Chris Staples Rethinks Vancouver Advertising

Chris Staples helped reinvigorate a moribund Vancouver ad industry back in the 1990s with daring and engaging work. In this challenging new economy, with an evermore fragmented media universe, can he do it again?

Chris Staples helped reinvigorate a moribund Vancouver ad industry back in the 1990s with daring and engaging work. In this challenging new economy, with an evermore fragmented media universe, can he do it again?

THESE DAYS when someone mentions advertising, one of the first things to come to mind is the critically lauded TV drama Mad Men. The American Movie Classics series, set around the life of Don Draper – the handsome, hypnotically charming creative director of New York ad agency Sterling Cooper – delights and startles viewers with its early-’60s glamour and era-appropriate displays of cigarette-stuffed ashtrays, scotch swilling and casual sexism in the workplace.


Chris Staples, one of the leading figures in Vancouver’s advertising industry, looks at the show, which premiered in 2007, and sees a cautionary tale. “My whole career has been a reaction to Mad Men and that whole idea that it’s all about surface and wining and dining clients,” says the tall and broad-shouldered co-creative director of Rethink Communications with the ready smile and high cheekbones of an action-movie star. You should be judged on results, is his message, not on packaging.

With 60 employees and an estimated $10 million in annual revenues, Rethink has not only delivered the results but has helped elevate Vancouver’s advertising scene onto the worldwide stage. The company Staples founded in 1999 with fellow co-creative director Ian Grais and director of client services Tom Shepansky now has a client list that includes A&W, Mr. Lube and Playland. Among its scores of prizes, Rethink was honoured by Marketing magazine as its 2003 Agency of the Year and last year won 40 awards at the Advertising and Design Club of Canada Awards – more than any agency in the country – while cleaning up at the B.C. equivalent, the Lotus Awards, winning 49 prizes.

PlayLand “They’re one of the most dynamic agencies in the country – not just Vancouver,” says Christopher Loudon, editor-in-chief of Marketing, an industry trade publication. “They’re having an impact nationally and internationally.”

The key to Rethink’s success has always been to make strengths out of perceived limitations. From small budgets (Staples says Rethink has made 30-second commercials for less than $30,000, a fraction of the industry average), the firm has helped create concept-driven commercials that have caught worldwide attention – including a Gold Lion at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in France. And from a region that’s far away from media centres and where the work/life balance is paramount, Rethink has created a working environment that’s sustainable, co-operative and socially conscious – the polar opposite of Mad Men.

Still, that show – set during a period when a shifting media landscape changed the very nature of advertising – is not without its contemporary echoes. Uncertainty abounds these days.

A report by marketing group ZenithOptimedia suggests that ad spending in North America might drop by 5.7 per cent in 2009, while Nielsen Co. Canada data show Vancouver advertising spending falling by 3.3 per cent in January from the year prior, exceeding the one per cent drop seen nationally. With the ongoing splintering of the media landscape, getting a big bang for your (shrinking) media buck becomes even harder.

In Mad Men, it’s Don Draper’s creative vision and personal charisma that help Sterling Cooper sail through tumultuous times. At Rethink, it’s Staples who’s the natural-born salesman arguing that daring, engaging creative work, combined with a value-oriented approach to clients, can turn this recession into another opportunity. The question is, Will the city’s other agencies follow his lead?

WATCHING A STRING of Rethink’s greatest hits, you see not only a singular approach, but also the cheeky personality of an agency that surprises you like a boutonniere squirting water in your face.

In a Coast Capital Savings commercial, a balding guy tells his wife outside a bank that his hair loss came from the stress of dealing with bank fees. Once inside Coast Capital Savings, which offers a free ­chequing account, he notices customers and staff alike have long, flowing locks similar to a crowd at a Peter Frampton concert (in his heyday). The couple approaches a long-haired teller who recites the financial institution’s catchphrase: “How can we help you?”

Or take, for example, a clip for Earls Restaurants Ltd. A dog climbs up a kitchen counter to lick an unattended roast as its owners greet their dinner-party guests; the announcer asks, “You could eat at home, but why?” before the scene changes to a table at the local dining chain.

And for a promotion for Science World called Walk on Water, a makeshift swimming pool is filled with four tonnes of corn starch and water, and passersby are invited to step in the pool without sinking in – the trick is to tread quickly.

“Nobody likes ads, and nobody cares,” says Staples, 47, dressed in dark jeans and a grey cashmere cardigan, from one of Rethink’s boardrooms. “People see 3,500 ads a day; they’re just inundated. If you just talk about yourself without any entertainment value, you’re going to get ignored.”

The child of two teachers, Staples grew up in an Edmonton suburb and remembers creating elaborate magazine ads for imaginary lines of cars. After taking a journalism degree at Carleton University that taught him how to write to deadlines, he returned west to Edmonton in 1983, where in only a few years he moved from an entry-level copywriting job to the position of creative director at Francis, Williams & Johnson Ltd. and worked on Premier Don Getty’s leadership campaign. “The agency was really in bed with the politicians,” Staples recalls. “It turned my stomach.” Staples eventually moved on to Intergroup Advertising, where, at age 25, he was making $75,000 a year.

“In Edmonton there weren’t too many choices,” he says modestly. “I still didn’t know anything about advertising.” Recalling one “cheesy” national campaign for Esso that he created in which a “magic” pen revealed prizes, Staples says the ads back then may have pleased his clients, but they didn’t pass what Staples terms the “cocktail party test.” When ads become conversational fodder at gatherings, Staples explains, “you’ve really won.”

His early, mediocre work left him with a weak CV when he decided to move to Vancouver in 1990 with his life partner, elementary-school teacher Steve Rosell, and he needed a new job. The only work he could find, at half his previous pay, was as a copywriter at Palmer Jarvis. At the time, the independent shop found itself in a strange position: it was Vancouver’s most profitable agency but also the least creatively successful. In 1992 industry magazine Strategy ranked Palmer Jarvis the 69th-best creative agency in Canada. As Staples tells it, Palmer Jarvis staff would attend the Lotus Awards and watch, bolted to their seats, as their crosstown rivals, the Vancouver office of New York-based BBDO, stepped onstage to accept one award after another.

“The fact was, we weren’t winning the awards we thought we should and could be winning, and we wanted to dial it up,” acknowledges agency founder Frank Palmer, who in 1992 enlisted straight-talking industry veteran Ron Woodall, the creative director of Expo 86, to help revamp his firm.

“Frank Palmer’s agency was considered to be a purveyor of garbage,” observes Woodall bluntly. After observing Palmer Jarvis for several months, Woodall recommended an overhaul in the office culture and suggested Staples as creative director. “I thought of Chris as a leader,” says Woodall, now retired and dividing his time between Bowen Island and Mexico. “He energized his other creative people with his enthusiasm. He’s so good at selling the product, the brand of work we were turning out.”

Adds Palmer, “Chris can not only do the creative work, but he’s also a very good strategist who can sell the work.” On the account service side of the business, it was decided Palmer Jarvis needed people who wanted to fight for good ads and not just to please the client. Tom Shepansky, whom Staples had worked with at two Edmonton agencies, was brought in as an account director.

3M security glassAt the time he received his promotion, Staples remembered feeling “scared shitless because I’d never created an award-winning ad.” Palmer accelerated his learning by sending him to industry conferences and pairing him with talented art directors: Mark Mizgala, a new recruit from Miller Myers Bruce Dalla Costa in Toronto and Ian Grais in 1994, an advertising student at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (whom Staples calls “the best purist creative mind I’ve ever run across”).

Palmer Jarvis quickly stood apart with its humour and slightly edgier approach. Staples remembers applying this formula early on in a coupon ad for Ginsana, a ginseng-based energy drink. “The only visual in the ad was a big dotted square, and the headline inside was, ‘Too Tired to Rip Out This Coupon?’” he recalls, punctuating his point by sketching out the dotted box on a notepad.    
Other local agencies such as TBWA and BBDO were making similar ads, which were highly visual and based on a simple idea. After these agencies took the Toronto awards shows by storm in the mid-’90s, this type of ad became known as the “Vancouver school” of advertising.

“In Los Angeles, you can have a mediocre idea and attach amazing talent to that idea and that idea will get better,” explains Grais, now co-creative director with Staples at Rethink. “We don’t have huge budgets, so we work hard to make sure our ideas are strong out of the gate.”

The payoff for Palmer Jarvis came quicker than anyone expected. In 1997, five years after being listed by Strategy as the 69th-best creative agency, the magazine ranked it first in the country. That same year at the Lotus Awards, it was named Agency of the Year and collected so much trophy hardware that the agency’s banquet table literally collapsed.

As it turned out, this sort of success was like being the prize-winning pig at the fair. In 1997, shortly after his shop’s turnaround, Palmer sold the agency to the worldwide network DDB. “Frank was great,” says Staples, who stuck with the merged company for over a year. “The minute DDB owned him, instead of reporting to Frank, we were reporting to accountants in New York.” In 1999 Staples, Shepansky and Grais decided to strike out on their own.

INSPIRED BY A BOOK entitled Open Minds, about a co-operatively owned advertising agency in London, the three founders were committed to living up to the name of their business. They decorated their first office – an inexpensive, unheated space on Pender Street – with Astroturf, Ikea furniture and a $400 ping-pong table that doubled as a conference-room table to symbolize their value-oriented ethos. Buoyed by positive press coverage and an expanding client list, the agency grew quickly: from its three principals and receptionist Elsa Brown (who’s still with the company as an account director, one of five employees who’ve become partners) to over 20 within that first year.

“It felt like we got fired out of a cannon,” says Shepansky, who negotiates fees and contracts and also consults on strategy. “Just to manage that kind of growth and find the right kind of people and establish a set of values and beliefs, that’s been the part that initially was challenging.”

Today, in its current two-storey offices on Granville Street (where it’s been since 2007), the same minimalist decor endures. You can still find the ping-pong table, which is a reminder of the agency’s humble origins and the inspiration for an advertising philosophy that, at Rethink, rivals the cocktail-party test in importance. “If I were to throw one ping- pong ball at you, you’d probably catch it,” suggests Staples, whose role as co-creative director also overlaps with some duties of an account director.

“If I were to throw five at you at the same time, you’d probably catch none of them. Most ads have several ping-pong balls. There are too many messages in them. In strategic planning, we always try to figure out with clients the one thing they want to be famous for and we focus on that.” For instance, Coast Capital Savings Credit Union’s ping-pong ball is “service,” which is reflected in their motto, How Can We Help You? and in a 2004 commercial where a Coast Capital employee helps one customer feed a pill to his growling Rottweiler.

Louisa Flinn, director of integrated marketing at the B.C. Automobile Association (BCAA), is a fan of Rethink’s approach. “At meetings, they’re at the table as one of us, rather than as an invited agency,” says Flinn, who tracks Rethink’s performance based on brand awareness, actual membership and insurance and travel growth. In 2008 BCAA boasted its best-ever retention rate at over 89 per cent. “They try to think like us, understand our needs and our customer segments, before they even go to concepts,” Flinn says. “Then they get results.”

Membership at Coast Capital, which has 51 branches, has grown by 150,000, to a total of 380,000, between 2005 and 2008. Ipsos Reid surveys indicate that Coast Capital ranks number three among B.C. financial institutions in terms of advertising recall, behind only ING Bank of Canada and TD Canada Trust. “I’m competing against Scotias and Banks of Montreal that have much more money than I do,” says Lawrie Ferguson, senior vice-president of marketing at Coast Capital. “But Rethink’s creative approach is so good, it’s sticky. I get a real sense that my dollars are working hard there.”

In the deluge of bad economic news, businesses that aren’t cutting back their spending are looking to stretch their dollars. In this regard, Rethink might be prescient. Instead of charging by the hour, as most agencies do, Shepansky negotiates a flat fee for the company, which brings down the number of accountants needed in the office and allows for a higher-than-average percentage of creative workers. (Rethink also keeps staffing costs low by outsourcing its media buying, unlike other “full-service” agencies.) About five per cent of the fee, half of Rethink’s profit, is held in escrow. At the end of the year, the client decides how much to give back to Rethink, based on its performance.

“We felt we should be accountable,” says Staples, who says Rethink receives, on average, 80 per cent of the withheld fee. “If an ad doesn’t work, most agencies would say, ‘Sorry, we tried.’ ” With the New York Times reporting in January that several law firms have begun charging flat fees too, it may be that other Vancouver advertising agencies might soon need to “rethink” their billing policy – even if they don’t start laying down Astroturf on their floors.

Coast Capital Savings“THERE’S A DISEASE called entertainment that’s infecting our business,” ad man David Ogilvy was fond of saying in speeches and interviews. For the legendary copywriter, who wrote the 1963 industry bible Confessions of an Advertising Man, entertainment was secondary to an ad’s effectiveness at moving product. In Ogilvy’s day, with only a handful of TV channels, radio stations and print publications to worry about, advertisers could effectively overpower consumers – “roadblocking” them with the ubiquity of their ads. But nowadays just showing up isn’t enough.

According to the Canadian Media Directors’ Council, television advertising spending increased 35 per cent between 2000 and 2007 – from $2.45 billion to $3.29 billion – compared to a whopping 1,215 per cent jump for Internet advertising over the same period – from $110 million to $1.24 billion (newspaper advertising, at $1.73 billion, showed no growth whatsoever). “Right now, most agencies are still trying to figure out how to grasp the Internet and make money on it,” observes Frank Palmer. New technologies such as personal video recorders, which induces viewers to skip commercials altogether, are also forcing marketers to think creatively, including introducing more product placement within shows. An advertising agency has to not only make more decisions with a limited budget, but make more right decisions.

It also has to engage consumers through more unorthodox channels. Rethink, which launched its own beer as a self-promotional ploy in 1999, has managed to grab a good deal of attention by using various guerrilla-marketing techniques. Its most memorable project was a Vancouver bus shelter ad to promote 3M’s new security glass in 2005. Stacks of cash were placed between two clear panes of the impenetrable glass, with people on the street invited to break through the glass to get the money.

The inexpensive, interactive stunt generated an estimated million dollars in free publicity from TV, newspaper and Internet news coverage. More recently, Rethink staged a pro bono stunt for Offsetters, a company that helps businesses offset carbon emissions. To help illustrate the potentially frightening effects of climate change, which include rising sea levels, Rethink suspended two life rafts from its downtown Vancouver office building, several storeys above passing pedestrians, and placed life jackets under park benches.

Ultimately, Staples doesn’t believe that advertising needs to be reinvented so much as it has to be done better. The role of the creative ad man, he thinks, has never been so important. “You know those awful Tide ads, where you take this T-shirt and that T-shirt, with a stain here and a stain there?” asks the debonair risk taker. “If you saw that ad online, there’s no way you’d look at it. You have to do something new and surprising – and you have fewer chances to hit the mark.”

Online Only: Watch some of Chris Staples’ best work