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Even the suits are creative
by brendan christie

The old saying, "They might not know art, but they know what they like," was probably not coined by a Palmer Jarvis client - but it might well have been. The agency known for its edgy creative has made a name for itself by giving clients exactly what they need. In fact, they were so successful at it last year that they managed over 5% growth themselves, even in the face of a moribund economy.

"Anybody can take orders," observes Frank Palmer, chairman and CEO of PJ DDB. "Anybody can go back after meeting with a client and say ‘here’s what you asked for.’ Give them something they never asked for. Deliver something to the client when they least expect it."

Palmer and his crew have won acclaim - including being named Strategy’s Agency of the Year from 1999 through 2001 - by strictly adhering to the gospel of partnership, both with clients and with other creative firms. "Agencies have to make sure they are as close as possible to their clients," says Palmer, "and I’m talking about the president and CEO or chief marketing director, because they are normally the ones who end up making the decision whether you’re going to be a partner with them or a supplier. And you want to be a partner."

While Palmer acknowledges that the economic environment has made business harder, he firmly believes that agencies who consider each other to be the competition have missed the boat. The real struggle, he observes, comes in staying one step ahead of the client - anticipating how they will be doing business in the future and making sure the agency has the competencies to service those needs. In the last few years, PJ DDB has addressed many of its inadequacies through systematic acquisitions, expanding its offerings well beyond that of a traditional agency. That pattern is likely to continue.

PJ DDB president Jim Herrler, who is especially pleased with the 2003 performance of PJ DDB affiliates Rapp Collins, Karacters Design Group, Tribal DDB and the now year-old Palmer Jarvis DDB PR, says further expansion is in the cards. "We are always looking for new services to provide to our clients," explains Herrler. "We have several meetings planned with companies that we have very good partnership arrangements with [that] we might be prepared to take ownership positions in. We just have to make sure that these are the right people, the right fit and the right model that we can go forward with. I think you can probably look forward to seeing some interesting strategic acquisitions of businesses we think will support our clients’ needs."

That expansion will almost unquestionably include a presence in La Belle Province. "I think one thing that we will certainly be pursuing with even more aggressiveness than we have in the past is a more formal connection to Quebec," says Herrler. "We’ve been blessed with some great friends and some great partners there, but we still believe that in the long run we need to have our brand on something."

And just because they might be thinking locally doesn’t mean the folks at Palmer Jarvis won’t also be acting globally. The recent promotion of Catherine Frank to the role of executive VP and director of global business is evidence the agency has international aspirations. Frank’s immediate mandate is to explore potential U.S. growth, although Palmer is hesitant to say where and how it will be accomplished. "We’ve developed a strategy in which we will be shopping offshore," he says. "We’re gaining a lot of our business and growth from the States now. That is about the only [way to expand significantly].... We’ll grow in Canada, but not to the same degree."

Meanwhile, PJ DDB’s Canadian growth includes a swelling of its roster of clients - although there were perhaps fewer additions than there might have been given the agency won the Canadian Tourism Commission at the end of 2002, its biggest account and one that required time to staff up. Still, in the last year it has picked up Raincoast Books (the Canadian publisher of Harry Potter), Hangers Cleaners,, and at the beginning of November, Linsey Foods. Ballpark for these new billings is about $35 million.


And while PJ DDB lost no clients in 2003, at the beginning of November it did lose senior VP and CD Neil McOstrich to Toronto’s ACLC Advertising. McOstrich, who had a hand in much of Palmer Jarvis’ award-winning work, made the move to fill the president and CCO remit.

Undoubtedly, ACLC would love to capture some of the magic that produced work such as the Canadian Hockey Association’s (CHA) "Relax, it’s just a game" campaign, the BC Dairy Foundation’s "Don’t take your body for granted" effort or even the alchemy that turned food into art for Unilever’s Knorr.

But while McOstrich’s loss will certainly be felt, the type of creative PJ DDB has managed to consistently produce only happens when everyone in the company is involved. The agency has an internal peer review process, which allows both creatives and suits to grade ideas before they are passed to the client. And the inspiration doesn’t just flow one way. It was account director Scot Keith, for example, who initiated, pitched and sold the CHA idea.

"The creative people get excited," observes Palmer, "because you have the people on the suit side, the account service side, who are also creatively motivated and driven. The whole agency culture is built around producing work that is sometimes edgy.... We set the bar higher from the very beginning."

Palmer is optimistic about next year, as he sees new opportunities in the market for the first time in three years. He also expects more growth financially. As to why this "big boutique" manages to continuously hit homers, Jim Herrler has a suggestion: "If you believe Frank Palmer, and I always do, it’s in the soil. There is something here that makes people believe that they can do great work, and makes them believe that it is worth doing. I can only hope that will bear fruit into 2004."

Copyright © 2003 Brunico Communications Inc. All rights reserved.