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Not to rain on this month's Super Bowl parade, but a growing number of marketers believe the annual showcase of high-priced TV commercials is a super waste of money. The buzz nowadays is all about engaging and serving consumers, more than simply entertaining them. Vancouver-based Blast Radius, which has nine offices around the world (and a 10th set to open in Shanghai this year), is part of this emerging breed of digital ad agencies: the ones brands turn to when they need to be really Liked on Facebook. Simon Houpt talked to the company's president, Gurval Caer, about the place for Canadian agencies in the future of marketing.

Canada doesn't have a reputation for terribly creative advertising. It's true, there is more appetite for risks south of the border and in Europe. Also, in Europe, you always deal with the multicultural aspect. Your campaign has to work in a variety of countries, and that involves a whole bunch of thinking that's not necessarily present here in North America.

So, how can Canadian agencies hope to thrive? Canada is by definition a country that has to trade with others. And it's a country that is naturally aware of other cultures, and that's phenomenal. That's what makes this country magical. It is in many ways one of the most advanced countries when it comes to the global age and the global world, because it is aware and mindful of differences. America is still figuring it out.

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I would think you need to be acutely aware of cultural differences, because Blast Radius's work—campaigns on Facebook, augmented reality apps, a Lady Gaga/Starbucks scavenger hunt—only succeeds when consumers can personally connect and interact with it. My colleagues in advertising have it easy. All they think they've got to do is come up with a cute campaign. If it's a brand campaign, it can be translated across borders pretty easily—end of story. While the closer you get to the customer, the more attuned to differences you've got to be. And that's where implementation of campaigns becomes a bit more complicated. Social media in India or the U.K., for example, has nothing to do with social media in the U.S. Some countries naturally adopt certain technologies and others do not.

Marketers love online social networks because they see them as great marketing innovations. But there's a tension there, because people see them as a way to keep in touch with friends and family. That's exactly right. Howard Schultz once said that if you approach social media as marketing, you will fail. I see all this stuff: "Like us on Facebook!" at the end of a TV ad, or "Like our product!" That's just weak! It's awful! Understood correctly, social media is relationships. You can establish that relationship, people can welcome you into their circle of friends, literally—but only if you understand what that means.

You're about to open a Shanghai office. Do you have any hesitation about doing business in a country that, frankly, has a terrible record on human rights? Yes. I do believe, though—hopefully it won't cost us our Chinese licence—in the liberating power of technology. I'm just an old 1984 Apple fanboy who believes that, like in Arab countries in 2011, technology can empower people.

Speaking of technology, you're not active on Twitter. You know what? I have an account, but I have not used it.

I presume you're not afraid of it? No, no, I'm not afraid of it. It's interesting you ask the question, because I've been asking myself why that is, and ultimately it comes down to time. Fundamentally, I'm in the business of points of view and expertise and guidance and advice—and so I should! I should use Twitter.

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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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