Opinion: Why Canadian advertising could soon be obsolete

Marketers dread the words ‘worldwide realignment' — shorthand for creating as little original advertising as possible.

I may still be on some sort of world-trouncing high from the Olympics, but I’m feeling especially pro-Canada right now. Of course, I don’t get paid to think about sports all of the time — I do that for free — I get paid to think about marketing. And as this patriotic fever continues to have me in its grip, I wonder: Why am I not quite as bullish on Canada’s marketing industry these days? For me, it probably has something to do with Hyundai.

The Korean automaker has been the beneficiary of some pretty decent advertising in Canada, created by a very good Canadian agency, Bensimon Byrne, who developed and executed the successful “Smart is In” platform for the brand. This led to strong growth in sales at a time when most automakers were seeing a decline, and to Hyundai being listed as one of the Top 10 marketers of the year by Marketing magazine. Somehow, it also led to the agency being fired.

Hyundai Canada decided to drop Bensimon Byrne as their agency of record and hand the account to Innocean Worldwide (their in-house agency). It wasn’t because the company was disappointed with Bensimon’s work — Hyundai acknowledged the agency had helped strengthen the brand — but because they wanted to place the account with the same agency that does their work in other countries (most notably, the U.S.). Which brings me to the two words Canadian agencies fear the most: worldwide realignment. It’s shorthand for creating as little advertising as possible to be used in as many countries as they can. In other words, Hyundai dumped a good Canadian agency to most likely run U.S. ads here — customizedwith a maple leaf over the logo, maybe — because it’s cheaper.

Bensimon is not alone: Canadian agencies are having an increasingly difficult time creating original advertising because, as corporations exercise global synergies more and we allow more global brands into our marketplace, it’s just a lot cheaper to adapt international creative for the Canadian market than to produce anything new. It’s gotten worse over the past decade, as budgets have shrunk everywhere. Original creative is often the first thing to get axed.

I think this is a terrible danger for marketing in Canada. It’s a vibrant industry that produces a significant amount of culture and keeps many creative people employed, but it’s losing its sheen. And — protectionism alert! — I think we need some policies in play to protect the Canadian advertising industry from further decline.

You see, to me, marketing is culture, and we need to protect it like a cultural industry. We subsidize and support film and television, and most famously music (with CanCon laws that all but created a Canadian recording industry). Some may wonder whether this support is still necessary, but living next to the biggest producer of English-language culture in the world, there’s no question that cultural industries have needed some sort of protection, or even a jump-start, just to be viable. So we quite literally force radio stations to play Canadian music. If we didn’t, there would likely be no Tragically Hip, for instance. Sure, and maybe no Nickelback, but it’s win some, lose some.

Our marketing industry has never really had that level of safety. We work on Canadian andworldwide brands, but increasingly the only Canadian ads we see on television are for big Canadian brands: Bell, Tim Hortons and the like. This doesn’t happen in other countries, where language alone can necessitate the creation of new advertising, but there’s nothing to stop Pepsi from running whatever U.S. campaign they’ve got here as well.

What this means for marketing is that our already-beleaguered production industry is going to have fewer and fewer campaigns to work on. Creative Canadians will leave the country — a part of the brain drain that we’ve never considered, I think — to work in agencies where they actually produce original advertising.

So that’s right: I’m advocating for regulations in the industry that would prevent worldwide brands from simply selling a product here without spending dollars on the creation of Canada-specific marketing. We already do this with the products themselves: we try to encourage as much manufacturing here as we can through the use of taxes, tariffs and incentives. We also force networks to simulcast Canadian broadcasts of TV shows so that our advertising can be seen over U.S. ads. Why not do the same for the creative part of the industry? Force brands to spend a portion of their overall budget not just on buying media in Canada for existing ads, but also on the time and resources to create new ads. Put your accounts at whatever agency you want, but know that they’ll have to make new stuff, not just adapt from elsewhere. Because if I’m going to be humming a jingle, it may as well be Canadian.

Max Valiquette is a Toronto-based consultant on marketing, media and modern consumers