The difference business
Quebec's ad industry succeeds by focusing on the domestic market

Benoit Brière is one of the most successful adverting pitchmen in Quebec. During the past decade he has portrayed dozens of zany characters in about 100 commercials for Bell Canada, a record of durability that few in the country can match.

But Brière, --whose body of work known is in local ad circles as Bell Canada's "Mr. B" campaigns -- has achieved this success despite the fact that he is largely unknown outside the province.

"If I had to give you an estimate, I would say that he has about 80 per cent name recognition (in Quebec)," said Ida Teoli, vice-president (communications) at BCE Inc. "But we tested his ads on English audiences and they don't work as well. So we only run them in French."

Campaigns like Bell Canada's Mr. B are the Quebec advertising industry's raison d'être. It would be relatively easy for big Toronto- and New York-based multinational companies like Bell to simultaneously produce French versions of the same ad they run in other North American markets.

But the province's advertising agencies have managed to convince big advertisers that Quebec francophones are different enough from other Canadians that it pays to design separate campaigns for each audience.

And by the looks of it they have done a pretty good job. During 2001 Quebec advertising industry revenue growth significantly outperformed that of other North American markets.

Canadian and U.S. advertising sales dropped 4.0 per cent and 7.0 per cent during 2001, according Nielsen Media Research (Canada). But according to estimates supplied by media consulting firm Carat Expert, Quebec ad sales stayed stable during the same period, and should jump by close to 2.0 per cent this year.

Some of the Quebec ad industry's relative strength is the result of a strong Canadian economy. "With the Conference Board (of Canada) predicting, 3.0 per cent growth, advertisers are opening up their wallets again," said David Béland, Carat Expert's research director.

But strong economic growth doesn't explain everything. Quebec advertising industry polling and focus groups consistently show that locally produced ads are better liked than those made outside the province.

According to BCE's Teoli, there are key distinctions that justify the additional expense of separate ad campaigns targeting Quebecers and other Canadians. "Marketing in Quebec is most effective when it specifically takes into account local taste," Teoli said. "Language is an important element," but there are also cultural aspects."

Teoli cites Quebecers' nuanced taste in humor as an example. "Canadians also like humor in their advertising. But it's a different kind of humor," said Teoli. "Quebecers are much more willing to do a certain amount of self-mockery.

And no one embodies that self-mockery better than Brière. While he has played many other ethnic characters over the years such as a Russian and a Rastafarian, it is his hilarious portrayals of stereotypical Quebecers from the insecure teenager, to the hayseed, to the doting grandmother that make Bell's ads stand out.

But Brière's over-the-top appeal is almost incomprehensible to non-francophones. And that is good news for Quebec's ad agencies who produce similar targeted advertising.

Nowhere was the industry's success more evident than at Quebec's advertising creative awards show held last week at Théatre St-Denis. Close to 1,800 spectators spent between $137 and $232 on tickets to the ceremonies to honor the industry's top professionals, making the show arguably the largest of its kind in Canada.

Bell also received a special award for the exceptional success of its advertising over the years. But more telling was the huge audience response when Brière appeared on the overhead video screen -- a good indication of where the ad pros think the credit belongs.

But according to Philippe Meunier, vice-president (creative) at Diesel Marketing, advertisers should not overestimate the Quebec difference.

"Cultural aspects are very important when defining campaigns," said Meunier, who was president of the jury in this year's competition. "But a good idea will work well in any language. Just look at the effect advertising coming into Quebec from other markets has."



Photo caption: Benoit Brière is one of the most successful adverting pitchmen in Quebec, but his over-the-top style of humor doesn't play as well in the rest of Canada



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