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Where the Rubber Tomato hits the road

The advertising men of the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency, in the TV drama series Mad Men

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet."

- Romeo and Juliet

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Toronto has no idea how close it came to having a giant squid in its midst.

Oh, wait - not just a giant squid. Make that "Giant Squid." Back in April, 2007, that was one of the leading contenders to become the name of a new ad agency that is now one of the hottest shops in town.

"There was a great story behind that, but probably it wasn't a name that would have been great," elaborated one of the agency's creative directors the other day. "It's multitentacled, And there's the idea that, out there in the deep, in the scariest parts of the ocean, where it's really, really deep, and work is the hardest - that's where the giant squids lived. And they can wrestle something to the ground."

It's a grabby image, but in the end that creative director, Barry Quinn, and his three partners went with a decidedly sunnier name that evokes images of fun, collaboration, serendipity - and gin: Juniper Park.

Ad agencies used to brand themselves with their founders' names - Saatchi & Saatchi, Young & Rubicam, Sterling Cooper. (Sorry: Now that Mad Men is over for the season, we're having trouble letting go.) The practice reassured clients' CEOs, in part because the names sounded like the other professional services firms (lawyers, accountants, consultants) that frequented the C-suite.

But in the last few weeks, playful and offbeat names have blossomed across the Canadian ad industry landscape like wild berries. The London-based Dare Digital opened an outpost in Vancouver. Meanwhile, that agency's parent, Cossette Inc., created a holding company called Vision7 and announced it was bringing numerous operations under the umbrella of a new unit called Esprit de Corps. And in two of the starkest examples of how ad agencies are throwing over their founders' names in a rush to create brands for themselves that sound more of-the-moment, Toronto's GJP became Blammo Worldwide while a merger of Dare with a corporate cousin in London, MCBD (a.k.a. Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy), resulted in the evaporation of the latter's name.

They joined a landscape that, this year, saw the addition of names like Jungle Media and Baby Robot.

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Offbeat ad shop names aren't new, of course. During the dot-com boom and bust, agencies apparently made jealous by the creative freedom of tech companies (Yahoo, Kozmo, Google, etc.) emerged with their own oddball appellations. Names like Rocket XL, Elvis Communications, Moxie, David & Goliath, and Blast Radius exploded onto the scene.

But how did we move from a universe in which clients took comfort in classic agency names, to the current prevailing wisdom that odder is better?

A little history may be in order. "In the old world, you had a name on the door, and that represented a particular style," says Brett Marchand, the president and CEO of Cossette. Certain kinds of clients gravitated toward, say, the homespun Midwestern approach of Leo Burnett, while others preferred the slick Manhattan sophistication of David Ogilvy.

"But with the fragmentation of media and the expansion of agencies around the world, Leo Burnett [himself]couldn't physically make sure that everything that came out of his agency looked like 'Leo Burnett' any more."

In time, the industry's stars died away, or fell from the sky. "Everyone wanted a Don Draper - or they wanted the equivalent in London, they wanted a Frank Lowe. Those days are gone," Mr. Marchand says. "Nobody looks to the U.S. or the U.K. as the centre of the universe in advertising any more. There's great agencies there, but we don't pull [MCBD's]Helen Calcraft out and put her in pitches in Canada - and she's brilliant. So I think people are now picking brand names that signify an attitude."

That's partly what Zak Mroueh was going after when he broke off from Taxi to form his (sort of) eponymous agency Zulu Alpha Kilo three years ago. Until about a month before he launched, he'd intended to name his agency Storyz Inc., in a nod to the growing awareness that marketers are storytellers.

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Then one day he overheard someone say his name in the NATO-phonetic alphabet, and he realized he had a winner.

Though not everyone thought so: "A good friend of mine said to me, 'You can't go into a pitch with a name like Zulu Alpha Kilo. People are gonna think you're weird,'" Mr. Mroueh says. "As soon as he said that, I thought: This will be a way to separate the kind of clientele I wanna work with. If the name scares them, then they're probably not the right clients."

There's a similar hint of challenging disruption in the morphing of GJP into Blammo. "People said, I can't believe you changed the name after 20 years," acknowledges Andrew Simon, the firm's new chief creative officer. "You have to put your money where your mouth is. If we are going to be about different changes, let's start with ourselves.

"When I was at DDB, people would say, 'Oh, your agency is great, I've always been a fan of BBDO.' And BBDO, DDB, TBWA, JWT - it all sounds exactly the same. We're in the business of differentiation, and the funny part is, we sound exactly the same," Mr. Simon says. "So this was a clear break from that world, to say: No, no, no, we are going to be different.

"At the core of it, Blammo is about blowing apart the marketing challenges and creating unexpected solutions," he adds. "I certainly wanted something that reflects the action-oriented personality of the agency. We always said, 'Blammo is less blah-blah and more ammo.' "

Still, amid the frenzy to embrace playful names, there's a noteworthy new counterexample. This week BBDO unveiled a new strategic consulting unit called Batten & Company. It's named after George Batten (1854-1918), the most independent-minded and entrepreneurial of the company's four founders. "We could have called ourselves Rubber Tomato," chuckles Tracy Lovatt, the new unit's CEO. "Let's put it this way: We weren't tempted by that."

"What we wanted was a name that was also classic, that shared the creative DNA of BBDO."

Still, while she acknowledges that names only work in context, most successful brands started from nothing. "I think there has to be some connection for it to be resonant. But it's like 'Saks Fifth Avenue.' It didn't really mean anything when somebody first came out with it, but it does today. Because it's in context of that store and the brand that's been built up." Naming the new unit after Batten, she says, gave it, "a little bit of context, a little bit of a head-start. That was obviously deliberate on our part, rather than just starting something no one had ever heard of."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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