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Ad agency McDonnell Haynes rebrands as We Are Tonic

For some in the advertising industry, "think small" is not just a classic slogan; it's also a motto for how to do business.

One Toronto agency is officially changing its name on Tuesday, but it is not because of an acquisition by a multinational ad agency holding company, as has become common in the Canadian advertising world. McDonnell Haynes is rebranding, and attempting to reposition itself as an alternative to larger agencies. The 30-person shop will now be called We Are Tonic, and is hoping to differentiate itself from the multinationals that dominate the marketplace.

There is a reason that such larger networks are evolving, and why small, boutique agencies are not always in vogue. The growth of global brands, the need to invest in digital development, and the benefits of scale have caused some to rethink their roots as independent shops, especially in a market as small (and often overlooked) as Canada.

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While independent agencies are not extinct -- Bensimon Byrne, lg2 and Zulu Alpha Kilo are some of the proof -- the Canadian ad industry has moved more under multinational ownership over the years. Most recently, Paul Lavoie's Taxi was snapped up by Dublin-based WPP in 2010 and earlier this month, Bos was acquired by Tokyo-based agency giant Dentsu Inc.

"You can see an agency like Bos being very attracted to multinationals," said We Are Tonic president Philip George. Bos executives cited access to the larger company's other agencies (such as those with more experience in digital development) and impressive research and development budget, as well as the opportunity to play in influential, rising global markets such as China, among its reasons for joining Dentsu.

Other holding companies have tried to strike a balance between the global reach and scale that comes with a larger network, and the boutique feel of smaller agencies -- Canadian holding company MDC Partners Inc. has adopted this strategy in particular. But for the acquired agencies, there are also drawbacks to this structure, We Are Tonic executives say.

"We have the freedom of independence rather than being part of a global network where we have to answer to the head offices in New York, or wherever," said executive director Mark Biernacki. He argues that this can trickle down to the client level if individual agencies are more focused on hitting quarterly numbers (or being faced with headcount reductions imposed by their parent companies) than with client needs.

CEO Anita Dong did not want to be entirely viewed as a boutique shop, either. Hence the rebranding, which seeks to eliminate a model of small agencies founded by a single creative executive and that tend to run under that person's vision. Instead, she says she wanted a small agency's ability to focus and operate independently, but with a collective feel; hence the "we" in the new name, and its new tagline, "the idea collective."

The agency has made a number of new hires in recent months to prepare for this re-branding, most prominent among them its new president, Mr. George, formerly of TBWA Toronto; and the pair of executive creative directors, Mr. Biernacki and Steph Mackie, who were creative directors at Lowe Roche in Toronto.

Before becoming We Are Tonic, McDonnell Haynes has been in business for 30 years and counts TD among its largest clients. The bank has been with the agency for 17 years for its retail needs (branch design, in-store advertising and brochure design for example.) For 22 years, the shop has done business with Ace Bakery, which was bought by George Weston Ltd. in 2010. It managed to hang on to the bakery's business even after the corporate acquisition, working on in-store promotions, core strategy and product development, and designing the packaging for its bread.

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However, Ms. Dong recognizes that We Are Tonic faces the challenge of many (though not all) agencies that opt to stay independent and small.

"If [We Are Tonic] is in a pitch with a global agency ... it's tough," she said. "We can't draw on international creative [resources]."

But she added the agency's client targets are not advertisers in need of a global agency, and there is business to be done with smaller businesses as well.

"We're not interested in pitching business alongside BBDO or DDB," Ms. Dong said. "That's not the sandbox we want to play in."

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