It's an old story. Over time, even the closest of relationships can grow cold and empty. In their hearts, both parties know that it needs to end. But neither can bring themselves to take that first, irrevocable step.
When the break-up does come - finally, inevitably - it can prove an extraordinarily painful process. But both may end up the better for it.
So it often goes with agency-client relationships. When Molson Breweries fired MacLaren McCann last May, it was the end of a partnership that had lasted nearly 40 years. In the wake of the split some insiders wondered how the agency could possibly manage to cope. Pretty well, as it turns out.
In the course of the past year, MacLaren has delivered impressive work for some challenging clients - among them Rogers Communications, Sony of Canada, Royal Bank Financial Group and General Motors of Canada.
So how did they turn it around?
"We just put our heads down and got busy," says Dom Caruso, who was managing director of MacLaren at the time of the Molson break-up, and who replaced Tony Miller as president and CEO this past January. Sure, there was the inevitable period of mourning after the departure of such an important account, he says. But they also knew that their core values - the creative brand, the legacy of understanding Canadian consumers, the ability to leverage the diverse resources available at the agency - were as sound as they'd ever been.
In retrospect, losing Molson was one of the best things that could have happened, says Marta Cutler, the agency's executive vice-president, co-creative director. The account had become a millstone, demanding enormous amounts of time and energy. "It was killing us spiritually," she says.
Cutler and her fellow creative director Dave Kelso, who took over the reins just after the Molson loss, moved quickly to inject some life into the demoralized creative department. Importing fresh talent became a priority. Indeed, only three of the creative teams the agency had in place prior to May 1999 remain intact today. Managing this process hasn't been easy, Cutler says - but it has been worthwhile. "Walking the halls right now, it's a lot more alive. There's a buzz."
Of course, there's no better morale-booster than winning a big piece of business - and on this front, MacLaren scored a major triumph just four months after the Molson split, when it acquired the creative portion of the $40-million Rogers Communications account. "It was a huge leap for us, emotionally and perceptually in the industry," Cutler says.
The corporate branding campaign for Rogers made its debut in January. But it's the more recent "Download Rigor Mortis" campaign for the Rogers@Home high-speed Internet service that has really showcased MacLaren's strengths. The competitive nature of the category meant that the agency had just three weeks to conceive and produce an integrated multi-media campaign. Yet despite the fast turnaround, the irreverent campaign proved remarkably successful, helping to double sales of the service over the same period year ago.
"It really demonstrated what we believe we are as a company," Caruso says. "It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we have the capability to move at Internet speed here." This capability stems in large part from MacLaren's commitment to integrating all of its resources under one roof, he adds. "In half an hour, we can have everyone we need at the table to solve a business problem."
The drive toward greater integration is, in turn, a function of client demand. More and more are beginning to realize that advertising alone won't do the job, Caruso says. They're looking for more creative ways to reach consumers - and agencies need to be able to deliver. That's why MacLaren launched a new internal training program six months ago that emphasizes the integrated approach to developing brand solutions.
The year past has not been without its frustrations. One notable example was the unraveling of Turbulence Communications, the boutique agency that MacLaren spun off with considerable fanfare back in early 1999.
Within a few months of one another, all three of its founders jumped ship, leaving the operation in limbo. For now, it exists as a division of MacLaren, and its future is still to be determined.
Big challenges for the year ahead? Globalization and consolidation within the marketing business - and industry in general - clearly top the list. Caruso says the implication for agencies will be a continued increase in the pace of business. Which means that the kind of warp-speed journey from brief to finished creative that MacLaren made on Rogers@Home is only going to become more commonplace.
Cutler, for her part, sees the need for MacLaren to continue improving its creative product, particularly on the print side. The work may not be world-class yet - but it will get there, she says. "In our minds, it's just a matter of keeping on doing what we're doing, and hiring the best people we can."
Royal Bank Financial Group