Quebec advertising's Catch-22
Quebec's ad industry should focus on being better, not different

The opening song-and-dance routine at last week's "Coqs D'Ors" awards, --which honor excellence in Quebec advertising -- featured a line -- "on est différents, on est les meilleurs," -- that tells a lot more about the industry than its fondness for bad grammar.

Because while no one would argue that Quebec advertising is different, there is little evidence that on an international level it is even good, let alone, the best.

That's because Quebec ad agencies are caught in a catch-22 situation. They have devoted considerable energy toward convincing national advertisers that they should develop original ads to appeal to francophone Quebecers. But the more an ad differentiates itself, the less likely it is to appeal to anyone other than Quebecers.

The result is that many of the most successful Quebec advertising is incomprehensible to non-francophones. As a result, Quebec ads win few awards in international competition, and local agencies have few good samples to show when they try and win business outside the province.

It's hard to argue with the strategy's success. When Quebec's Bill 101 cleansed the province of English-run corporate head offices, a couple of hundred thousand anglophones, and most of the English advertising business followed. And since the best growing is after a forest fire, a domestic Francophone industry quickly moved in to fill the void.

But what really boosted the local industry, was the discovery, that the province's Francophones respond a little bit better to locally produced ads starring Francophones, rather than ads produced outside the province and dubbed into French. (When ad industry pros talk about the local industry they mean Francophone advertising, Anglos are ignored altogether, and English ads are not recognized at Quebec's advertising awards).

The local advertising community soon jumped on the advantages of distinctive ads, and began trumpeting any evidence of its manifestation. The two most common examples are Pepsi-Cola and Bell Canada ads featuring spokesmen Claude Meunier and Benoit Brière. The two play off-the-wall characters in ads that use a juvenile humor that seems to work well here. The result is that while most provinces could hold their advertising awards ceremonies in a phone booth, Quebec's version attracted 1,800 people.

The problem is that many in the ad industry are starting to believe that Quebec agencies can do a lot better. The province is filled with the artistic, graphic design, photography, video production and musical talent needed to produce exceptional advertising.

But while Quebec creative personalities such as Celine Dion, Lara Fabien and the Cirque de Soleil stars have become huge sensations on the international scene, the province's advertising creative professionals - many of whom are open, groovy, urban types --are stuck producing ads that appeal to yokels in Lac St-Jean.

The ad line that the best advertising targeting the Quebec public must be produced here, has created a fortress, preventing outside advertisers from trying to sell to Quebecers directly. But that fortress also acts as a cage, preventing many Quebec agencies from trying to develop business outside the province.

After all, its hard for a francophone agency to tell General Motors to use a francophone agency to design separate ads for the Quebec public, and in the same breath ask for the contract to design the English ads for Canada.

But there is considerable evidence that Quebec advertising talent, if they stopped thinking small, could do well on the international scene. A Quebec agency, Cossette Communication Group is the largest in Canada. An ex Quebecer, Paul Lavoie, president of Taxi Advertising and Design, moved his entire agency to Toronto, and handles the creative for the Telus account, one of the largest advertisers in the country. And for several years, Yves Gougoux, president of Publicis Canada, directed operations at Publicis's international offices in France, one of the largest agencies in the world.

To solve its dilemma-in a typically Quebec response - the industry has decided to hold a summit, to reflect on the future of local advertising. Stakeholders will be asked to submit position papers, which will be mulled over by key players in a three-day industry gabfest to be held this November.

However, if Quebec agencies want to get more national and international business, they would be better thinking a little bit less about being "différents," and a little bit more about becoming "les meilleurs."



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