Inside H&R Block’s summer-long agency search

Sid Lee gets the nod on a brand in transition

It took longer than expected, but Hilary Zaharko wanted H&R Block Canada‘s agency review to cut no corners. Her “bullish” brand has its fair share of marketing challenges, which Sid Lee Toronto is now set to take up as the clock counts down to tax season.

The Canadian arm of the tax preparation company began its review through the Institute of Communication Agencies in May. It would see 28 agencies submit their credentials, four months of meetings and the complete upheaval of an account – which covered strategy, creative and media responsibilities – that had resided with the team at Sandbox Advertising since 2004.

“[Sandbox was] going through some changes themselves,” Zaharko, the company’s director of marketing, told Marketing. “We were looking for a change in direction. After 13 years, it’s a good time revisit things. Just time for a new direction.”

Sandbox has certainly changed since it first won H&R Block Canada as the independently-owned Due North. The agency subsequently teamed with others as part of the more collectively run One Advertising and is now part of Sandbox’s U.S.-based network. It was offered a place in the review, but declined to defend the account.

“We wish H&R Block well,” said Jill King, Sandbox president. “We’ve had a long and successful relationship. They’re in a very tough business and we understand that they wanted to go in a completely different direction.”

H&R Block is somewhat unique among Canadian brands. The bulk of its seven-figure media spend falls between January and the end of April, after which if becomes relatively quiet. With such a limited window, communications need to work all the harder to strike a chord with those looking for tax help, lest they start from scratch year after year.

With limited time to find a new partner, get them up to speed and start building a strategy for 2017’s tax season, Zaharko’s team was faced with a tall pile of 28 agencies to initially choose from. Wanting to weed out those pitching for the sake of pitching (revealing, perhaps, their need for new business instead of a client-focused strategy), Zaharko adopted a simple approach to whittle down that pile.

“The first thing we did was look at people who hadn’t mentioned our name or put our logo in the RFP, which honestly, eliminated half of them right away,” she said, shocked at how many agencies filled their proposals with nothing but information about themselves, and nothing about their prospective client or its challenges. “The way I describe it is if you go on a date with a guy, and he spends the whole time talking about himself, what are you there for?”

Most of the agencies that got as far as a meeting with Zaharko told her the brand was not emotionally connecting with its client base. “They told us the brand is becoming ‘meh,’ not beloved or hated. I’m on vacation right now and we just drove by one in this small town. They are literally in every town, but there’s not a great deal of passion towards them.”

The next step was about finding a shop of the right size to deal with H&R Block’s frantic campaign needs. “We basically go from a very chill client to a very intense client and back to chill because of the seasonal nature of our business,” Zaharko said. “We go from needing two people to plan strategy to what I’ve heard described as a freight train running through the agency.”

(Incidentally, both H&R Block’s Canadian president Richard Brown and American president William C. Cobb come from marketing backgrounds, which puts even more informed scrutiny on that seven-figure spend. Zaharko characterizes her marketing needs as “bullish” as a result.)

From there, it was about assessing each prospective agency’s strategy for attracting new clients and dealing with the “meh” problem. Six agencies emerged on a shortlist.

During deliberations, Zaharko was asking around about each of the shortlister’s reputations and heard Sid Lee had a reputation for being “argumentative” with its clients and pushing back on decisions. “Chemistry” being ever important in agency/client relationships, she asked its pitch team what they made of that characterization.

“Actually, that’s a great compliment for us because we see ourselves as sharing accountability, and the only way that works is if we are honest with clients and they are honest in return,” said Vito Piazza, president and COO of Sid Lee Toronto. “We want to be more than just an ad agency. We want to be a great business partner. We win if they win.”

And, it turned out, Zaharko liked that attitude. Given the number of executives in the approval structure with CMO experience, Zaharko wanted an agency that could hold its ground and stick to a strategy that otherwise my suffer from too many cooks in its kitchen.

Eve RĂ©millard Larose, managing partner at Sid Lee Toronto, said the agency sought to inject the brand with “a new personality” during its pitch.

“We want to make it more relevant for Canadians… looking at it from a more holistic standpoint and giving it a strong creative platform so we always have a consistent voice and behaviour in the market.”

So now, four months after starting her review, Zaharko is transitioning the account fully to Sid Lee Toronto and its affiliated Sid Lee Media. The team already faces several decisions: how to better connect with the Quebec market (which she hopes Sid Lee’s Quebec roots can help with), whether to market both its retail and online offerings simultaneously, and what media channels to explore in 2017. By January, the market will see what the new partnership comes up with.

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