Cossette's startup strategy

By Harmeet Singh

AS THE PROVERB GOES, WHEN THE ROOTS ARE DEEP, there's no reason to fear the wind.

The ad world can be fickle, but Cossette, founded in Quebec in 1972, is nurturing its entrepreneurial roots to stay competitive — and it's working. The national agency has clinched Agency of the Year Gold — its first win in the category since 1990, when it took home Silver.

"Entrepreneurship really runs in our veins," says Melanie Dunn, president and CEO of Cossette Canada.

The agency is in its sixth year of an overarching innovation plan, which includes its Cossette Lab startup incubation program that began in Montreal back in 2012 and has since expanded to Toronto and Vancouver. As part of the program, the agency hosts and mentors startups specialized in particular categories, such as tourism and health, as they get ready to go to market.

"What we wanted to do was foster entrepreneurship throughout the whole company," Dunn says.

These days, everyone and their grandmother wants to think or act like a startup. But really implementing agile principles, outside of just working with the Cossette Lab startups, takes total transformation, Dunn says. In the Montreal office, that change began in 2013 and will spread to Cossette's other offices.

On the operations side, for example, it's included implementing 15-minute daily "scrums" involving clients and the relevant Cossette staff, to boost efficiency and avoid miscommunication.

It's also meant changing the physical space to give every client their own workspace area, where multidisciplinary teams can work together.

And on the financial side, each client has a dedicated team that offers solutions in a prototype manner, getting to a "pay-per-performance" relationship.

In addition, when Cossette was named the digital agency for L'Oréal Paris in Canada last February, it came with a new partnership model where the shop would be compensated for work based on results.

"We're pushing the envelope here to have an even more collaborative model by sharing risks," Dunn told strategy at the time. "There are upswings and downswings possible, sure, but at the end of the day, it makes us more accountable to the KPIs and to delivering real results."

Aside from the benefits to the internal culture — encouraging disruption and agility — of having tech startups incubated within its walls, they also bring fresh thinking to clients. Entrepreneurs sometimes sit in if their particular technology is relevant to the business.

Fostering Canada's risk-taking entrepreneurial community is a priority for the shop, which, in addition to providing office space, invests in startups and offers access to major clients.

It's been nearly two years since the shop's parent company, Vision7, was purchased by China's BlueFocus Communication Group, but that didn't take away Cossette's "Canadian signature," since it's been able to operate independently, Dunn says. In fact, it has been growing its team and solidifying its leadership. In February, former Taxi exec Daniel Shearer took on the EVP, managing director role for Cossette Ontario and West, including the operations in Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver. Dunn described Shearer as the "final key person" for the agency's national executive team.

The agency didn't slow down its hiring after that. From the beginning of the year to April, it brought on a dozen new creatives and the following month, it announced several new faces on the strategy side.

Each of those hires has been made with principles such as collaboration and creativity expressed through innovation in mind, Dunn says — in other words, all the things that drive a startup forward.