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The Zen institute
by christopher michael

As the debate sizzles over the respective merits of multinationals versus smaller, hipper independent shops, Downtown Partners DDB may have the Zen-like answer: be both.

Or at least take the best of both worlds and run laughing to the award shows. With only 26 employees but a huge parent company in DDB Group Canada, the Toronto shop had a banner year, winning two Gold Lions at Cannes for its work on the Bud Light Institute and becoming the first Canadian agency in history to run commercials during the U.S. telecast of the Super Bowl. And this year, for the first time, the Palmer Jarvis DDB spin-off enters the ranks of the Agency of the Year competitors on its own two feet.

"Yeah - it's been a good year," says president and COO Tony Altilia.

Still, creative director Dan Pawych says he was surprised at the award nomination. "It's a great honour," he says, "I didn't think we'd stand a chance against some of the other agencies, especially the big ones."

After all, Downtown Partners has only a handful of clients, to the point where it was hard-pressed to submit campaigns for five different companies. "But keep in mind," says Pawych, "the clients we have are fairly big - Labatt's is the biggest in Canada. Anheuser-Busch is probably one of the top advertisers in the world."

Drawing big clients is helped immeasureably by the safety net of the DDB network. "We have all the entrepreneurialism of the small agencies, but we have the resources of the DDB network behind us, which is kind of reassuring to our employees and to our clients," says Altilia, who left his post as president of Palmer Jarvis to head up the agency in September 2002.

By playing both the indie and multinational fields, Downtown Partners can draw on resources such as brand capital studies and big North American training seminars like DDB University, yet remain versatile enough to offer personal, hands-on service. "You try going to a place like MacLaren or whatever - if you're a small client then good luck trying to get through to the creative director," says Pawych.

His clients agree that the flexibility and attitude of the agency sets it apart. "They're a great team, open to feedback, and a hell of a lot of fun to partner with," says Pepsi Quaker-Tropicana-Gatorade (QTG) Canada president Greg Shearson. "They make people laugh but also motivate them, and convince them that what you're advertising is a step above - it's the classic one-two that all great businesses driven by advertising can point to."

The family atmosphere of a small agency has allowed Pawych to do things like try shuffling his three-and-a-half creative teams ("One guy doesn't have a partner yet," he says) by actually drawing straws.

Earlier this year the company moved into new Toronto offices at the corner of King and Spadina, a slick new space featured in Canadian style and design bible Azure. "It was good for everybody to sort of get into new digs, to separate ourselves more distinctly from Palmer Jarvis," says Altilia. The new open-concept offices have helped reinforce their self-image as a relatively flat, hierarchy-free organization (Altilia claims, without any overt disingenuousness, that he does not have a title).

The agency also enjoys independent creative freedom. Along with Anderson Lifestyle DDB (led by Kevin Brady) and Palmer Jarvis DDB (led by Rob Whittle), the three Canadian DDB satellites report directly to Frank Palmer, Vancouver-based chairman and CEO of DDB Group Canada, but largely on financial matters alone. The creative end is the purview of the agencies themselves. "It's a numbers game to DDB," says Pawych.

It's an autonomy that pits Downtown Partners against Palmer Jarvis for the title of Agency of the Year, and at Cannes as well, where both agencies won Gold Lions. Downtown Partners' Bud Light Institute spots - "Greeting Cards," featuring helpful greeting card suggestions for truant men like "Let's make February 15th our Valentine's Day," and "History," in which the Institute claims to have invented feminism to free up time for guys to drink beer - were the creative work of art director Carlos Moreno and copywriter Peter Ignazi, who flew to Cannes when they heard of their win. "That was a disaster," laughs Altilia, referring to the trip, not the win. "They went over and partied for a whole week. I think they're still recovering."

The campaign also won the Grand Prix TV prize at Ireland's Shark Awards at Kinsale and the Bill Bernbach award for the most creative advertising within the DDB network, an internal recognition with a financial prize attached.

For 2004, the agency is launching a new Keith's campaign and continuing its work for Bridgestone-Firestone, plus doing new project work for TSN. Pawych hints at a new beer campaign, and reveals that he's working on new material for the Super Bowl.

Downtown Partners lost no clients in 2003, and although Altilia won't give numbers, he says that earnings are both substantially higher than last year and exceeded the agency's internal goals.

The agency is also actively pursuing more U.S. clients, but with some trepidation. "There are a lot more players down there," says Pawych carefully. "We present a lot more stuff, I'm going up against a lot of the major U.S. agencies like DDB and Goodby, and of course it's also a different strategy for the brands in the U.S. than in Canada. The whole process is sort of very unorthodox."

"It's hard for them," says Altilia of U.S. clients. "They don't know who we are, they have so many options down there, and quite frankly - I worked there for six years as a global account guy - they don't really look outside the U.S. borders too much."

He is also wary of growing too quickly in the year to come. "It has to be managed growth, and that's a difficult wire to walk. You're seduced by growth sometimes. But if it dramatically changes the culture of the place, and we lose the people who have been responsible for contributing to the growth, then we're probably going backwards."

Copyright 2003 Brunico Communications Inc. All rights reserved.