against international agencies for 40 years. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose,” Mr. Lessard said. “Of course I don’t like it, but it’s been part of our daily battle and survival. And will always be.”
As that battle heats up, Mr. Lessard is farther from the front lines. He continues to be involved in “big picture” strategy at the company, but has installed a management team that will be prepared when he steps away altogether.
That means Mr. Lessard has more time on his hands than he has in years. When the waiter approaches, he asks if they have mousse au chocolat. They do.
“Parfait,” he replies, settling into his seat to enjoy the kind of drawn-out meal that’s becoming part of the industry’s past.
Born: July 29, 1949, in Montreal. Raised in Quebec City, where he lives.
Has been married to his wife, Marie Lortie Lessard, for 42 years.
They have three sons – Jean-François, Michel-Alexandre, and Pierre-Nicolas – and six grandchildren.
Son Michel-Alexandre also decided to go into advertising, and is now vice-president of strategy at Cossette in Quebec City.
1971: Bachelor’s degree in business administration (marketing-finance) from Université Laval.
He has taken up each of his sons’ favourite sports as a way to spend time with them: golf, snowboarding, and wakeboarding.
He particularly loves heli-skiing, and tries to go every year with an operator just north of Kamloops, B.C.