On Communicators Needing to Think Things Through

Blitz Magazine, November 2007

thinking2I was watching Leno last night. He did his regular Headlines bit. It’s funny because it contains ads which are hilarious by virtue of careless errors, ignorance, laziness, and that old bane of writers: the do-it-yourself mentality of those who refuse to hire people who can actually write.

Lately, it has occurred to me that, when communicating with the public, more and more professionals are just not thinking things through.

Last summer, the White Spot restaurant chain ran a TV spot (ad nauseam) in which the gag was that the chef was left to clean up after a team of chefs worked all day to come up with new menu items. But, in the final shot showing the messy kitchen, every pot, pan and utensil was spotlessly clean. ‘Little problem with the props and art direction budget, I guess.

In October, I was one a judge on the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario’s Design at Work show. I was judging the publications section and saw some beautiful work. But, being me, I had to read the pieces. And found that there were typos in some and grammatical errors in others. Well, if you’re producing a high-end publication, doesn’t it follow that you should hire a writer who, you know, can actually write? And who might stoop to proof the final before it goes to press?

It broke my heart to have to discard an absolutely stunning catalogue. Well, the first part was stunning. Then I got to the copy, and found that the designer had used silver type on a white background. Well, when you put silver type on a white background, you can’t read the type. And if you can’t read the type in a publication, the publication ceases to be a publication and it becomes a waste of paper.

thinking1

‘Same thing with web designers who slap 8-point type against a black background. What’s the point in putting words in view when there’s no hope of those words being read? This is why there’s now an entire mini-industry of Usability Experts—people who spend their lives teaching people to think things through.

A current TV spot for Maltesers shows two lovers cuddling on the couch. The guy is feeding the gal the balls of candy with the help of a straw. Which would be fine (sort of), except that the guy is 17 and the gal looks to be in her mid-40s. It’s actually pretty creepy. It’s as if the creative director wanted to appeal to that massive ‘high-school-kid-sleeping-with-his-teacher’ market.

President’s Choice has a new campaign, in which the tag line is ‘Worth Changing Supermarkets For.’ That’s kinda’ catchy. Or would be, if Canadians used the (American) term ‘supermarket’.

Then there’s the ‘Christmas’ v ‘Holiday’ thing. Here’s a case where communicators are really failing to think things through. ‘Christmas’ is a Christian holiday, celebrating the birth of a man named Jesus Christ. It is a very old holiday containing all kinds of rites that have been practiced for a very long time. And, even in today’s cynical world, a lot of people take it very seriously. To millions, it’s not just a retail bonanza.

But marketers say: “Well, we don’t want to insult Muslims and Jews!” And they point to some survey they did, in the course of which maybe 100 carefully-selected people who happened to answer their phones skewed in a certain direction and that was extrapolated to the population at large. Lame lame lame.

In the first place, I’ve yet to hear a Jew or a Muslim complain about feeling excluded from Christmas festivities. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian complain about feeling excluded from Hanukkah or Ramadan celebrations. Every religion has its own stuff; how hypocritical to praise multi-culturalism and diversity and pluralism and then lump the observances of three religions into a muddy term called ‘The Holidays’.

thinking

Secondly, if non-Christian religious groups are so important marketers, why aren’t large advertising dollars spent on advertising specifically to them? Crafting advertising that is clearly trying to sell ‘Christmas’, while failing to tip-toe around two other religious holidays is not only nonsensical, but arrogant, disrespectful and insulting. To everyone.

Third, marketers are not getting it right. They use the term ‘For the Holidays’, but their stores are decorated with all of the accoutrements of Christmas. At the moment, in most malls and shops, all you can hear are Christmas carols. Why not play the Dreidel Song? It’s still All Christmas All the Time—it’s just that no one wants to say that word.

This is very weird. It’s taking political correctness to a foolish extreme. Marketers say it’s ‘good business’. It’s not. It’s just silly.

Public Relations ‘Professionals’ : The Damage Done

Blitz Magazine, January 2004

pr

Some of the PR people out there may have noticed that I’m not returning their calls. If they want to know why, they need only look at the recent issues of their favourite magazines. They’ll notice that these publications are markedly thinner than they were two years ago, six months ago. This is what happens when magazines lose the support of those who need them. We can no longer blame 9/11; the Canadian economy is healthy. I place the blame squarely with the Public Relations industry.

There’s a company in Western Canada that provides firms with short-term marketing and advertising personnel. Blitz is the perfect advertising vehicle for this firm. Its president, an MBA and years of marketing experience, was about to sign a one-year contract with Blitz. Then he called to say that he had changed his mind, and had entrusted his entire marketing budget to a PR consultant. The PR consultant is sucking up a good portion of that budget in fees, is industriously spitting out news releases and has placed all of his client’s allocated advertising dollars into the sponsorship of golf tournaments. ‘Strange, and dumb, but true.

I start getting said releases. Aside from the fact that they’re replete with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re irrelevant. Do I care that this company is sponsoring golf tournaments? No—it doesn’t fit my editorial mandate. But the consultant doesn’t know that because he didn’t do his homework. He can’t write, he’s lazy and he’s sabotaging a firm that had great potential but which, I now believe, will not be around for long.

(My favourite is the Web marketing thing. People channel their marketing dollars into developing their websites. They pay PR firms to send out endless news releases announcing their new sites. Then, instead of advertising the sites, they sit and wait for Net surfers to stumble upon them.)

There’s much talk these days about ROI, which everyone wants. Lately, the word is that advertising isn’t bringing in ROI. But, despite what people say, ROI is very difficult to measure. Media buyers look at numbers of people reached, who those people are and the costs to reach those people—they don’t demand guarantees that the advertising will work, because they know better. What advertising does is keep a company’s name and services in people’s faces. It supports all other sales and marketing efforts. It’s not the magic bullet for increasing business—it’s the gun.

Last week, a certified PR professional said to me: “We provide tangible ROI—the evidence is in the write-ups our clients get in newspapers and magazines, or radio mentions, or whatever.”

Or whatever. It’s illogical, and foolish, to assume that mentions in the media will bring increased business. There’s no guarantee that an editor will do more than glance at a news release. If a release piques interest, there’s no guarantee that the release will culminate in a positive story—it could end up sparking a career-ending expose. And so what if your company gets a positive media mention? Is that going to send consumers scrambling for your product? Of course not.

PR people are great persuaders. But those who sell PR as a solution, rather than as a small part of an overall communications strategy, are doing huge damage. They’re not bringing their clients closer to ROI nirvana. They’re wasting tons of money, they’re hurting their clients’ long-term prospects and they’re damaging the media properties that cannot stay in business without advertising dollars—plus all the designers, writers, producers etc., that rely on those media properties.

If PR ‘professionals’ continue to divert dollars into their own pockets, and away from advertising vehicles, they’re not going to have any media properties to contact. They can send out all the news releases they like, but there will be no magazine editors left to read them.

 

On Advertising & Getting What You Pay For

Blitz Magazine, November 2002

payfor

This issue is the 5-year anniversary issue of this magazine; here’s hoping that readers may look forward to more Blitz pages. Osama’s attacks and corporate corruption didn’t just rock the stock market—they knocked the wind out of magazine ad sales. You have, no doubt, noticed that every magazine you pick up is a lot thinner than in previous years. As for me, if all the people who gush about how much they love Blitz don’t start supporting it, I’m going to pitch my publisher’s hat into the Pacific.

The experts keep telling us that the Canadian economy is the envy of the G7, that we’re perfectly stable and thriving and bla bla. ‘Problem is, Canadian businesses don’t appear to believe that. The response of many has been to cut advertising budgets.

This is most unfortunate, because it is an inviolate rule of business that the uncertain, or down, times is when advertising is crucial. You can advertise when you have gobs of cash coming in—but you must advertise when it seems like you can’t afford to. Otherwise, you’ll sink.

Some recent examples: In an effort to maintain earnings, Bristol-Myers cut advertising by 14%; three of its five top-selling drugs are now losing their monopolies. Buy.com thought that cutting ad spending would save the company; sales immediately dropped by $20 million. Samsung decided to eliminate “unnecessary” costs. A spokesperson said: “The company is seeking ways to reduce travel, traffic, advertising and miscellaneous expenses.” To this, Sergio Zyman responds: “If you’re the kind of company that puts advertising in the same sentence as ‘miscellaneous expenses’, you deserve what you get.”

Zyman is the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola and the author of the newly-released The End of Advertising As We Know It. His point is that, in an effort to capture the attention of information-overloaded consumers, ad agencies have had to find increasingly inventive ways to reach audiences. Which is fine, except that the focus on brand awareness has shifted. Now, everybody seems to want to use every technical tool available—just because it’s there, to create hip portfolio pieces and win awards. When the focus should be on sales results, i.e. the actual goal. Zyman cites K-Mart as a perfect example: huge awareness, but it’s in bankruptcy. Remember the Taco Bell Chihauhua commercials? The ads won awards, the client’s sales tanked.

Over the last five years, I’ve had hundreds of calls from ad agencies and pr firms. The conversations rarely vary:

Caller: “We’ve done a terrific campaign for ABC Widgets and we think it would make a great article.”

Me:      “Well, the campaign isn’t newsworthy. The results are newsworthy.”

Caller: “Huh?”

Me:      “Once the campaign is well under way, or complete, the increase in sales figures would make it a story.”

Caller: “I don’t understand….”

Me:      “Your agency, and ABC Widgets, will track the campaign’s results, right?”

Caller:  “Uh…”

Me:      “So, in four months, or whenever, you should be able to tell me that, as a result of this campaign, the client’s sales went from ‘here’ to ‘here’. That they increased by ‘this much’. Then the campaign could be a cover story.”

Caller:  “But it’s a great campaign. Why isn’t that worth writing about?”

Me:      “Because it’s not a great campaign if you can’t show increased sales.”

Caller:  “Oh. OK. As soon as we have those results, I’ll call you back.”

No one has ever called back. And as it’s not likely that they passed on the chance for a cover story, I have to assume that I didn’t hear from them again because their campaigns didn’t generate results. They may have won awards, and the teen-agers producing them thought they were really cool and were able to persuade the client of same, but the work didn’t work.

It should be obvious to everyone that if anything a business does doesn’t contribute in some way to increased profits, it shouldn’t be done. To that end, marketing directors have to say to ad agencies: “This is the plan, this is what it has to achieve, I’m going to pay for your ideas on how to best achieve this. Once I, and the rest of my staff, agree that your ideas are likely to increase sales, I’m going to pay you to provide the required services.”

Marketing directors and company owners should not say: “This is the company whose products represent my life’s work. These are the products whose sales support the jobs of dozens of employees. I’m putting all of our prospects in your hands. I hope you can pull it off.”

payfor1At the same time, a marketing director or company president who expects a certain result, and who’s confident that what his agency recommends will work to increase sales, but who then balks at the cost of the work, is doomed. Ditto with company owners who think that flash-in-the-pan campaigns will produce results. This is especially true with print campaigns, where advertisers often cancel a campaign if one or two insertions didn’t generate immediate results. You want results, you have to commit for the long haul. You want more revenue, you have to open your wallet. You get what you pay for.

I thought everyone knew this. Zyman says that that is most definitely not the case. And that it’s time for everyone to think again. Because, he says, advertising is a science. And those who fail to master that science, and properly practice it, are going to go out of business—along with their clients.

On the Bad Business of Selling Editorial

Blitz Magazine, March 2002

forsa

We’re all familiar with the practice of selling editorial. It’s nauseatingly common. Blitz does not engage in this practice. Why? Because everyone can tell when editorial is paid for and, once they realize that, that piece of editorial has no credibility. Then everything else in the magazine has no credibility. No one wants to read a magazine that has no credibility. And, since advertisers want their ads read by the magazine’s audience, there’s no point in advertising in a magazine that no one believes and/or reads. Forget journalist ethics—selling editorial is bad business.

I speak of magazines because (call me naive) I tend to think that newspapers aren’t as easily swayed by outside interests. There are many instances of editors and columnists going ‘too far’ and consequently having to apologise (on the insistence of their publishers) to representatives of ethnic groups, trade groups. But I like to think that these PR moves do not keep serious reporters from continuing to do what they should do, which is find the facts and truthfully and objectively report them.

My philosophy is: if it’s true, print it. If someone’s insulted, they’ll get over it. If a journalist reports on shenanigans at ABC Widgets, and ABC Widgets pulls its advertising, fine—it can find another way of reaching your valuable audience and other advertisers will be smart enough to stay with you because yours are the publications that people will read. Because they have credibility. Objectivity and fearlessness, therefore, are not only good for journalism. They are essential for the success of your publications.

Oh look. I seem to have slipped into saying ‘your’ and ‘publications’. I’ve somehow begun speaking to the Aspers, whose CanWest/Global Communications now owns the majority of Canada’s daily newspapers. What with the mess being created by media convergence and the negative ink that CanWest is getting over its convergence efforts, I have mixed feelings. This is a positive move for media buyers and sales reps. I think it’s a great idea to use CanWest journalists for cross-promotion. But I feel absolutely sick about the fact that CanWest, as a corporation, appears to intend to dictate the content of its newspapers.

The slope couldn’t be more slippery. CanWest is a huge company. Its owners (duh) could have corporate and personal financial interests in all sorts of conflicting areas.

What if a CanWest bigwig owns a large share of a pharmaceutical company and it releases a Wonder Dug—let’s say a cure for baldness. A Vancouver Sun journalist finds incontrovertible evidence that the drug attacks the liver. He does the story, head office finds out, the story’s yanked. No competing journalists find out about the problem. People take the drug, their hair grows, sales soar, profits rise. A year later, those customers are waiting for liver transplants and the other investors in the pharmaceutical company have lost their money.

What if the Aspers have a particular religious position?  Political position? Could this policy lead to the end of any reportage that goes against their grain? Of course it could. Should we care? Well, yeah. Every day, millions of us make decisions based on information taken from newspapers. If that information is tainted by the influence of private interests, our lives can be so tainted.

Should those in business care? Sure they should. Businesses of all types rely on print advertising—in most cases, a marketing plan without print advertising is no marketing plan. Further, because PR is often as important as advertising, businesses want their activities (well, most of them) reported in publications which are deemed to be legitimate.

Newspapers are integral to the smooth functioning of a society. But if people think that the material in their papers is inaccurate, incomplete or biased, the trust is gone. No trust, no credibility. No credibility, no readers. No readers, no advertisers. No advertisers, no newspapers.

It ain’t brain surgery. If you own newspapers, you leave your journalists alone. Your only communication with them should be your signature on their cheques and the order to ‘Find the Facts, Then Tell the Truth’. The worst that could happen is that your papers develop stellar reputations and your profits go up.

Communication Gone Wrong

Blitz Magazine, July 2002

wrong

Direct marketers always talk about how precise their methods are. About how, when they send out promotional mail, they know exactly who’s getting it. They say they can target by income level, age, children’s ages. That they know that their clients’advertising pieces are being received by potential buyers.

In the mail, I receive an expensive package from a purveyor of yacht accessories. I don’t have a yacht. I receive an elegant package from a private school, asking me to consider sending my child there. I have a poodle. Now that I’ve announced that, I’ll start receiving samples of cat food.

Trade magazines also claim to be precisely targeted. (I’m one of the few publishers who can truthfully say that, as I up-date the Blitz mailing list every day and know exactly who’s getting it.) But my mechanic receives Strategy and Reel West. He doesn’t know why, he just does. I know this because I found them on the floor of his waiting room.

Technology has allowed for marvelous developments in magazine design. With the wrong result, I believe. I glance at Maclean’s and Vancouver. Both are so over-designed as to be unreadable.

Companies that can afford to commission good creative are airing TV commercials that are cloying (Toyota), nonsensical (Suzuki, Microsoft), badly written (Nestle) and annoying (Mott’s, All Bran). Even if people can stand to watch them, or make sense of them, the ads are bad enough to turn people away from the products they’re pitching. (And how about that McDonald’s slogan: ‘There’s a Little McDonald’s In Everyone’. Think about it. Ew.)

The Internet Advertising Bureau claims that an increasing share of marketing dollars is being committed to Internet marketing. Internet marketing firms say that advertisers can be confident about spending thousands of dollars in this fashion because web advertising is now so targeted—so precise.

I am a single, heterosexual female. When I open my email, I’m offered discounts on Viagra, potions to increase the size of my husband’s penis (by 3”!!!), potions to remove the hair on my chest, and something about a virtual experience wherein I can have sex with an Asian girl.

On a per-capita basis, Canada is the world’s most wired nation. Yet 1,000,000 Canadians have closed their Internet access accounts. It was recently reported that the editor of a popular e-zine has disconnected his incoming email address. His receipts were too time-consuming, too stressful.

Broadcasters are making TV unwatchable. We have an endless stream of propaganda pieces for the US military. Laughably bad sci-fi series. Shamefully stupid sit-coms. A special on the most passionate movies in history. Anniversary specials of once-popular TV shows. Weakest Link. Reality shows. Crap.

I now use the Internet only for addresses. If an email message doesn’t immediately appear to be relevant to me, it’s gone. My recycle bin runneth over. Friends report that they own TVs for the sole purpose of watching rented movies—they now refuse to watch television.

So this is The Great Age of Communication. Communication is so easy, so quick, so efficient. Marketers are spending untold sums to communicate, and they think that their messages are reaching the right people. Methinks they’re wrong.

Worse, where the correct people are reached, they’re turned off messages by their quality. Because, more often than not, that quality is so mind-numbingly bad, so insultingly inferior, that people are rejecting both the message, and now, the medium.

Good-Bye to a Master: David Ogilvy

Blitz Magazine, September 1999

David Ogilvy passed away in July, at age 88. Surprisingly, many people you talk to these days have never heard of him, but he was perhaps the most famous of ad men; certainly the only one credited with contributing to the Industrial Revolution.

 ogilvy

He started out as a cook, then became a door-to-door salesman for Aga Cookers. During the war, he worked with  British Security Coordination, then moved to Pennsylvania to live with the Amish and work as a farmer. Somehow, the next logical step became a move to New York, and the advertising industry. In 1948, he co-founded Hewitt, Ogilvy, Benson & Mather; in August, Vancouver became home to Ogilvy & Mather’s 360th office.

Among Ogilvy’s pet peeves was the fact that many agencies, in their never-ending quest for increased billings, waste their clients’ money. By failing to learn from the experience of others in their industry. By encouraging or condoning Creative by Committee (a.k.a. ‘team work’ and ‘brain-storming’). By expending gobs of time and money on trying to be creative and entertaining and artistic, instead of producing advertising that makes people want to buy their clients’ products.

Another complaint was that agencies, often only for the sake of creating something new, replace advertising that is working perfectly well, instead of staying with it until it stops working and product sales start to slump. You know the line in today’s Dove (soap) commercials: “Dove doesn’t dry your skin the way soap can”? Ogilvy wrote that. In 1958.

Ogilvy believed in the power of imparting information through words. Today, writers have to slash copy to fit design, and grammar is rendered irrelevant; in one of David Ogilvy’s most successful car ads—for Rolls Royce—the ad consisted one photo and 607 words.

ogilvy2In his view, education and research were paramount and the biggest waste of clients’ money stemmed from the failure of agency personnel to learn. About the products they’re trying to sell, how and why the products are made, how they work, how they fit into their industries, how they are viewed by consumers. And he urged everyone to watch what direct -response advertisers do—he believed that they were the most knowledgeable of all advertising professionals.

He wrote three best-selling books on advertising. They should be read by everyone involved in marketing, advertising and public relations. Because there is no disputing that, even if he was a little pedantic, David Ogilvy was always right.

 ogilvy3

On Official Advertising Complaints

complaints

Blitz Magazine, May 1998

I just received my copy of Advertising Standards Canada’s Ad Complaints Report. Previously, the ASC provided only statistical information on complaints. Now, for the first time, it publishes details about complaints lodged by consumers and sustained by the ASC’s National and Regional Consumer Response Councils.

Last year, 598 complaints were received, 296 were pursued, 132 were sustained. Most complaints were about misleading pricing or product claims. The automotive industry accounted for most, there was a sharp rise in reverse sexism complaints and, for the first time, complaints about the negative portrayal of men were sustained. The most notable feature of the report was the increase in the number of advertisers revising or withdrawing ads before they were evaluated.

A few complaints caught my eye. An Alberta show retailer ran a newspaper ad featuring a woman posing behind a large cowboy hat, wearing only cowboy boots. Two people complained that it was offensive to feature the sexualized image of a woman in order to sell footwear. The panel concluded that it was indeed sexually exploitative to show a woman wearing nothing but cowboy boots in order to sell a product that was unrelated to sexuality. (Footwear has been a form of sexual communication for centuries, and Gucci can barely supply the demand for its bum-boosting, 6” spikes, but never mind…)

The panel upheld a complaint about a newspaper ad run by an Ontario automotive repair shop. The ad showed a man, from the back, wearing swimming trunks, under the headline ‘We Specialize in Rear Ends’. One Sensitive Man found that his inner child was offended and that was it for the ad.

The most amusing instance involved a national television campaign run by a food manufacturer. In the spot, a virile delivery man provokes sexual fantasies in a group of women. One complaint was received, claiming that the commercial degrades women by depicting them as slaves to their sexual desires. But the panel found that the commercial exploited men’s sexuality by objectifying the male in a purely sexual role.

This is funny, but it’s also annoying. Ads are pieces of communication, created to catch attention and sell something. Period. No one wants ads that make false claims or encourage dangerous activity but, in these ultra-competitive times, the last thing any business needs, after spending thousands on creative and production, is to have negative action taken to placate one or two people. I like the fact that Canadians are known to be clever and polite—I’d prefer that the term ‘anal-retentive’ remain out of any description of our national identity.

 


Case Study: Subway Wraps Up Its Region

subway1

A lot of British Columbians think that Subway is a BC company. They see Subway outlets while vacationing in other countries and just assume that Subway is another BC firm that has done well.

But Subway is not a BC company. It was founded in Connecticut, in 1962. Today, there are 13,000 Subway restaurants in 68 countries—1,300 in Canada. It is the second-largest franchise in the world, next to McDonald’s, in front of 7-11 and Century 21; and it is the largest franchise in BC.

In 1987, Gerry Lev, then a Calgary franchise consultant, discovered the Subway concept at a trade show. There were 1,000 Subways worldwide, none in Western Canada. In 1988, Lev founded Subway Developments of BC, and the division celebrates its 10th anniversary with 218 stores. And, out of all Subway divisions, and in terms of sales, the BC division is at the top, leading by up to 25%. If that lead is narrowing, it’s because BC has become the model for divisions which are following its lead and catching up.

How can this be? There are only 3.9 million British Columbians. But they eat a lot of Subway sandwiches—400,000 a week, putting annual sales at $90 million.

The answer lies in a potent combination of organizational ease, corporate savvy and media communications, all boosted by the intrinsic qualities of the BC lifestyle.

In the first place, as Lev explains, Subway restaurants are easy to own. “When you buy a franchise, you buy an operating system which has been perfected over time. One of the hallmarks of our system, and our success, is KISS—Keep it Simple, Stupid. The recipes are simple, procedures and operations are simple. There’s no cooking involved, so we don’t need thousands of dollars worth of equipment. The cost to open a Subway franchise is $140,000—a McDonald’s franchise can run from $700,000 to $1 million.

Secondly, Subway has benefited from a lack of competition. “In 1988, there were no sandwich chains in BC,” continues Lev. “There were sandwich stores, in office buildings, closed in the evenings and on week-ends. There was no alternative to burgers, and Subway sandwiches quickly became the perfect alternative, but with the convenience and economy offered by fast food.”

 subway2

The price of a Subway sandwich begins at around a dollar and, although the corporation’s research shows that portability is not a major factor overall, it’s probably a bigger factor with BC consumers, who appreciate the fact that they can buy their lunch on their way to work or school, or stow one in a knapsack to eat at the beach or on the mountain.

 “Freshness is our biggest selling point, value is number two,” continues Lev. “But what brought Subway to the forefront is the fact that our sandwiches are not pre-made. People watch their meal being made—precisely to their instructions. The Subway bread is baked in front of customers, which is another selling point; and there’s our traditional ‘U-Gouge’, which is a way of cutting the bread so the contents of the sandwich won’t fall out.

“Variety is another selling point. We have something for everyone—meat, vegetarian, low-fat—and one of the best breakfast sandwiches in the industry. But, getting back to the KISS formula, we’re in the business of appealing to the masses. Some Subway stores offer soup and salads, and we have items like potato chips. But our business is selling sandwiches.”

The Subway benefits are not difficult to communicate to a receptive public—everybody loves a sandwich. The big challenge has always been budget. Subway collects advertising funds from franchisers, and that money is spent on ‘national’ (North American) advertising, care of Chicago agency Hal Riney & Partners. That agency works with a corporate board, and a franchise board, while keeping everyone moving in the same direction—no mean feat, considering the company’s growth: from 10 restaurants to 1,000 in the first 20 years, to 11,000 a decade later, to 13,000 six years after that.

In addition, each division has its own advertising agency. The marketing plan comes from head office in Connecticut, Riney develops is nationally, and the local agencies worth with their own franchisee boards to develop the plan locally. In BC, the agency that is i2i Advertising & Marketing, and its annual budget is $4.5 million. That’s not much for the ultra-aggressive fast food industry, but it’s way more than the franchise had in 1991, when i2i partners Stuart Ince and Cam Iverson began with Subway.

“Back then, Subway BC was 14 stores and the franchisees had just pooled enough money to hire professional help,” recalls Iverson. “That amount was below $100,000, so the account didn’t interest many agencies. But we knew the chain would take off here. It fit the west coast lifestyle, and it fit well in terms of competing against other fast food chains.”

The BC division took off in 1993, when the franchisees decided to go beyond the 2.5% of sales which they were contracted to put into advertising and begin an Additional Funds Program, becoming the first Subway division to do so.

The extra budget immediately shot up our presence—and sales,” says Iverson. “The sub sandwich is part of the eastern deli mentality. With the extra money, we were able to make the Subway sandwich a BC thing.”

Therein lies the key to Subway BC’s success. “We made ourselves a BC company, and part of the BC community,” Iverson continues. “This wasn’t strategy—our franchisees are BC people and they want to be part of their communities and do things they can be proud of. So, aside from spending advertising dollars wisely, we get involved in events and promotions at a very local level—and it’s that community involvement which explains why so many people think that Subway’s head office is here.”

 subway3 subway5

Subway BC is big on philanthropy. It raised $35,000 for Canuck Place (at the beginning, before the band-wagon effect kicked in). Ditto with AIDS Vancouver. Its Heroes for Hunger program gave a free sandwich to anyone who delivered a Food Bank donation. Every day, Subway feeds supporters of something: the Terry Fox Run, the Children’s Festival, the March of Dimes, Boy Scouts, the BC Boys Choir, Minor League hockey and Little League baseball. It supports scholarships, and it bought the ‘Shout No!” program, working with police and schools on child safety.

 subway6

These are, of course, promotions. But community involvement is Subway BC policy, and philanthropic promotions stretch advertising budgets. “We don’t do many things in a huge way, and we never pick causes for profile,” says Lev. “Most international companies don’t get involved with local figure skating clubs, and we don’t get the publicity that others get, but we reach thousands of people by doing a lot of little things.”

Subway has also been smart about advertising. This has not always been easy, considering the fact that half of its radio spots and all of its television ads are created in Chicago. It took a while for US creative teams to realize that Canadian and American sensibilities aren’t the same.

“It used to be a horrendous problem,” recalls Lev. “I spent a lot of time saying ‘No, not in Canada.’ I don’t have to do that anymore. Now, they know Canada well and we get Canadian versions of everything.”

Once i2i has the marketing plan, it can do what it likes—another success ingredient.

“The BC franchisees are left alone in terms of advertising and promotions,” says Iverson. “And they’ve been aggressive at putting together deals which build Subway’s presence far beyond the dollars they have to spend. We have to work harder to push media dollars into creating image, so we’ve become involved in loads of cross-promotions and have forged strong relationships with media partners. Those promotions have been a large factor in putting us ahead of other Subway divisions.”

Subway runs ten major promotions a year. Its biggest is the annual ‘Survive in Style Sweepstakes’. The concept was a small part of the national marketing plan, but i2i worked with Global Television to make it fit the BC culture, and it took off.

“The national promotion was about fast food survival tips,” says Iverson. “We made it about what you need to survive in BC. We have a true partnership with Global in that we plan it together and tie it in with Global’s Sports Page. Then we give away vehicles, scooters, mountain bikes, cellular phones, vacations–$100,000 worth of prizes. It’s now bigger than most of Subway’s national promotions.”

Another major promotion is the chance to win a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals—essential, of course, for the all-important 18-34 male demographic. “Sports are very important to us and we don’t have the money to participate in the TSN buy,” continues Iverson. “The Stanley Cup promotion lets us tie ourselves to hockey without becoming involved with a team. We’re perceived as being sports-related, even though, at the professional level, McDonald’s is much more invested. We’ve done a little guerrilla marketing…I guess we’ve stolen some thunder.”

(In that vein, one famous tactic is the use of the Subway plane. If Subway can’t afford to sponsor an event, it rents a plane, attaches a banner and repeated flies over the event. After seven years, this remains one of Subway BC’s most successful marketing tools.)

Another smart move was looking at the competition and going in the opposite direction.

“Corporately, our market is 18-49, and that is what our media buys target, but we stay very aware of the 12-17 customer,” says Iverson. “McDonald’s targets families. Teens don’t want to be where families are. So we’ve presented Subway as the cool place to go. We aligned ourselves with the younger radio stations; the Z95—Subway sticker prize campaign was extremely successful. And we created the Sub Dude and got involved with snowboarding at the beginning of snowboarding—there was a time when no self-respecting snowboarder would be caught without a Subway sticker on his board. Teens love us—not only is a Subway sandwich a cool food to eat, but their parents don’t mind. Now, it’s kind of a cult food.”

As far as Lev is concerned, the Subway market is anyone with teeth. “It’s anyone who can eat a sandwich. BC has the largest senior population in Canada and seniors are concerned about blood sugar, fat and cholesterol. And children are the grown-ups of tomorrow. But we don’t have the funds to go after individual markets.”

So individual markets are targeted quietly. “A child’s choice is the determining factor of where parents go, but kids want toys,” explains Lev. “If Dairy Queen advertises a toy promotion, it’ll get the families. We can’t advertise that way, so we have a Kids Pack program—a school lunch with a sandwich, drink, cookie and toy. As a result, we feed more BC elementary students than anyone else.”

 subway4

In BC, more than any another Subway region, women are a larger market: 50%. “Between 7:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., we get men; that’s when we sell the foot-longs with double meat and cheese,” says Iverson. “But at lunch, 60% of sales are to women. At the beginning, we had to focus on the 18-34s, then we built in the 12-17s, then we spread out to the 12-49s. Now, half of our customers are women. So we’ve broadened the net further. We run ads on female stations like KISS and QMFM, focusing on four-inch sandwiches, the lighter lunch, the sandwiches with six grams of fat or less.”

Subway heavily promotes the latter, but the low-fat aspect adds irony to any discussion involving the fast-food industry. “North Americans are fatter than ever, fries and chocolate are the top-selling foods, steakhouses are North America’s fastest-growing restaurant category and Wendy’s salads are gone,” says Lev. “So while it’s great that people see Subway sandwiches as an alternative to foods that they deem to be fattening, I’m not sure that they care about fat. People may think more about nutrition, but whether they act on it is a different matter. It’s just that the sandwich connotation is more positive.”

Connotation is another important point. “We’re careful to position ourselves in the sandwich category because of the submarine connotation,” says Iverson. “The submarine is rooted in the Northeastern US Italian-American community, where it’s a mainstay. In BC, before Subway came here, submarines were seen as something that fat men ate while they watched TV. Nobody had heard of a meatball sandwich. Or a foot-long steak-and-cheese with Marinara sauce. We communicated a different connotation for BC. Now, we sell a lot of those sandwiches.”

“Kentucky Fried Chicken is now KFC and McDonald’s calls its burgers ‘sandwiches’,” adds Lev. “Subway has never used the word ‘submarine’. As we’ve built our brand in BC, the focus has been on sandwiches, and the fast, inexpensive made-to-order meal. We’ve always promoted our 6” sandwiches—never our foot-longs. The 6” sandwiches fit with BC eating habits, and we won and R&D award when we devised 4” deli rounds, because we created a food that was appropriate for our market.”

All Subway restaurants sell 16 sandwiches—12 corporate, four local. The latter are created by franchisees, and this allowance is yet another reason for Subway’s success.

“The franchisees can choose what they sell, as long as it’s on Subway bread,” explains Lev. “And there’s no test kitchen, anywhere. We try things. If they work, great. If sandwiches don’t move, they come off the menu.”

i2i has used this flexibility for the highly-successful Sub of the Month promotion. “The freedom to create menu deviations has been a real bonus—and franchisees’ input is listened to,” says Iverson. “If head office were to introduce a sandwich which the franchisees knew no one in BC would eat, they could opt out. And we can push sandwiches which fit the BC culture. For example, we knew that chicken would work here, and that a Caesar salad would work here, so we helped develop the Kickin’ Chicken Savoury Caesar. It took off and became a national campaign. And the Sub of the Month program allows us to regularly present a different reason to come to Subway. It’s not rocket science, but it gives us product news and drives traffic.”

The two other Subway divisions which are catching up to BC are Alberta and Minnesota. They too have followed the formula of becoming part of their communities’ fabric, while staying with the national plan.

“A lot of other markets ran their own programs and, in the process, created too many Subway faces,” continues Iverson. “National ads would say one thing, local ads would say another, promotions would say something else. We create our own advertising and promotions, but we stay close to the national campaigns. So the advertising is different, but there’s always something that ties it together.”

Iverson says that the real credit goes, of course, to Gerry Lev and the Subway franchisees.

“Gerry’s progressive—he knew he needed to do more than just sell franchises. He’s a great communicator, he keeps everyone informed, brings in educational speakers. His franchisee support system has really helped the growth of this division. And the franchisees put a lot of energy into staying ahead of the pack. They’ve been willing to take risks and increase their spending. So we have BC people who have worked hard to put a BC face on an American corporation. And sales are way higher than in any other division. It’s an impressive accomplishment.”

Blitz Magazine, May 1998

 

 

 

Case Study: Toyota Turns Itself Around

toyota3

 

A new car, they say, is the second-largest purchase you’ll make in your lifetime. ‘They’ (the experts) also say that what you look for is quality, dependability and reliability, or ‘QDR’.

You want an attractive, safe, comfortable vehicle that won’t require much maintenance and will rarely break down. And unless you’re concerned about status and aren’t concerned with cash flow, you will look for a vehicle which offers a high QDR rating at the lowest possible price.

Until two years ago, Toyota was at a disadvantage on the latter point. While its QDR ratings have always been high and while, in BC, Toyota has always been the number-one selling import, Toyota vehicles were a little too pricey for many people.

Then, according to Garth Gilson, Toyota’s Manager of Vehicle Sales for BC, a number of things happened.

“Corporately, the company went through a transition. We re-engineered our way of thinking and we looked at our production and distribution systems to find efficiencies which we could translate into better pricing. We re-designed the Corolla and Camry, we introduced the RAV4 into the sport utility market and we re-introduced the Sienna into the van market. We’ve been able to put added value into our vehicles and offer new, high-value vehicles without an increase in price. That has made us more competitive with the domestics.”

Meanwhile, as Toyota became more efficient and improved quality while holding the line on pricing, the price of domestic vehicles went up. Now, the price spread between the high-quality Toyota imports and the comparable domestics is vastly reduced. As a result, for the first time, Toyota has the number-one selling intermediate car in North America (the Camry has displaced the Ford Taurus). In Canada, Toyota’s 1997 sales rose by 18%. In industry terms, that’s huge—anything over 10% is impressive. But in BC, the 1997 Toyota sales increase was a whopping 23%. This is due, in large part, to effective media communications.

“I’d like to think that the BC sales increase can be credited to communication and strategy,” says George Cruickshank, Account Director for Toyota BC Dealers at Glennie Stamnes Strategy, which has been the dealer association’s AOR for the past eight years. “With all of these developments taking place, we completely re-worked the advertising strategy. We said ‘we’ve now got a quite a horn to blow, so let’s really blow it. We’ve got a great new story for the consumer, terrific new vehicles, all these market advantages…we decided to let the vehicles do the talking and let the advantages dictate. We changed the way we looked at the business.”

98RAV4 toyota1 

There are 33 Toyota dealers in BC and, when compared with other Toyota zones, the BC zone holds the largest market share within its zone. Toyota’s advertising operates at three levels—corporate, dealer and dealer association. The latter is a voluntary association, overseen by eight director/dealers who approve the association’s annual $4 million advertising expenditure. Gilson says that, while individual dealers are free to advertise whatever and however they like, they have found that the association campaigns are strong enough that it’s in their best interest to stay with the group.

“It makes more sense. It gives them a bigger voice and much more impact. All the players can tell the same story. It’s not an exact science—dealers have different opinions, approaches, budgets. But it’s a lot more effective when dealers work within the association campaigns.”

Dealer communication and participation is essential to the success of Toyota’s marketing efforts. You may think that this is an obvious point, but Gilson says that not all car companies are as conscientious as they could be in this area. At Toyota, paying attention to those who actually sell the vehicles makes good business sense. It makes for happier dealers, more profitable dealerships, and a stronger flow of information from customers.

“We need to know what consumers are saying. This market is very fluid and, as a manufacturer, we have to embrace change. And change is brought about by shifts in consumer tastes. Over the course of a year, consumer tastes in everything from vehicle styles to colours can change significantly. Equipment goes in and out of fashion very quickly. We conduct a lot of market research, but we depend on our dealers to keep us abreast of trends.”

toyota4 toyota5

While Toyota stays in touch with its dealers, Cruickshank says that Glennie Stamnes focuses on the sales managers. “We’ve worked hard at building relationships with the sales managers. They’re at the front line of the business and have to be involved. We need to know what they’re hearing from customers. What consumers compare our vehicles against, what it is about our vehicles that stands out. So we meet with the managers regularly, hold focus groups with them and present creative to them before it goes out. We go to the dealerships to make sure that p.o.p. materials are placed properly—which is unusual because many dealer associations regularly put out campaigns with no dealership execution. This interaction makes a big difference. It also helps that this is the best dealer group I’ve worked with. They respect each other, they agree to a program, they get behind it, they execute it.”

A change in execution was a large part of the strategic shift made over the last two years. The traditional media mix of TV, radio and newspaper has been heavily augmented by outdoor buys—mainly exterior bus kings, which are now a key element of Toyota’s sales events.

Those sales events also last longer. “Traditionally, automobile advertising was done through one-month promotions,” says Cruickshank. “Last year, we drew our promotions to two and three months. With one-month promotions, by the time consumers heard about them, and then arrived to take advantage of them, the promotions were over. Consumers were getting fed up. Now, the media has time to kick in and consumers have time to get to the offer. From the acceptance stand-point, it’s better for the dealer and the consumer. There are also no breaks between sales events any more—Toyota doesn’t want to take a break from selling cars, why should there be time between financing and leasing offers?”

Two other consumer annoyances were dispensed with. Toyota buyers can now get 60-month financing on new vehicles—48 months used to be the limit. And Toyota BC Dealers now advertise only what they have on the ground, as opposed to advertising vehicles which are scheduled to come in.

“There are two reasons for this,” continues Cruickshank. “We have to help dealers move what they have on their lots. But it often happens that a car company launches a new car, it promotes it, customers come in to buy and the cars aren’t there yet. That makes people angry. There is no point in spending advertising dollars if you haven’t got the goods to sell and you’re going to tick off your customers.”

Glennie Stamnes also did away with another auto industry practice—the adherence to seasonality. “Traditionally, the belief was that no one bought cars in January, February or March, what with Christmas bills and tax time coming up. In fact, business may be slower during these months, but people are still buying cars. So we’ve advertising aggressively during those months, and that’s where we saw growth last year.”

Creatively, dealer testimonials were replaced by light humour mixed with an increase in the provision of factual information about pricing, quality and financing. And, for the first time, notes Cruickshank, all creative was adapted for the Asian community.

“BC has a large Asian population which is incredibly important to Toyota, which is the number-one name plate in that ethnic group. So all of our creative is reflected in the Asian community. We’ve become involved with the Chinese New Year celebrations and the International Dragon Boat Festival. We buy Asian media and tailor the creative for it. We also tailor the offers. The Asian community tends to buy cars—they’re less likely to lease. So where we’ll offer the general public a leasing program, we’ll offer the Asian community a purchase program.

toyota6 toyota7 

“The goal of all advertising over the last two years has been to build on QDR and wrap it up with value and affordability. Price has always been the biggest hurdle for us. But now we can find a better balance. Instead of trying to get people to buy an expensive product, we can now come out and say that, in addition to their excellent QDR ratings, Toyota vehicles are more affordable than ever. We’ve had a lot of information to communicate, but we’ve done it. And our sales increases are strong and our dealers are happy.”

And Toyota’s happy. In BC, its market share is 8%. Nationally, its share is 7% (as compared to Ford’s, which is 21.6%). But The Big Three is now The Big Five—General Motors, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Chrysler. In 1997, for the first time, Toyota sold over 100,000 cars in a calendar year (106,000, including Lexus). Demand is up. The company has taken an aggressive attitude, setting the goal of a 10% market share by the year 2000.

“Toyota already had a lot of loyal, satisfied customers,” concludes Cruickshank. “But with the new price points and new vehicles, it has opened itself to a whole new consumer segment. It has never been in a stronger position to make a serious impact on its marketplace.”

Gilson is a little more cautious. “The industry itself can only grow so big. In our effort to reach our 10% market share, we realize that we have to retain our existing customers, while looking at ‘conquest customers’—those who are driving something else. We’re dealing with educated consumers in a highly-competitive market and we can’t afford to get lost.

“But our advertising has been very effective. The strategy has worked, and I think our sales show that you can’t under-estimate the value of strong advertising.”

Blitz Magazine, March 1998

The BC Film Commission: Location, Location, Location

Blitz Magazine, May 2000

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was rare for a Hollywood producer to consider British Columbia when choosing locations. If they wanted a mountain, a bear, a Mountie, a Mountie on a bear on a mountain, only then BC was the obvious choice. A few well-known films were made here—McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Carnal Knowledge. The skill was here; Canadian broadcasting and film talent has always had an excellent reputation. But, by 1975, although there was a lot of television production going on, BC had gone five years without seeing a complete Hollywood feature shot here and the province’s craftsmen were leaving to work elsewhere. Finally, in 1978, the Social Credit government stepped in and created the British Columbia Film Commission.

bcfilm4 bcfilm8

bcfilm

With that came people who were actively marketing BC as a location. By the end of that year, BC went from having no business to enjoying production spending of $38 million. In 1979, it was $55 million. Producers, directors and production designers started to talk to their peers about BC, and there were people here following up. This meant cold-calling producers who, often, had to consult a map to find Vancouver. It was sometimes a tough sell, but the commission staff concentrated on building relationships and providing ever-better service.

While the cost of shooting in Los Angeles continued to escalate, BC was enjoying watershed moments. There was Year of Rambo (1979). 21 Jump Street showed producers that you could happily shoot an episodic series here. Then came MacGyver, and Wise Guy. In 1987, after the provincial government made a substantial investment to up-grade the Bridge Studios, Stephen J. Cannell and Paul Bronfman teamed up to build Lions Gate Studios (now North Shore Studios). The list of hit features continued to grow. The Canadian dollar stayed low, the tax advantages piled up.

rambo bcfilm7 bcfilm6

bcfilm5

So has the work. In 1998, 28 features, 26 TV series, 15 animation projects, 59 documentaries and 43 MOWs, mini-series and pilots were produced in BC, for a total value of $808 million (CAD). In 1999, there were 54 features, 30 TV series, 6 animated projects, 48 documentaries and 60 MOWs, mini-series and pilots, for a total value of $1.7 billion. That doesn’t include the $500 million non-theatrical ‘broadcaster bucks’ and television commercial expenditures. And conservative estimates place the spin-off economic impact at $3 billion.

The BC Film Commission (BCFC) is a branch of the Ministry of Small Business, Tourism & Culture and relies on the government for all of its funds. It employs just 10 people and has seen its budget regularly slashed in recent years, to the point where it currently operates on a stunningly low annual budget of $875,000. (This, while Montreal just received a $300,000. injection to its promotional budget alone.)

The BCFC mandate is to market, promote and facilitate film and television production in BC, and to market the services of BC production, post-product and ancillary service companies to the international film and television industry. It has four tasks: international marketing, location scouting, location services and community relations.

These days, the marketing function is restricted, to say the least. “Seven years ago, I had a $250,000 print advertising budget,” says marketing manager Alice To. “It’s now $50,000, including creative. We’ve gone from placing 45 ads a year to placing five. Those five are saved for when there’s a BC production that needs to be congratulated in the trade press. Now, we don’t have campaigns, we have reminders. We stand out by using illustrations—other film commissions run location shots. We used to advertise to the European and Asian markets, we used to publish a newsletter for schools and libraries, and we used to do a lot of media relations. But we don’t have the resources for that any more.”

The commission used to have an advertising agency (Campaign Communications, now Saatchi & Saatchi). It also used to host the extremely successful Friends of BC reception in Los Angeles—a party to thank people for filming in BC. The commission still goes to Cannes and is hosting a Business in BC conference in London this year, but the once all-important trade shows are now also a thing of the past.

“We used to do Location EXPO,” continues To. “You’d have all the film commissions under one roof and everyone competed to attract people to their jurisdictions—we’d pass out BC apples, water, salmon. And we used to exhibit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival. Now we don’t do that, not so much because of budget cuts, but because people aren’t interested in trade shows any more. They know about the commissions and they can get the information they need off the Internet.”

For the past two years, the BCFC has had a very effective web site (www.bcfilmcommission.com). It’s strictly for information dissemination and doesn’t carry advertising, but it is well-visited to the point of the occasional crash. On it, visitors find film lists, statistics, quick facts, news items, maps and information on customs, taxes, unions, equipment rental, studios and services.

To, who compares her job to doing the limbo under an ever-lower budget bar, maintains a large photo library and has managed to produce excellent location brochures showing various BC locations—not just deer in the woods, but alleyways, warehouses, docks, residential areas. There’s the occasional marketing project with BC Film (the non-profit society responsible for marketing completed made-in-BC projects) and, twice a year, the commission’s director, location and production services managers go down to Los Angeles to meet with film industry executives and engage in some good, old-fashioned product touting.

bcfilm1

The product is a region which has evolved from being a location to being a production centre. BC’s craftspeople are as good as, if not better, than those anywhere else in the world. We have 67 state-of-the-art sound stages, the best post-production facilities in the business, and we’re capable of having 35 A-list crews working simultaneously. All facilities and amenities are here; producers don’t have to bring anything with them. BC has architectural diversity, ethnic diversity and geographic diversity (it has nine of the globe’s 12 climates, lacking only arctic, tropic and sub-tropic).

“We used to just market locations, now we market Vancouver as a production centre,” says acting BCFC director Mark DesRochers. “We have the complete package now—the pitch to the popcorn. People have put a lot of money back into the business here, so everything’s up to date and the quality of the facilities here has been well attested to by the most grizzled of Hollywood veterans.”

But if there’s no marketing budget, no events budget and no media relations budget, how has the BC Film Commission succeeded?

Strategy, service and more service.

“The second part of our mandate—location scouting—can be challenging,” continues DesRochers. “If someone needs the Texas panhandle, we’ve got a problem. But maybe we can get that script rewritten for Montana. Double Jeopardy was originally supposed to take place in Boston. Then Bruce Beresford thought ‘Why am I trying to cheat this for Boston, when I can rewrite it to take place in the Pacific Northwest?’

bcfilm9

“We have to get in at the contract-signing stage. After that, there’s not much we can do to change their minds. So we look at the trades, track production, call people up. The key is to get producers to think of BC first. A producer will send a script to a dozen locations and his concerns are budget and what a location offers. They come up here and I show them around and say, ‘We can do it for this much here and it’s going to look good. But then I may take them to the Okanagan and show them the perfect location for the script and say ‘If we do it here, for this much, it will look fabulous’. Then they’ll go back and fight for that location. It may cost them a little more to go up to the Okanagan, but they’re still saving money by filming in BC, and they don’t have to compromise on the creative side.

“Also, since 1995, we’ve had the Regional Film Commission of BC, a network of regional film offices that helps us give people exactly the location they want. Production budgets are shrinking and it’s expensive to send location scouts everywhere, especially in a region the size of BC.

“We know how thin the margins are on these shows and we have to service that margin. If a producer needs a mountain and he can get great shots on Grouse Mountain, we’re not going to have him drag his crew over to Mount Robson. If he wants the Queen Charlotte Islands and we know he can’t afford it, we’ll find the alternative.

“We learned a long time ago to never bullshit the customer. If someone needs tundra and musk ox, I’m going to tell we don’t have it. We don’t want to screw up or disappoint our customers, because some of our customers are people who would go out of their way to tell their friends what a bunch of wankers we are. If you market yourselves as being something, that’s what you have to deliver.”

bcfilm2

bcfilm3

Once a project has been landed, the third part of the BCFC’s job— location services—kicks in. The BCFC takes a hands-on approach, walking producers through the hoops and ladders of immigration, customs, tax credits, Canadian content issues and union agreements.

The latter, as has been well publicized, used to be a major bugaboo. “People want to come here and make movies, not learn labour law,” explains DesRochers. “There was a time when people considered the possibility of union problems if they came to BC. That may or may not have cost us business—and it did get to the point where the whole thing could have gone down the toilet. But out of that came the opportunity to figure out how to make it work. And we did. Now, unlike any other jurisdiction in North America, all of the unions and guilds have long-term agreements with the employers, and the union agreements are much more straightforward than they used to be. We now have labour peace.”

More recently, there was the issue of unrest among members of the Los Angeles film industry, many of whom were furious at the amount of business coming up here.

“This is a cyclical business, and the growth in production in LA has been more rampant than any other place on the planet,” says DesRochers. “But if there are impracticalities which cost money, and producers want to make a profit, they’ll go where they can get the biggest bang for their buck. Anyway, we haven’t heard much from them lately—the guy leading the charge had to resign to go work on a feature in Toronto.”

Delivering that bigger bang also means competing with 260 other North American film commissions—and with Toronto, Vancouver’s main competitor, whose film commission also gets way more support from its provincial government. Toronto also has location advantages that BC doesn’t have.

“The competition has to do with location-driven pictures,” explains DesRochers. “Toronto is always on the producers’ shopping lists. If you want that eastern city look—if you want New York, Toronto is more logical. But there’s the weather to consider. And we are chameleons.”

The BCFC’s final mandate component is community relations. This area is absolutely essential, given that, not too long ago, the goodwill and hospitality of British Columbians—Vancouverites in particular—was starting to run a little low.

“Vancouverites are easy to get along with, considering the amount of production going on in a relatively small inner city,” remarks DesRochers. “But we had to start spending more time making sure the neighbours were not going to lynch the next show. Now, the municipal and city fathers are educated on what all of this filming means to the economy. People get advance letters, friendly production people knock on their doors and answer questions. It may just be a courtesy or—if you want to land a helicopter on someone’s street at 2:00 a.m.—it may be crucial.

“Like any business, once you’ve done your marketing and landed the business, your future success lies in how efficient you are at servicing that business. We have a multi-tiered client base and we don’t want anyone to feel used and abused.”

In 1995, the BCFC needed someone to deal only with community relations. It didn’t have the money to pay that salary, so it went to those with a vested interest—lawyers, accountants, post-production facilities, unions etc., and had them each chip in $4000. to pay 75% of the salary for a community relations person, something which most film centres don’t have.

The BCFC’s community affairs manager, Gordon Hardwick, is responsible for working with production companies and helping them deal with municipal administrators, Crown corporations and the private sector—helping them cut the red tape.

“I’m currently trying to organize municipal administrators to discuss ways of standardizing things,” he says. “The Greater Vancouver Regional District has 21 municipalities, all with different application and permit processes. Each year, filmmakers make 1,250 applications to the City of Vancouver, which has 400 files open at any one time. So things can become quite complex.”

Hardwick is also working on a marketing plan aimed at raising public awareness of the industry’s fiscal benefits.

“The film community supports a lot of charitable and service organizations, and there are many good-news stories to be told. We have a very low complaint level, but sometimes people get this idea that they’re being exploited by Big American Film Companies. Once they realize that a lot of the productions are Canadian, and that the guy next door makes his living this way, they understand. So the goal of the marketing plan will be to get the good news stories and the economic information out on as localized a level as possible.

“My job is to find ways to accommodate everyone and communicate with businesses and residents so that they can plan their lives around what’s going to be happening. Without that communication, communities would get fed up with the road blocks and noise and racing vehicles and say ‘forget it’. That’s what happened in some communities in the Los Angeles basin, which simply no longer allowing filming. Collectively, our locations are a resource that needs to be managed, with an eye to preservation for the future, just as the fishery or forestry resource does. This is a resource that needs to be both promoted and protected.

“The film industry here grew as a location-based industry—it was never about studios and back lots. We’ve always needed public support and understanding and the willingness to accept inconvenience once in a while. This industry employs 25,000 people—you don’t want it to go away just because it occasionally blocks your driveway.”

Perhaps the human element complicates things more than in this industry than in other sectors. But the other key to the BC Film Commission’s success is that it has been very good at forging solid, long-lasting relationships.

“We’ve developed a great rapport with the decision-makers in this industry,” says DesRochers. “When I go down to LA, I meet with people and find out what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We stay abreast of their desires and wishes and respond quickly. People there know we’re open to suggestions and that we’re committed to delivering the goods. That confidence is better than any advertising you could run.

“This is show business—a mix of creativity and fiscal responsibility. You can’t separate money from the other benefits. You can’t put a dollar value on knowing that you’re going to get the product you want, on time and on budget. And those relationships may save money in the long run, even if the up-front cost is a little higher. So you’ll get producers who come here again and again, no matter what company they’re working for.

“Sure, there’s the exchange rate and the tax advantages, but it’s also the people. Producers know they can depend on our people. We’ve earned the respect of our community on both sides of the border—from studio guys, to unions, to composers, to the guys renting cell phones. We’ve done a good job in forging relationships and keeping those warm and fuzzy feelings about us.”