A shifting landscape in retail banking has many of Canada's banks parting ways with their advertising agencies as they look for new ways to lure customers away from rivals.
Four of Canada's Big Five banks have re-examined their advertising agency relationships in the past year, including most recently Bank of Montreal, which acknowledged the end of its 10-year relationship with lead agency Cossette Inc. on Tuesday. Cossette said it resigned the BMO account after the bank decided to put it up for review.
Royal Bank of Canada is also opening its business up for pitches, having issued a request for information for advertising services, a spokesperson confirmed. Toronto-Dominion Bank and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce both moved their ad business to new agencies in 2012.
The moves in these multimillion-dollar accounts reflect a renewed focus on the banks' core retail operations. Those businesses saw stellar growth over the past few years, as low interest rates prompted Canadians to borrow money heavily for mortgages and credit cards. But with interest rate hikes looming, banks are bracing for a tough fight to continue the growth trend. Advertising is expected to play a big role in this battle, providing the banks a way to lure potential customers.
The new advertising work will need to address this heightened competition by solving one big problem for many banks: setting themselves apart . While TD Bank's "comfortable" green couch is widely recognized among consumers, other banks have struggled for better brand differentiation.
Major advertising money is already being spent on credit card marketing, as the banks vie for customers following Aeroplan's decision to make TD Bank its primary card issuer.
"We're going to aggressively defend our own customer base and we're going to compete aggressively for those customers that are questioning their current products," Frank Techar, BMO's head of Canadian banking said on a conference call in August. "So, we do plan on spending heavily on marketing our credit card products next year."
Banks are also dealing with a new world order for advertising. Historically, banks plowed piles of money into traditional TV and newspaper ad spends, but the digital wave is forcing them to invest in online advertising, as well as mobile platforms, which have become a common way that Canadians get their news.
"A fresh look from an agency is always a good thing," said a senior bank executive, who added that he and his rivals not only are looking for new ideas, but for agencies that will spend advertising dollars on appropriate media.
For BMO, the change will also address its strategic focus on acquiring business around the Great Lakes, courting a pool of 71 million potential clients on both sides of the border.
Word began circulating about a possible change this summer, after BMO hired Young & Rubicam Inc. – which handles its advertising business in the United States – to create the "Make the BMOst of summer" campaign.
CEO Bill Downe has signalled that the bank will be doing more to unite its advertising strategy on both sides of the border. At a conference in early September, Mr. Downe said that a broadcast campaign developed in the U.S. would be adapted for the Canadian market to launch late this month, adding "speaking to our customers, we're cost-effectively applying the same models in Canada and the U.S."
While it has been making efforts to grow globally, Quebec-based Cossette does not have a meaningful U.S. presence. With that in mind, agency management questioned whether the investment in pitching the business would be worth the cost. "It just didn't feel right," Cossette president and CEO Brett Marchand said in an interview.
Pitches are costly for ad agencies, which are forced to devote time and resources to creating work they only get paid for if they win the account.
"I asked Claude [Lessard, chairman of Cossette's holding company Vision7 International] and he couldn't remember any accounts Cossette has ever resigned. It is a big deal," Mr. Marchand said, adding that the decision was made after a "gut-wrenching five days on the phone" and multiple discussions with Bank of Monatreal.
"Cossette has been a terrific partner and we wish them continued success. We have an agency review under way for our Canadian business," Paul Deegan, vice-president of government and public relations at BMO, said in a statement. The bank declined to answer further questions.