You gotta have heart. That’s the raison d’ętre at Palmer Jarvis DDB, according to its leader, Frank Palmer. "We’re in the relationship business," he says, "and if we’re lacking in anything, it shouldn’t be heart."
That philosophy has helped buoy the business, he believes, not only because clients can sense when an agency has enthusiasm, but also because "heart" comes through in each creative endeavor. "The spirit at Palmer Jarvis is tough to describe, because it’s almost in the paint... it’s just an attitude."
That’s not to say 2001 has been a completely smooth ride for PJ. The 32-year-old agency, which has offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Victoria, lost the coveted $50-million McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada account to Cossette Communication-Marketing, because of a "lack of representation" in Quebec, and the $26-million Compaq account, because of the client’s financial difficulties, according to Palmer.
But the agency also nabbed several new clients in what turned out to be a relatively "flat" year. "It’s been a decent year in Canada, but it’s been a struggle," confesses Palmer. "We would have had a fantastic year if it wasn’t for McDonald’s, but we picked up revenue, and we’re grateful we’re not laying off people."
Among its wins in the past year: the $26-million Amicus Financial account and the $9.7-million Imperial Oil account, as well as the Kokanee and Dominion Directories accounts in Vancouver. Total annual billings were estimated at about $37 million in 2000. This past year, PJ also completed work for Telus, Ontario Lotteries, Petroleum Producers of Canada and Anheuser-Busch, which totalled approximately $49 million in billings.
Of these, perhaps PJ’s greatest feat was when Toronto-based PJ DDB Downtown netted the projects for the U.S.-based Anheuser-Busch brands Bud Light, Budweiser and Doc Otis (a lemonade-vodka cooler). "I think it was a fantastic coup to get the Anheuser-Busch work," says Jim Herrler, president of the Toronto agency since getting promoted in September 2000. "It was a fantastic moment, both in the eyes of the Canadian marketplace and in the eyes of our U.S. parent company."
That victory hit home at this year’s Cannes Lions when August Busch, the company’s group VP, marketing and wholesale operations, thanked a number of agencies - among them the at-one-time-small Canadian boutique - as he accepted the Advertiser of the Year award. Both Herrler and Palmer were in the crowd at the time. "We gave each other the thumbs-up," recalls Herrler. "It is a magic moment when someone internationally recognizes the work you’ve done for their brand." PJ hopes to make more inroads south of the border, says Herrler, but will focus on mid- or small-size companies, so as not to compete with other DDB agencies.
So far, it’s been PJ’s relationships with Canadian clients that have opened doors in the U.S. For instance, it was the agency’s work for Bud Light in Canada that attracted the attention of Anheuser-Busch. Palmer adds that PJ’s domestic campaign for Degree, the Lever-Ponds deodorant brand, has caught the eye of Lever-Ponds’ American executives, and that they are considering whether the creative would fly stateside.
As ad shops engage in a slugfest over fewer Canadian ad dollars these days, Palmer suggests that it is wise to make more of a concerted effort when it comes to the U.S. market. "There are a lot more fish there," he says. "We can’t take the focus off what we’re doing in Canada, but if there’s work in the U.S., we will take it."
Meanwhile, PJ plans to make its presence felt in Quebec soon too, probably via the acquisition of an already-established shop. "There are two or three agencies we’ve had conversations with, and we are frankly looking at some time in the first half of next year."
But no matter where he steers his ship, Frank Palmer no longer needs to be the sole captain. He now has a partner in Tony Altilia, who stepped up as president and COO of the agency in mid-August. Ironically, Palmer became well-acquainted with Altilia, formerly president at Vickers & Benson, when the two shops hooked up for the McDonald’s pitch. Despite their failure in that initiative, Altilia made an impression. "I felt like it was my duty to make sure the company is always in the best shape from a senior management position," explains Palmer. "I saw [Altilia’s] style, and felt we shared the same values."
The feeling was mutual: "The thing I admire most [about PJ] is that while they have a good track record, they are not the least bit arrogant," says Altilia. "It’s a problem when you get too introspective in this business, too worried about looking cool."
Despite the mutual flattery, both executives admit they have their work cut out for them. Present conditions mean agencies can no longer sit back and rely on reputation alone, points out Altilia. In the new year, he plans to hire an individual devoted entirely to marketing the PJ brand. "We need to spend some time on this. I think it’s a function of having too many agencies chasing too few dollars."
For his part, Palmer admits he isn’t exactly expecting a stellar year in 2002. If the stormy economy drags on, it could force PJ to cut expenses, including trimming staff if necessary, although he suggests the shop is still in good shape compared to some of its competitors. "Some agencies are going through real hell," he says, adding that the industry is also now under attack from other areas of marketing, like consulting.
But that won’t curb PJ’s plans any time soon, especially when it comes to completing its evolution into an integrated agency. In January, the shop brought direct marketing agency Rapp Collins Worldwide under its umbrella, which already encompassed package design firm Karacters design group, youth marketing division Kid Think and Tribal DDB, which produces digital and interactive campaigns. It’s all part of a plan to offer clients a one-stop shopping experience.
"The old model doesn’t work with today’s needs and wants," explains Palmer. "It’s like an old freighter going through water, it takes five miles to turn." (For companies who prefer the benefits of a smaller boutique, PJ will simply carve out an "agency cell" within the larger entity, as it did for Labatt, at no additional cost.)
With recent growth comes the necessary growing pains, and maintaining that creative spark becomes trickier, admits Palmer. Still, he feels that as long as the agency strives to improve, it will continue to produce. "You need to try harder, to create something new. If you come in with that goal every day, you’re bound to be more successful."
Palmer also credits PJ’s accomplishments to Ron Woodall, EVP, creative strategies, affectionately known as "Yoda." Woodall has been at the agency for almost a decade and just signed on for another three-year contract. Not bad for a guy who initially only planned to stay a couple of months. The draw for Woodall is the laid-back, West Coast ambiance of PJ’s Vancouver office. "I think there’s a different mentality here. People don’t work all the time, and they have a lot of fun."
Woodall also encourages fresh ideas by switching creative teams and accounts regularly, so employees get a chance to become involved with different staff members and clients. Meanwhile, a peer review system helps keep egos in check. "Anybody can just walk into a room and take cuts," says Woodall, who says teams will even traipse down to the street, ads in hand, to get additional feedback from passersby. "And there’s a real appreciation for the advantages associated with being able to jump jobs. That would cause fistfights at other agencies."
The CampaignsArthritis Society
| Agency of the Year |
| Gold: Palmer Jarvis DDB Silver: Ammirati Puris Bronze: Taxi |
| Honourable Mention: BBDO Canada |
| Finalists: J. Walter Thompson Ogilvy & Mather |
| Best Media Operation |
| Gold: M2 Universal Silver: Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell Bronze: Starcom Worldwide |
| Best Media Director: Hugh Dow, M2 Universal |
| Judges: Creative Strategic |
| How do you get to be Agency of the Year, Best Media Operation, and Best Media Director |
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