Quebec ad industry's Grand Virage
Agencies holding gabfest to deal with decreasing market share, poor quality

It's a reflex among Quebec decision-makers. Got a problem? Hold a summit. Over the years under both Lucien Bouchard and Bernard Landry, the Parti Quebécois has organized debate clubs dealing with a variety of issues including youth, the deficit, and language.

The Parti Québécois's fingerprints were also all over a three-day advertising industry gabfest that started yesterday at a downtown hotel. The event is being billed by promoters as "Le Grand Virage." Virage -- which means to change direction -- is a word made famous by Bouchard, who used it to describe his repeated policy changes.

In the Quebec advertising industry's case, "virage," refers to the massive adjustments agencies must make to deal with challenges facing them including declining market share, increased competition and persistent quality problems.

Quebec's ad industry, (mostly French speaking, the anglos having been run out of town in the 1970s and 1980 by restrictive language legislation), has had a pretty easy time of it the last couple of decades.

Until recently francophones have had access to few program options, making them prisoners of local advertisers. As recently as the 1970s there were only two or three local television stations, radio channels and newspapers.

It was pretty easy to advertise. Just slap together an ad, book media time and most people would see it sooner or later. The ads did not have to be particularly good, since few people watched foreign (that is non-Quebec) media, and had little to compare with.

Governments also helped with big ad spending increases. Quebec agencies had a lock on provincial spending and also got at least a quarter of the federal dollars. Since they did not have to compete with outsiders for those lucrative contracts, the agencies winning them often became soft creatively.

The upshot was that advertisers - comfortable with their captive audience - have long managed to get away with spending less per capita in Quebec than in other North American markets.

But the times they are a changing. With the explosion of television channels, radio stations and other media, Quebecers have more choices. Many, especially bilingual francophones are turning to other media, leaving local advertisers high and dry. As a result is that there are fewer differences between them and other Canadians.

Local agencies are also on the short end of an industry-wide trend which has seen marketers devoting a greater proportion of budgets to non-media expenditures such as direct marketing, promotions, trade shows and the like.

But the biggest problem besetting local agencies is the persistently poor quality of Quebec advertising. When Quebecers formed a captive market nobody cared too much that local ads weren't all so great. But with local ads are increasingly competing with those on the international scene, the difference becomes more important.

Each year many local ad execs head off on junkets to the Cannes International Advertising Festival. But few come back with any awards. With Quebec advertising held in such poor regard internationally, few agencies are able to generate substantial contracts outside the province.

But while there may be justification to governments holding public policy summits, only in Quebec would the advertising industry hold one. Aren't these guys supposed to be cut-throat competitors?

But the local advertising association, the Publicité Club de Montréal has managed to leverage its president's Parti Québécois ties to finagle a $100,000 grant from the Quebec government to fund the event. (Jean-Marc Léger's sister is a P.Q. cabinet minister, as was his late father).

Unfortunately, as payback, industry leaders were required to endure a keynote address by the province's culture minister Diane Lemieux, who lectured them about the lousy quality of French used in local advertising. Then she told them with a straight face that Quebec has agencies that are the envy of countries the world over.

Notwithstanding Ms. Lemieux, Quebec ad execs know they are not delivering the goods. In private, many of them will tell you why. Agencies have a vast reserve of untapped artistic, musical, acting and design talent available. It's one of the province's greatest strengths. But the men in suits - advertisers and focus group leaders who are not used to taking chances --are far too often over-riding creative directors. The result is that the best ideas never make it out of the studio.

If local ads stink, release better ads. It doesn't a three-day summit to figure that out.

 

E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at: peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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