Palmer Jarvis DDB
Frank Palmer likes to describe himself as a "survivor." Not that he's into spear-fishing, eating rats or strolling around tropical islands in the nude. (And maybe we should all just pause here to erase that last image from our minds.)
But in 30-odd years of running his own agency, he has learned a thing or two about overcoming adversity.
Consider: A year ago at this time, even as it celebrated victory in Strategy's 1999 Agency of the Year competition, Vancouver-based Palmer Jarvis DDB was struggling to cope with a painful blow. In October, national creative director Chris Staples decamped, along with colleagues Ian Grais and Tom Shepansky, to establish a new shop, Rethink Communications.
Now, the sudden departure of a creative director isn't exactly an uncommon occurrence in the industry. But this one garnered a lot more attention than usual. High-profile and outspoken, Staples was viewed widely as the author of the agency's transformation into one of Canada's leading creative agencies.
"It was a trying time," recalls Palmer, the president and CEO of PJDDB. "Chris had played a big role in our creative product, and he was well known through his own PR efforts ... So we had to deal with perceptions. When people looked at our agency, they said, 'Are they still going to be a force to be dealt with?' But in fact, we're as good as we were - if not better."
The judges of the 2000 Agency of the Year competition would seem to agree, having awarded PJDDB its second title in as many years. The agency, which currently boasts 277 employees and approximately $220 million in billings, finished well ahead of runners-up TAXI Advertising & Design and MacLaren McCann.
What many outsiders forgot about at the time, Palmer says, was the sheer depth of the agency's creative talent pool. "Chris is a good creative director. He's also a master of manipulating the press. He knows how to take what he does and merchandise it. A lot of people underneath him were actually doing the work. And the people who wrote and art directed those ads - most of them remained here. We were growing others within the
organization under Chris all the way along."
Equally important has been the continued presence of Ron Woodall, the agency's executive vice-president, creative strategies. The veteran creative responsible for giving the world the A&W Root Bear and the Toyota Dealer jump, he came on board seven years ago to help boost the overall quality of PJDDB's output. Woodall was coach and mentor to Chris Staples, Palmer says - and he'll play the same role now for Randy Stein, the rising young star who took over as creative director of the Vancouver office in July.
The net result has been a year's worth of consistently impressive work for such clients as Telus, Labatt Breweries of Canada (Budweiser and Bud Light), Lever Pond's (Degree), The Clorox Company of Canada (Pine-Sol and Glad), the Vancouver Aquarium and The Brick - creative that, in Palmer's view, meets the high standard that the agency set in previous years.
That said, 2000 has not been without its disappointments. Most acute was the loss of the $25-million-plus Compaq Canada account, which moved over to Harrod & Mirlin/FCB in May when the computer manufacturer's U.S.-based parent decided to consolidate its advertising on a global basis. The agency also failed in its all-out bid to land the CIBC account, a $50-million piece of business that ended up with Publicis Canada. And in November it lost out to Cossette Communication-Marketing in its bid for the McDonald's Restaurants of Canada national English-language account.
One notable consequence of the decision to pursue CIBC was that PJDDB ended up resigning the Richmond Savings Credit Union business - one of the clients with which the agency built its creative reputation. The Richmond Savings account later ended up at Rethink, along with a couple of other former PJDDB clients - namely, Playland and A&P/Dominion.
While Palmer professes no hard feelings toward his erstwhile colleagues, the thought of former clients - especially a blue-chip piece of business like A&P/Dominion - going to bed with a gang of PJDDB defectors clearly rankles.
"I'm very competitive," he says. "I don't like to lose any business. And quite frankly, if we make up our mind at some point to go back after any one of those accounts, we will - and we'll probably win them back."
On the upside, Palmer says the agency has finally worked its way through the difficult adjustment process that began in late 1997, with the sale of his independent shop to Omnicom, and its subsequent merger with the Toronto-based subsidiary of DDB Needham Worldwide.
"If I had to live through it again, would I want to? No, I wouldn't. Because while we've been dealing with people leaving ... we've also been trying to continue to grow. As part of a multinational, you have financial targets and growth targets. You may take a step backwards, but you always have to find ways of taking giant leaps forward. We've been able to do that, but it has meant a large price for me and others."
Palmer says the quality of the work coming out of the Toronto and Vancouver offices is now more or less on a par - something that couldn't have been claimed three years ago. And he expects to see continued improvement in Toronto under Neil McOstrich, who assumed the creative director post in April.
Also of importance has been the success of senior management in fostering a team spirit that is shared by both offices. The two compete fiercely for some assignments, Palmer says, but they also respect and support one another. (In addition to Toronto and Vancouver, the agency has offices in Victoria, B.C. and Edmonton, Alta., as well as Palmer Jarvis DDB Downtown, a conflict agency set up with a number of former Bozell Worldwide staffers to handle Budweiser and Bud Light.)
On the organizational front, this past year also brought a major restructuring, as the agency shifted to its new "brand management" model. Under this setup, the PJDDB brand management group is charged with creating a broad-based strategic platform for each client's brand by integrating the efforts of all of the agency's divisions - traditional advertising, online communications, database marketing, youth marketing, and so on.
"Agencies always say they're integrated, but they really don't function that way," Palmer says. "But under our structure, the brand manager has full authority to direct the client's brand through every one of those disciplines."
If there's an area where Palmer would like to see improvement next year, it's new business. True, the agency did score a couple of new accounts, such as Century 21 Real Estate and The Brick. But striking out on CIBC and McDonald's were major disappointments.
Still, Palmer expects a turnaround in 2001. The agency will be targeted but very aggressive about going after new accounts, he pledges. "We've been laying the groundwork. We'll pick out accounts in categories that we want - and if we happen to think that [the incumbent agency] isn't doing a good job, we will target it. We'll go directly after that client. Sometimes to get a new account like that can take three or five years. But if you work at it, you can make progress. Chip away, that's always been our style."
St. John Ambulance