Between Trudeau, tech and international interest, it’s clear that there’s no stopping Canada’s creative momentum, writes LBB's Laura Swinton
“Canadians over-index on creativity - and right now Canada is experiencing an innovation evolution,” says Helen Pak, CCO at Grey Canada. And she’s not alone in her enthusiasm.
“It’s an exciting time to be working in Canada right now. Perception of this place is at an all-time high around the world,” agrees Ryan Spelliscy, Chief Creative Officer at J. Walter Thompson Toronto. “It makes it pretty exciting to be part of the momentum that the country itself has.”
Canada’s creative confidence, it seems, is at an all-time high. There’s a thriving tech sector, attracting exciting start ups to the likes of Kitchener-Waterloo, the ‘Silicon Valley of the North’. There are Canadian artists like Drake, The Weeknd and (as several senior creatives begrudgingly admitted) Justin Bieber who are taking on the world and winning. And in the advertising industry, despite grumbles about tiny budgets, there’s a sense of positivity and possibility.
In the wider society, there’s a support for the arts and creativity that is unique. According to a 2016 Nesta report, Canada has a higher proportion of the workforce employed in the ‘creative economy’ than the UK or the US. What’s more, it has become something of a political statement for Justin Trudeau and his government. Last year, the Canadian Prime Minister announced a whopping $1.9 billion Canadian dollars (US $1.4 billion) to be invested in the arts and ‘cultural industries’ . In his position as the liberal West’s Luke Skywalker – it’s new hope against the growth of right wing populism – the support of the arts is a stark contrast to the situation in the US, where the National Endowment for the Arts has been eliminated.
As Brian Murray, CCO at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto, points out, that investment and government support still needs a bit of time before its effects are felt in the advertising industry. But it’s got the nation pumped. “I’m sure it will help, but it hasn’t happened yet. The one thing that has happened under Trudeau is, in light of the recent developments south of the border, we’re very proud to have our nation juxtaposed so strongly to… another nation. I’ve never seen a nation so proud of one man’s hair! Beyond creativity he does espouse an inclusivity that we as a nation embrace – and creativity goes hand-in-hand with that; accepting different opinions, different backgrounds, bringing differing experiences to the table.”
Canada’s Creative Roots
While there’s certainly something very 2017 about Canada’s current creative endorphin rush – the swell of tech, the Trudeau liberalism – the roots of Canada’s creativity run deep.
“Maybe the long winters forced generations to explore their creative side to entertain themselves while we waited for the land to thaw,” muses Todd Mackie, ECD at BBDO Canada. It’s similar to the theory behind Sweden’s digital supremacy, where all those cold, sunless winters nurtured polyglot coders. In Canada, the thick snow and dark afternoons built a nation of storytellers. “All I know is we are a culture that loves humour, and embraces and encourages creativity in all forms. There is always a fight it seems from time to time to keep the arts in schools and not shutting down creativity in children before it gets the chance to blossom. So I believe it’s something in our blood, but I couldn’t tell you exactly where it comes from.”
Alex Shifrin, Managing Partner at LP/AD, points out that the government has also played a role, investing in and supporting the arts, pop culture and media as the only way to ensure that the country didn’t see its identity completely eroded.
“Canada has always lived in the cultural and media shadow of the US,” he says. “In an effort to protect some sort of identity, Canada has for decades employed a cultural protectionism policy with things like CAN-CON rules, which require a certain amount of broadcast media to be created in Canada. In order to promote that, there is a series of grants and funding programs to help create film, music, art and so on. So not only does Canada fund creative talent, it guarantees that a certain proportion of it will receive broadcast time. Now, this may have less implication as we move to consuming more and more in digital platforms, but for a long time Canadians got used to the idea that getting involved in creative industries can provide a living. As a result, and because of these deep roots, I believe we see a strong creative community today.”
The National Film Board of Canada is a great example of this. Over recent years it’s supported a number of pioneering, arty interactive films and experiences, 2011’s Bla Bla by Vincent Morisset being one such project, 2012’s Bear 71. As of March 2013, it has devoted a quarter of its production budget to creative interactive media, which gives artists and other creatives the opportunity to experiment with creative technology, free of client demands. In turn, these projects inspire and inform the wider creative community, in Canada and beyond.
…The ‘Would You Want to Live There?’ Factor
Despite this cultural protectionism and reputation for humour (Canada has long exported world-class comic talent, from Dan Ackroyd to Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Leslie Nielsen, John Candy and so many more), the country suffered with a reputation for being a pretty dull place. At least, not somewhere to attract sparkling creative talent.
That, however, has changed massively too, explains Philippe Meunier, CCO and co-founder of Sid Lee. “I think Canada has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. And the reason why is that we need to catch up. When you realise that you are a little off grid of the world you need to catch up. And certain cities in Canada decided to open up.
“20 years ago, Toronto was super boring. If you went there, there would be no good restaurants, no great hotels. The creative community was very, very lame. There were no art galleries. Now everything is changing in Toronto. One of the reasons is that the city of Toronto decided to put more money into creativity. You need a few people who really change the market. The same thing happened in Montreal,” he says.
So, while traditionally Canada was known for exporting creative talent, it’s becoming more of a creative magnet in and of itself. Thanks to a more open attitude to immigrants – particularly when compared to its Southern neighbour – the local advertising industry is able to attract talent. That, in turn, feeds the creativity of the locally based agencies.
“I think Canada is more open in terms of culture, in terms of having new immigrants, opening our borders and having people from France, UK, from Mexico, from Brazil. All these people bring a lot of culture into our creative industry,” says Philippe. “I have to say that makes a huge difference.”
Over at Ogilvy & Mather, Brian Murray has found that, in terms of cold call inquiries about jobs, the majority are coming from Latin America, which shows that Canada’s appeal is far-reaching.
“It’s a phenomenon that Alex Shifrin has also observed. “The most exciting thing for me is seeing what was once a springboard to the US for brilliant creatives, given what’s been happening down south recently, now becoming a career destination.”
Around the Country
As the second largest country in world by land mass, you’d expect Canada’s creative industries to have more than one hub.
Internationally, the focus tends to be on Toronto but the province of Quebec has a particularly potent creative ecosystem. Montreal is the home to Sid Lee, Quebec City the home of Cossette – and outside of the ad industry there’s the global powerhouse that is Cirque Du Soleil, which has built a sizeable community of artists, engineers, production designers, costumiers, dancers and more. Curiously, Canada is home to the third largest video game industry in the world – and 30% of the companies and 53% of the industry’s employees are to be found in Quebec. Probably the best known of these is Ubisoft Montreal, creators of the AAA smash hit game series Assassin’s Creed.
And that creative community in Montreal has come together to found a creative school in the city. Architects, designers, engineers, creatives and various professional associations have come together to found Factry, a school of applied creative sciences. Sid Lee’s Philippe Meunier came up with the idea, which was partially driven by a need for more relevant creative education to meet the needs of a flourishing creative industry.
But it’s not all about Montreal and Toronto. According to Todd Mackie, no one city has a creative monopoly. “There is talent spread across this large country. Over the years we’ve seen great work come from a variety of cities. Toronto, Montreal, Quebec, Calgary, Vancouver, Halifax and more. The main difference isn’t the desire to do great work, all creatives are driven by that, but the lifestyles play a big role in those cities and they all have their own distinct cultures,” he says.
DDB Canada’s CCO Cosmo Campbell notes that each city and region has its own creative culture. “They’re all very different, which is largely due to the types of clients in those individual markets. For a long time, Vancouver was the creative hotspot in the country, mostly due to clients having to make their smaller marketing budgets go further with more adventurous thinking. We’ve seen similar sparks of creativity coming out of Halifax, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton. The talent is certainly there in all those cities, it’s just a matter of having clients who understand the advantage that creativity can bring. In some respects, the smaller markets are where some of the most exciting work comes from, because they have to be more innovative and adventurous, it’s just part of their DNA.”
The Budget Paradox – Frustrating and Fuelling Creativity
In the advertising industry, it’s inevitable that conversations inevitably turns to the dreaded b-word. Budgets. And Canada feels the pain of tight budgets particularly keenly, as it sees the larger amounts of money being spent south of the border.
“There’s a lot happening in advertising. The population is about a tenth of the size of the US, and the budgets are less than one tent – sometimes it can feel like we get a hundredth of the budget!” says Grey’s Helen Park. “But that means that we have to flex our creativity.
“I think if you were to ask any creative person in the world what frustrates them, they’d say budgets. We have to adapt to that. We have to, as an industry, find new models and ways of working. It’s a challenge and an opportunity.”
For Cosmo Campbell at DDB, the pressures – financial and otherwise – that the local industry faces are huge and stressful but they haven’t dampened the creative thinking.
“It’s still ideas,” he says of what he sees as the most exciting thing about Canadian advertising. “It feels like the industry is under huge amounts of pressure from multiple sources, but it’s remained resilient, and focused on great ideas. When you look at some of the pressures it would be easy to throw in the towel, but there’s a constant flood of really great thinking coming out of Canada.”
While budgets are smaller than the US, though, Brian Murray at Ogilvy & Mather wonders if some of the pressures the Canadian industry is struggling with are so unique. “I think that a lot of people here feel we have unique problems. Because we’re a smaller market we don’t get the big budgets to see our creative vision realised to its full potential… Then I’ll take a holiday to England, where I worked for four years, and I’ll meet up with some old friends and they’ll say ‘you know Brian, it’s not like it used to be, budgets are shrinking, you don’t get the time to work on briefs’. They’ll tell you the exact same list of complaints that you had. I do wonder if the industry around the world is complaining about the same issues. I don’t know if we have uniquely Canadian problems, like, ‘oh no! My script’s covered in Maple syrup’!”
And while these small budgets are undoubtedly a stressor, they’ve turned out to be a perverse boon. As the local industry figures out how to do more with less, it has become more attractive to international clients.
“The other thing that’s interesting is that clients want to come and test the waters up here. We’ve got a couple of US clients up here ourselves,” says Ryan Spelliscy. “Obviously with the States we’ve got a very good exchange rate. If you’re a Mid West smaller-time US client, do you go to a New York agency or do you try Toronto or Montreal? For the right kind of clients Canada is super appealing. Canada is scrappy.”
Helen Pak agrees – one of Grey Canada’s biggest clients is Bahamas-based Sagicor, a giant financial services company. “The dollar actually helps us. Depending on what day it is, we’re 25-30% less than the US and our talent is just as good, if not better.”
Agency LG2 even put together a cheeky video underlining the point last year.
Canadian Creativity Shining
In the ad industry, the country has always punched above its weight in terms of creative awards. Dove’s ubiquitous campaign for Real Beauty was originally conceived by Ogilvy & Mather Canada in 2004, after all. Leo Burnett’s Toronto office was a key player in the world-beating Always #LikeAGirl platform. And directors like the Perlorian Brothers and Tim Godsall have long been industry favourites thanks to their off-kilter humour. But with the government’s amped up support of the arts and creative industries, the increasing curiosity from international clients and the unprecedented ‘cool’ factor of Canadian pop culture, it’s clear that Canadian creativity is experiencing something of a moment. And we can’t wait to see what happens next.