The Accent On Creativity: A Montreal Story

They increasingly set Canada's creative agenda, but are Montreal's marketers resting on clichés?

Toronto may still have the agency volume, but Montreal is increasingly setting Canada’s creative agenda. But with the scene blowing up this summer – with the incendiary C2 conference bringing the planet’s visionaries to town – are the city’s marketers resting on clichés?

Local creative Thomas Leblanc looks for answers.

Photography by Marc Rimmer

To move around Moment Factory’s loft headquarters in Montreal’s Outremont area, motion designer Aude Guivarc’h swiftly rides freeline skates, novelty sliding gear where feet stand on two separate plates equipped with wheels. On shelves near her desk sit three of the studio’s most prized possessions: scale models of the sets of Madonna’s Superbowl comeback, Jay-Z’s recent Carnegie Hall gala and Céline Dion’s current show in Las Vegas.

In all three cases, the artists were spectacularly magnified by the company’s team of visual wizards. Last February, Guivarc’h was on location in Indianapolis when the half-time show’s only disappointment was singer MIA giving America the finger.

Moment Factory's Raymond and Fournier

Moment Factory is the latest name to go from hip to household in a city that prides itself on creative companies built from scratch. With its newfound fame, “Moment,” as it’s simply known in Quebec’s media community, has helped solidify Montreal’s creative hotbed rep in marketing and entertainment circles from Toronto to Tel Aviv.

Moment Factory has gained global recognition for its sleek arrangements of screens, projections and light bulbs. In city squares, museums, arenas and brand environments, its team has created bold visual experiences (including Arcade Fire’s 2011 Coachella performance).

“We want our staff to be multi-disciplinary. Our company is for creatives who want to bring their talent to another dimension,” says Éric Fournier, the shop’s executive producer, partner and former VP at Bombardier and Cirque du Soleil.

The shop was mentioned in a speech by Montreal mayor Gérald Tremblay in front of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce during the 2010 Advertising Week in New York. Tremblay was there to promote the thriving creative community and drum up business, throwing out buzzy—if convoluted—investment bait like “Montreal has the second-greatest share of its workforce in the core occupations of the ‘creative class’ among North America’s 25 largest cities.”

In the ad world, multi-disciplinary creative shop Sid Lee has successfully embraced the city’s DNA (the Montreal bagels, the acrobats) and blasted it globally with business from Adidas, Dell and Red Bull. The agency is spotlighting its unique take on marketing this month with its inaugural C2-MTL conference. Creativity and commerce are front and centre in this (non-profit) operation and organizers have secured Francis Ford Coppola, Arianna Huffington and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner as speakers (see pg. 58).

If Richard Florida-like descriptives are common amongst the industry’s more vocal advocates, some questions are still left unanswered amidst the buzz: what, really, is Montreal’s secret ingredient to hold such a prominent cultural position in the global conversation? Why is the creative scene here so envied and is the commercial work produced really all that distinctive? And, above all, can the country’s epicentre of cool continue to be commercialized without losing its soul?

According to creatives, entrepreneurs and city officials, three traits make Montreal stand out from other North America centres: a collaborative spirit, an emphasis on authenticity over commercialism and a shared sense of ambition. But it’s also tricky to make the city’s creative product a commodity. With the media space now flooded with books and articles about the psychology of creativity, the term is quickly losing the glamorous appeal it had when the New Labour government of Tony Blair made it an official policy to promote the UK’s creative industries in the late ’90s, reinventing place-branding in the process.

Collaborative Culture
Mayor Tremblay thinks a taste for collaboration is what sets Montreal apart from the many other cities using the creativity carrot as a competitive advantage to grab global investments. In his Ad Week speech, he highlighted this part of his agenda, which goes back to when he was a Liberal provincial minister: “For the past 20 years, I have been a steadfast proponent of collaboration between firms, academia, unions, public bodies and civil society.”

Is collaborative spirit good for business? Jacques-André Dupont thinks so. He is executive producer at X3 Productions, another company quickly carving out a niche outside of the 514, creating turnkey museum-worthy exhibitions with George Lucas’ Lucas Licensing, pumping out two shows in two years.

You can’t get more collaborative than X3. A partnership between agency BleuBlancRouge, International Jazz Fest architects Groupe Spectra and installations experts gsmprjct°, X3 was selected by Lucasfilm after an open call for an international partner to launch museum exhibitions with its franchises (the Indiana Jones exhibition is currently showing in Spain). “Having access to people who have worked for Céline, Cirque du Soleil and the Jazz Fest was actually a factor of success for the bid. We surely had the know-how,” says Dupont.

The collaboration paid off in a dream creative job for some of his team, says Sébastien Fauré, president of BleuBlancRouge, adding that it was tempting for staff to spend too much time working on the Star Wars exhibition campaign. “It’s a gift for creative; it turns them on,” says Fauré. The trailer, with over 150,000 views, won the favour of even the grumpiest Star Wars fans.

“In Montreal, the various industries speak to each other. We don’t work in silos like they do in places like New York. Because of Montreal’s smaller size, sectors like aerospace, fashion, videogames and entertainment are all connected,” says Moment Factor’s Fournier, emphasizing that this practice is being adopted more than ever. “We now have better relationships with agencies. They include us from the get-go in the brand experience.”

Authenticity Matters
Authenticity is a fundamental pillar of Montreal’s creative ethos, which can be challenging when you want to build an international business apt at serving corporate clients efficiently and deliver work that is not grounded in the specifics of local culture.

“It’s not really complicated: Montreal is [an inexpensive] city. It’s affordable to start a project or company here.” That blunt remark referring to the city’s cachet comes from Anouk Pennel, arguably one of its most esteemed graphic designers. When budgets are smaller, ostentation is seldom an option. Tall and skinny with long, straight hair, he founded artsy design shop Feed in 2007 from his basement apartment.

His company is part of an unofficial club of studios launched by graphic design graduates from Université du Québec à Montréal, the city’s closest thing to Bauhaus.
Deux Huit Huit, Toxa, Departement, Baillat Cardel & Fils and a few others are specialty creative studios that hold their grounds as champions of both intelligent content and beautiful presentation with a European flair, a quality that was missing creatively in the city’s—and the country’s—bigger agencies.

“We’re privileged because today’s Quebec advertisers now have a strong culture of design and want their brand to reflect that,” says Louis-Pierre Chouinard, partner at Deux Huit Huit, which works mostly in the arts and culture sector.

Apart from a love of the basics, there is another theory to explain Montreal’s taste for the authentic life: the abundance of home-grown festivals. Festivals are—by their very definition—a celebration of culture and creativity and Montreal has festivals dedicated to almost anything you can think of (Indie music! Mainstream comedy! Alternative comedy!). A recent redevelopment between the Plateau and downtown gave birth to the city’s own entertainment district—le Quartier des spectacles.

This ambitious cultural hub, with its year-round cultural events, has become one of the city’s most attractive neighbourhoods for the creative class (SAT, a locally loved multimedia venue, was just renovated for $10 million).

Eleven promoters (including Just For Laughs’s Groupe Juste pour rire and Osheaga’s evenko) joined forces to market the city’s cultural bounty between mid-July and mid-August to potential tourists in Toronto and New York under the umbrella Festimania brand. Cossette created the campaign and the agency hired a Chatroulette-famous improv pianist to sing songs about local festivals live on the internet for passersby in other cities to watch on Skype (search “Merton Montreal Festivals” on YouTube). “People here are talented and open-minded,” says Cossette creative director Antoine Bécotte about what makes the city different. “We’re emotion seekers. That’s part of the story we wanted to tell.”

Go West, young man
First: a culture of collaboration. Second: a sales pitch about authenticity. The third and final ingredient in Montreal’s campaign to sell itself is unapologetic, almost esoteric ambition. Pure, sheer faith in success, fuelled by examples in industries as varied as aerospace, videogames, power ballads and, of course, circus. Today, creativity in business has become a matter of civic pride for many in Quebec. It has the glamour of arts and culture, without the charged politics of language. It’s fun. It’s sexy. It’s featured in Fast Company.

The saying “creativity has no borders” is certainly true for entrepreneur Dominic Tremblay, whose agency, Tuxedo, had an international viral hit with a video featuring tattooed model Rico The Zombie selling foundation product Dermablend Professional (nine million views). A charismatic L’Oréal veteran, Tremblay wanted to create a mid-size shop to service fashion and lifestyle brands. Offering editorial services and retail design, his company, which now has 23 employees, has been hired by Lancôme, Shoppers Drug Mart and Aldo.

When pressed to explain Montreal’s creative ambition, creatives themselves struggle and often fall back upon entirely uncreative clichés.

“I believe two factors will make a difference in the future of our industry: content and humans,” says Tremblay.

“Fuck the status quo,” is how Yanik Deschênes, Sid Lee’s newly appointed global communication captain, describes the much-hyped agency’s philosophy. “The risk is not taking risks,” adds the former CEO of industry lobby AAPQ.

And yet, it’s hard to argue with their results. Apparently Dell, Adidas and Red Bull agree that the status quo sucks. And after opening just two years ago, Tuxedo is already expanding to New York. The shop also just inaugurated a new expansion—the third—of its sleek Montreal open space.

BleuBlancRouge was recently named agency of record for free French daily 20 Minutes. “We’ve established quite a good conversation for ourselves in the world of newspapers because of what we did with The Gazette,” says CEO Fauré of his agency’s mulitple advertising hits for Montreal’s English paper of record.

The local ambition to stand as a global centre of creativity also stems from the municipal government, which successfully bid to become a city of design recognized by UNESCO six years ago. Often criticized for its lack of concrete impact, the designation is a strong symbol in the creative community. The city is part of the Creative Cities Network, a group of “creative hubs and socio-cultural clusters” established by UNESCO in 2004; 100 delegates from that network will be at C2.

So can the creative work produced in Montreal compete on a global level? With a New York office to open this year and more business coming from satellite outposts (400 of the 600 employees are still based in Montreal), creative behemoth Sid Lee faces a few challenges despite its meteoric rise. Namely turnover in a city where it’s not hard for a creative to find pleasant, well-paid work. “It’s also hard to find experienced upper management for what we do,” adds Deschênes.

However, Cirque du Soleil recently invested in Sid Lee to further propel the company’s ascent. Cirque’s CEO, Daniel Lamarre, will join the agency’s board of directors. Sid Lee’s partners, says Deschênes, “[are] people building the Quebec of tomorrow. One day, this will be acknowledged as one of the province’s greatest success story.”

* * *

What’s next for Montreal’s creativity moment? Important challenges are obvious. In start-up incubation, the city lags well behind neighbours Toronto (4th) and New York (2nd) in the world’s best metropolitan areas to start a tech company, according to the Startup Genome Project. (For Montreal’s part, it ranks 25th). The city might have access to an important mass of young workers (170,000 university students), but still lacks the managerial class to deliver the creative promise on a large scale.

Furthermore, the logic of creativity as a “pool of talent” easily accessible to international clients strangely echoes the country’s messaging over natural resources. On the world stage, the problem of Canada—and Montreal—remains: we don’t design enough finished consumer products or tech services to truly take advantage of these easily available resources. The solution? Investment in R&D and brand development.

With the global conversation on creativity and innovation in high gear thanks to the god-like status achieved by entrepreneurs, is there a risk of an overvaluation of businesses in the creative industries? In Montreal and elsewhere, consultancy companies will have to aggressively prove the value they bring to the table.

And with experts writing books and giving talks about how we can be more creative (part of C2-MTL’s spiel), it will be much harder in the future to market this human ability as the sole advantage of certain cultures or demographics. Creativity being a reasonably inexpensive resource to organize, it won’t be surprising to see more and more city governments and businesses exploit this potential to promote their economy, especially in emerging economies like Brazil, India and South Africa. The race has only just begun. Good thing Montreal heard the starting gun before most cities.

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