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How can Canadian ad agencies stay relevant?

Scott Goodson from Strawberry Frog on the roof top of the company's penthouse office on Madison Avenue.

Neville Elder/The Globe and Mail

It's been a year of contraction in the advertising industry in Canada: Multinational holding companies shuttered ad agencies Lowe Roche and Young & Rubicam in Toronto, and the entire industry is grappling with tighter profit margins and smaller marketing budgets.

What does the Canadian advertising industry need to do to remain relevant? That's one subject that Montreal-born ad man Scott Goodson, the founder of New York-based agency StrawberryFrog, will cover in his keynote address Thursday at FFWD Advertising Week in Toronto.

What's going on right now?

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There's an economic calamity facing not only the United States, but other countries. It's a challenging time to be in marketing. At the same time, there is the benefit of the death of the traditional ways of doing things. It's a good time not to play it safe. Safe is suffocating. It stifles creativity.

You've mentioned that marketers are less inclined to go with the longer-term "agency of record" relationship. What should agencies be doing differently to work better with marketers?

It's a trait in the industry as a whole, not just Canada: People are afraid to stand up for what they believe in. The fear of losing accounts leads to short-term thinking. Clients are losing their faith in agencies. Every time you simply agree to do what the client is asking for is another yes-man moment that devalues what you're doing. Clients are looking for an adviser. Nobody's going to hand you millions of dollars to do a campaign if they don't trust you.

Can you give an example of a time when you stood up to a client?

We're working on a bank here in the U.S. called SunTrust, and we're doing a Super Bowl campaign. As always is the case, there were people who were against it. You have to give reasons why you think it's a great idea. I said that I really believe we should be on the Super Bowl. And we have a strong point of view: The campaign is all around financial stress. It's not going to be about any products. It's relevant, because America has had tremendous financial stress over the last couple of years. It really has become an epidemic in the country. So it will be timely. It's the right place to be; it's really the only night on the planet that you have millions of people actually watching advertising, as opposed to advertising interrupting the entertainment. They pay attention.

But you still had to convince them that it's worth spending gobs of money for one ad.

It can be quite intimidating. We did a Super Bowl campaign with Pampers a couple years back. We've done similar big-budget moments. When you're spending millions of dollars on big sporting events, the stakes are so high. You can't do something cringe-worthy. It has to be something that people love, or it at least has to be something where they walk away from it and it affects their mood.

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What do you need in order to make that case? One of the points of your talk is that ad agencies often have weak relationships with marketers.

It's important that the ownership of the relationship isn't just left to the account people. That's why a lot of great work is never produced: People go in and they present an idea to a client they've barely met. When there's a relationship, you can have a reasonable discussion with a client, and say, 'This is what this is going to cost.' … Having an open and frank discussion about what's needed is important. There was a time where marketing heads were standing up in board meetings and saying, 'I've cut the media budget by 80 per cent and we're in social media now,' and people would applaud. It's too easy for agencies to accept what is an absolutely ridiculous theory: that we're going to cut a budget and go into social media and social media will make it all perfect. That thinking is crazy.

From your perspective – as a Canadian working elsewhere – what's the state of the advertising industry in Canada?

I am based in New York, but I have clients all over the world, and the Canadian ad market is highly regarded. I'm surprised that you don't see more Canadian agencies taking bigger pieces of business in the United States. Now, with the low dollar, it would be a perfect time to compete for U.S. clients – and beyond, in Europe and Asia – with the reputation for quality in the work. Today, you don't have to travel as much as you used to; you can work with clients on video-conference. It's a different world. Geography is irrelevant. I did the launch of a concept in downtown Dubai, about four years ago. We created this space around the Burj [Khalifa, the world's tallest skyscraper], and we launched a concept called the "Centre of Now" because Dubai has become a geographical centre. The client was a Canadian who lived about half the year in Whistler – he liked to ski – and half the year in Dubai, and I worked with him in New York. This is the world we live in now. It doesn't really matter where your offices are.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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