2008 Agency Of The Year: Nice guys finish first

Advertising isn’t always a loving or supportive industry. Back-stabbing is as much a part of the highly competitive agency life as crying fits and brick-and-beam office design. Agency professionals are often quick to point out the perceived lousy work, misguided strategies, poor management and supposed plagiarism of other agencies. Except John St. Everybody seems to […]

Advertising isn’t always a loving or supportive industry. Back-stabbing is as much a part of the highly competitive agency life as crying fits and brick-and-beam office design. Agency professionals are often quick to point out the perceived lousy work, misguided strategies, poor management and supposed plagiarism of other agencies. Except John St.

Everybody seems to like John St. There’s nary a snide blog post to be found about the “little” indie shop from Toronto. “I love John St.,” said Joan McArthur, former executive creative director at McCann Erickson. As a member of Marketing’s agency jury, she lamented that, despite its reputation for great work, John St. never gets the credit. “They’re Miss Congeniality every year,” she said. Well, hold that tiara for a moment.

(left to right) Angus Tucker, co-creative director; Stephen Jurisic, co-creative director; Jane Tucker, director of client services; Peter Bolt, director of business strategy; Emily Bain, director of strategic planning; Arthur Fleischmann, president Photo: Jeff Kirk

In 2008, business at the seven-year-old shop has been booming. It won six new clients this year-Ferrero Canada, Suzuki Canada, Prime Restaurants, an as-of-yet-unnamed new beer from Moosehead Breweries, Michelina’s frozen entrées from Bellisio Foods, and Corby Distilleries. Perhaps more telling of its success, however, is the fact that it did so without losing any of its 27 existing clients-11 of which are design-only accounts with wholly owned design partner Amoeba-while also picking up major new assignments with existing clients.

Choosing the 2008 Agency of the Year was not easy. Larger agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather and Taxi did great, award-winning work for Kraft and Koodo, and Montreal’s Sid Lee led the charge overseas, winning international work with Adidas and opening an office in Amsterdam. In terms of major account wins, Bell Canada would have been the one of the biggest trophies except it was split between four agencies, and the first phase of the campaign received tepid reviews from marketers and consumers alike. Becoming lead agency for Adidas Originals was a great win, but Sid Lee hasn’t yet produced any work for the $5-million account.

John St., however, met Marketing’s broad criteria of growth, innovation and market leadership better than any other: a 37% revenue bump on six new accounts; a bevy of awards (AdWeek Buzz Awards, Marketing Awards, Cassies, Bessies, ADCC); breakout campaigns for brands big and small.

This was the year that the agency’s hard work building Kruger’s Cashmere bathroom tissue paid off, protecting its 29% market share despite the return to Canada of the famous Cottonelle. This was the year it put Wiser’s on the map with The Wiserhood campaign, showing aspirational males there’s more to life than beer and bar mix. This was the year it replaced Michelina’s Macarena mania with Mama, a new spokesperson who proved a huge hit online.

Miss Congeniality no more. Break out the roses-John St. is the 2008 Agency of the Year.

The 105-person agency was a strong contender for the top spot last year after winning The Bay, an iconic national brand owned by HBC and widely seen as needing repair. With an annual media spend of $38 million, it was a huge opportunity for the agency, then just 70 people, which created a series of themed merchandising events such as Garden Party (for urban sophisticates) and Boom (targeting baby boomer women). Management loved the approach. However, following the death of HBC owner Jerry Zucker in April and the sale of the company to NRDC Equity Partners three months later, the relationship became uncertain. Would the new owners take the brand in a different direction? Would they give The Bay to the larger Leo Burnett, the agency already working on HBC’s Zellers banner?

“We were scared shitless,” says John St. president Arthur Fleischmann. Turns out there was no need to be scared. In late summer John St. was handed the Zellers account and its $22 million annual media spend (according to Nielsen Media Research).

This is just one example of the client trust that has been the agency’s trademark since it opened its doors seven years ago and that really bore fruit in 2008, as clients gave more and more of their brand image to the company.

When Maple Leaf Foods went into crisis management mode around the listeriosis outbreak last summer, creative director Angus Tucker was called in to help write scripts for Maple Leaf president Michael McCain’s two television addresses.

“We went from brief to air in 48 hours,” says Tucker. “We were literally writing on the spot.” He’s humble about his role, giving much credit to lead PR agency Fleishman-Hillard and McCain himself, but being called in to contribute to what was by definition a PR challenge illustrates how much Maple Leaf counts on John St. to protect its brand.

Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca is expanding its work with the agency, as well. Rob Last, AstraZeneca’s vice-president of marketing, says John St.’s strategic approach to brand building has helped his company exceed global expectations.

“Canada is the eighth largest pharmaceutical market in the world,” he says. “But our Canadian affiliate is the fourth largest AstraZeneca company in the world. We’re performing twice above market expectation.”

Last says he hired John St. in 2006 because he wanted a “consumer-focused agency that had a strong planning and research department.”

He knew he chose well once he saw the planning group in action, led by partner Emily Bain. The brand-building process her team brought to the marketing regimen produced results quickly. “The year we brought John St. on board was the biggest year in our company’s history for sales,” he says.

John St. started with just four brands-Atacand, Crestor, Symbicort and Nexium-but they accounted for 80% of the client’s business. Because of its strong work, Last gave John St. another brand, Seroquel, to work on next year and the agency is working on projects for the Canadian operation that may be adopted globally.

Smaller clients are also expanding their relationships with John St. Ferrero Canada hired the agency late in 2007 to work on one product, but it has already handed the agency a second.

The first Ferrero campaign for its Bueno chocolate bar broke in August, showing women “raising the bar for indulgence” by spending eight consecutive hours at the spa and buying $9 coffee.

“Before John St. won our review, Bueno had been on the market for several years with very low awareness and no clear identity or positioning,” says Ferrero’s marketing vice-president Mark Wakefield. “It was more a product than it was a brand.”

Like Last at AstraZeneca, Wakefield was most impressed by Bain’s “disciplined and rigorous” team, which gave him “great consumer insights and big brand ideas.” To show his appreciation, he’s just given John St. the Nutella account.

Bain’s success aside, the agency has also flourished on the digital side. The Camp Okutta campaign for War Child-which broke in the summer of 2007 but earned much award show acclaim this year-and Mama Michelina’s Facebook fame are proof that the agency can do great work in an area where it lagged only two years ago.

“We realized if we didn’t fix [the lack of digital expertise], we were dead,” Fleischmann says. “We were selling buggy wheels and no one was riding horses… Now we’re doing work for Corby, Michelina, Kruger,” and another new multi-million dollar interactive assignment from AstraZeneca.

The fix started with the hiring of Shari Walczak, an online strategic planner with extensive digital experience at Fjord and Leo Burnett. She built an interactive staff including digital art directors and production workers that is now fully integrated into the strategic and creative flow.

Despite the growth, John St. has maintained a relaxed and relatively ego-free culture, thanks in large part to the presence of the four founding partners (Fleischmann, Tucker, Bain and co-creative director Stephen Jurisic), who’ve been selective about new clients and new hires.

“We just want to do the work, to do good work,” says Jurisic. “We want to get better and smarter at what we do, so we don’t read our own press.”

That may become tougher in the coming years as Fleischmann sees more growth ahead. Although, like successful indie forerunner Taxi, he’s being vigilant about the possible impact that growth could have on the John St. culture. A second office is a definite possibility, he says. Perhaps a JS2, or Jane Street.

This could lead to trouble, though. Too much success and John St.’s “nice guy” image might wear off. If the truest sign of success in advertising is raising the ire of envious industry peers, John St. will need a thicker skin in 2009.

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