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Canadian advertising firms zero in on distinct Quebec market

A view of downtown Montreal, Quebec. A number of advertising agencies based in English Canada are making a move into Quebec, as they look to serve clients on a nationwide basis – and bet that more marketers will want to tailor their ads to the country’s biggest francophone market.

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A number of advertising agencies based in English Canada are making a move into Quebec, as they look to serve clients on a nationwide basis – and bet that more marketers will want to tailor their ads to the country's biggest francophone market.

This week, Toronto-based John St. became the fourth agency in less than two months to announce the opening of an office in La Belle Province. It joins Union, DDB Canada and Rethink, which are setting up in Montreal at the same time.

For some, the explanation for all this activity is simple: Agencies have won big new clients, and need to have a national presence.

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Rethink, which works on a number of brands for Molson Coors Brewing Co., recently won its Coors Light business. It also works with the A&W burger chain, which has been expanding rapidly in Quebec. DDB in recent months has begun working with Volkswagen Canada Inc., which has a well-developed brand in Quebec; and Investors Group Inc., which wants to expand its presence there. Union recently won the advertising account for Infiniti Canada, which gave it the financial strength to invest in the new office.

Ad agencies build a national presence in order to keep those bigger clients, and to win more of their business – which otherwise might be served by regional agencies or freelancers hired by their lead agencies. That has driven some movement in the other direction: Quebec agency LG2 opened an office in Toronto late last year, for example.

"The model of having four or five different agencies in your roster, we see that decreasing, and clients going for one partner that can manage their portfolio – and then work with other partners as needed," said Subtej Nijjar, partner and president at Union.

But agency leaders also see another trend at play in the mass expansion: a desire among some companies to improve the marketing that is targeted to Quebeckers.

"I'm seeing clients asking more fundamental questions about Quebec," said John St. partner and president Arthur Fleischmann.

That's different from the common approach, which is to create work for the Canadian market and use the same campaign there, just translated into French.

"You've still got a lot of laggards out there that have said adaptation is good enough," said David Leonard, president of DDB Canada. "It's a question of clients demanding that that market be taken seriously. I wish more clients would."

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The idea that marketers need to treat Quebec as distinct is nothing new. Big brands such as Pepsi-Cola Co. and Molson Canadian have been lauded for a smart approach to that market in the past.

For those lagging behind, ironically, the rising trend of adapting global ideas for the Canadian market could be a factor. Marketing budgets were slashed during the global economic downturn, and the prevailing wisdom is that they will never rebound to their 2007 levels. That pressure to do more with less has led some marketers to create global brand campaigns that can work (with small adaptations) in many countries.

"It seems to have shifted from more national campaign platforms to even more global platforms," said Mathieu Roy, partner at LG2.

In that context, Quebec's distinctiveness can stand out even more.

"The Quebec market is pretty savvy when it comes to seeing stuff from other markets," said Aaron Starkman, partner and creative director at Rethink. "They know when there's a fast one being pulled."

Made-in-Quebec ads often have a very different tone compared with those created elsewhere.

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"Creatively, they look at things with a different sense of humour, with more of a design sensibility," Mr. Fleischmann said.

For clients looking to improve performance in that market, it makes sense to have feet on the ground.

"One client said, 'There's a local retailer that is deeply entrenched and they're eating our lunch, and we don't even really know why,'" said Mr. Fleischmann of agency John St., whose retail clients include Winners, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., and Future Shop Ltd.

At the local level, the competition is not entirely unwelcome.

"It has a dynamic impact on the industry," LG2's Mr. Roy said. "Seeing such high-calibre players setting foot in Montreal is going to be positive for us all. … The more lively the industry is, the better it is for everybody."

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