By David Todd
At this very moment, the employees of Vancouver-based Palmer Jarvis DDB are basking in the glow of their first-ever Agency of the Year title. And yet the person most widely regarded as the prime catalyst for the agency's success is nowhere to be found.
Chris Staples certainly didn't build the agency into a powerhouse on his own. But it was during his tenure as creative director that Palmer Jarvis DDB emerged as Canada's leading creative shop, dominating every awards show of note for the past two years. He was the most visible embodiment of what the agency had become. And his departure in October - accompanied by colleagues Ian Grais and Tom Shepansky - to launch a new shop called Rethink left many in the industry speculating about PJDDB's ability to maintain the extraordinarily high standards it has set.
If there's one person who doesn't doubt that the agency can continue as before, it's Frank Palmer - the founder, president and CEO of Palmer Jarvis DDB.
Parting with Chris Staples was, undeniably, an emotional moment for all concerned. This, after all, wasn't some big-name creative who'd been parachuted in from Toronto or San Francisco. Staples had cut his creative teeth at PJDDB, and had spent the past decade rising up through the ranks. "Chris is like a son," Palmer says.
Still, if there's one conclusion Frank Palmer has reached in 30 years of running his own shop, it's that no one is indispensable. Not even Frank Palmer. "If you don't turn over people within an agency, there's not a lot of room for other people to grow into new jobs," he says. "I'd like to think that this change will open up the opportunity for new blood. It definitely hurts when you lose someone valued like that. But then you get over it, and you move on. I'm a survivor."
Don't buy that line? Then consider the following: Less than a month after absorbing the blow of Staples' departure, the agency scored the coveted Budweiser account from Labatt Breweries of Canada, a high-profile piece of business worth an estimated $10 million.
"A beer account is something we've always wanted, but we've never been able to fulfill that before," Palmer says. "Now we've got one of the most successful brands of beer in the world. We got that because they knew we have a great creative product. And I'd love to do the same thing now in other categories, like automotive. I'd love to have some other real [brand icons] working with us."
A couple of years ago, Palmer Jarvis Communications (as it was then known) would have been a long shot to win a piece of business like Budweiser. As a regional agency - albeit one with a stellar creative reputation - it just wasn't deemed a candidate to service national advertisers headquartered in the country's marketing capital, Toronto.
All that, of course, changed in November 1997, with sale of Palmer Jarvis to global giant Omnicom, and the agency's subsequent merger with the Toronto-based subsidiary of DDB Needham Worldwide. Suddenly, the door was open to national and even international assignments.
"To be in the game today, you really have to be international," Palmer says. "You can't afford to stay the same size. So would I do it again? In a New York second."
Palmer Jarvis had been courted by a number of multinational agency networks over the years, he says. But it was at DDB Needham Worldwide that he finally found a culture compatible with his agency's own.
"When I met with the principals, I was very impressed with how they treated me. I'd talked to other groups over the years about doing partnerships, but when it came down to it, they treated me like a zero. These people, on the other hand, made me feel that I was of value - that I was a somebody. And there's never been a deviation from that. Two years later, it's been exactly the partnership I thought it would be."
While Vancouver remains the headquarters for the agency, Palmer says he believes that management has successfully transfused the Palmer Jarvis culture and values into the Toronto operation. "I spend two weeks a month in Toronto now," he says. "And I feel as much at home here as I do in Vancouver. Walking into this office, the chemistry and enthusiasm is the same as in Vancouver. There's the same teamwork, integrity and passion to win."
Palmer Jarvis DDB employs approximately 375 people, and reports billings of close to $36 million. The client roster ranges from smaller Western accounts such as
Playland, Richmond Savings Credit Union and TV12 - the sort of regional assignments on which the agency first established its creative reputation - to national advertisers such as Lever Pond's, Compaq Canada and Clorox Company of Canada.
It was national brand work that earned the agency one of its most prestigious honours to date. At this year's International Advertising Festival in Cannes, PJDDB scored a Gold Lion for a TV spot done on behalf of Finesse Shampoo from Lever Pond's. It was the first gold that a Canadian agency had brought home from Cannes in a decade.
In many ways, this win was the culmination of a process that began six years ago, when Palmer first brought veteran creative Ron Woodall into the fold. His mandate: to guide the agency's evolution from middle-of-the-road retail shop to creative leader.
It was Woodall (now executive vice-president, creative strategies) who tapped Chris Staples to assume the creative director position. Together, they introduced a number of new structures and processes designed to promote superior work - most notably, a peer review system that subjects each creative team's work to critiques from other members of the department, as well as from people in media and account services.
None of these measures, of course, would have counted for much if the agency didn't have clients willing to throw their support behind what sometimes seem to be unconventional advertising ideas.
"Too many clients out there don't have the guts to go with agency recommendations," Palmer says. "Too much research is being done, and too often great ideas are getting sifted out. In the case of Finesse, we had a client [Rob Guenette, director of hair care for Lever Pond's] who allowed us to do creative that scared him a little. A lot of our clients are letting us do that now."
This, of course, is only possible when there's a relationship of trust between client and agency - and Palmer says PJDDB has been assiduous about building such relationships.
"We have a way of working in close partnership with clients," he says. "We are constantly trying to surprise them, to go to them with ideas that they hadn't even asked for. We've had most of our clients for twice as long as the normal agency tender, and I think it's because we have this vision of going beyond, of doing the unexpected and making ourselves indispensable."
Palmer foresees no major course corrections in the coming year. The agency will continue looking for new ways to grow its business, he says. And it will continue its pursuit of creative dominance.
What role does Palmer himself play in all of this on a day-to-day basis? Simple, he says. "I'm the chief cheerleader. I don't have the pom-poms, but I'm there cheering for the team, giving high fives and celebrating wins. And I'm trying to encourage personal development. I want to give people the opportunity to grow."
And if people should grow beyond the agency? Well, sometimes - as in the case of Chris Staples - it's simply an inevitability. What can you do - except, as Palmer says, deal with it and move on? Who knows, after all, what next week or next year may bring?
"Chris could still always come back," Palmer says. "You never know. Life takes some strange turns."
Lever Ponds: Finesse Shampoo
Sun Rype: Blue Label Apple Juice and Fruit To Go
McDonald's Restaurants of Canada: Breakfast
Alberta Distillers: Banff Ice Vodka
Insurance Corporation of B.C.