On Toronto Not Being the Centre of the Universe

Blitz Magazine, September 2002

torontoWhen I started this magazine five years ago, I got a lot of comments and advice from people, but one particular set of comments still sticks in my mind. It came from an agency guy in Toronto, who said: “What? You’re going to start a national B2B magazine from Vancouver? Are you nuts? Even with national distribution, you’ll have a helluva time getting the national advertisers in. Nobody wants to advertise B2B to western Canada. No one in Toronto gives a shit about western Canada.”

Blitz doesn’t just go to western Canada, of course. It goes to 5,000 in the east, 5,000 in the west. This guy’s point, though, was that, to national advertisers, the latter 5,000 doesn’t matter.

I thought he was being silly—just another sufferer of Toronto-is-the-Centre-of-the-Universe Syndrome. The spread of the disease, however, continues apace. Just the other day, a national publisher told me that he had met a young man who was an excellent writer, but whose career was certainly going to go nowhere because he’d never been anywhere but Toronto—and, worse, had no interest in leaving Toronto, or in anything not related to Toronto.

I recently spoke with the creative director of a Toronto advertising agency who said that he was having difficulty figuring out how to tweak his client’s creative for a particular BC demographic. When I suggested that he consult with a Vancouver agency (duh), the line went quiet—I think he may have temporarily blacked out. (Then he asked me to send him a list of agencies.)

Magazine editors aren’t supposed to sell advertising. But I’m also the publisher and have to do it. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget that I’m likely to write about what I hear and learn, so they drop things into conversations which they may not otherwise say to a journalist. Things that make me feel a little sick.

The media buyer for Microsoft actually silenced me with the idiocy of this remark: “Microsoft doesn’t advertise in business publications which have a large BC circulation. At the B2B level, Microsoft is only interested in advertising to companies with more than 400 employees. BC doesn’t have any companies that large.”

This comment: “We’re not interested in Blitz because it has editorial relating to western Canada,” came from the marketing director of the Canadian Press.

The media buyers—indeed, the marketing people, for ‘Canada’s national newspaper’, the Globe & Mail, don’t bother returning calls. How often does the National Post advertise to western media buyers and marketers? What about the CBC? Never and never.

I could go on for an hour, naming company after company which, rather than advertising to the media communications community in all of the Canada, prefer to spend large sums of money on advertising to the same people in Toronto, over and over, year after year.  Reminder advertising is necessary but, in this case, it’s at the expense of untold amounts of potential new business.

While it’s true that the size of this country has always made it hard for Canadians to achieve the sense of ‘oneness’ which binds other nations, none of this makes any sense. Vancouver is Canada’s second-largest market. ‘Neglect of the West’ has been a political/economic complaint since Confederation, but it never occurred to me that corporate Canada could be so incredibly short-sighted as to think that businesses in BC (and Alberta) don’t need to be advertised to—that they somehow suffer from inferior spending habits, or aren’t savvy marketers, or don’t know how to compete.

It is a conundrum. A psychological puzzle that needs to be solved. If anyone out there has any solutions, ideas, explanations, I’m sure that all of those Canadians who live outside of Ontario’s borders would love to hear them.

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Gretzky, Tylenol and the Real Spin City

gretzy1Blitz Magazine, November 1999

Watching the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease riddle Michael J. Fox as he testified before the US Congress recently, I wondered if Wayne Gretzky was also watching, and whether he felt horrified or mortified.

Gretzky, as you know, attached himself to a disease—osteoarthritis. He doesn’t have it; he’s never even been tested for it. He does have some pain, which (duh) he acknowledges as being the result of a lifetime spent playing a violent contact sport.

I don’t know how Fox’s 1998 announcement of his affliction affected Spin City’s ratings, but my theory is that it inspired a Johnson & Johnson spin doctor. That this person saw the sincere (and justified) outpouring of affection and concern for Fox and thought: ‘Hey! Gretzky’s a famous, popular, polite Canadian! A renowned athlete! He’s gotta’ be in some kind of  pain! We’ll tell the media he’s got arthritis! We’ll connect it to the non-profit sector! Sales of Tylenol will soar!’

On September 14th, this appeared, care of Canadian Press, in the Vancouver Sun: ‘The disease that affects more than four million Canadians has hit one of the country’s greats: Wayne Gretzy, recently retired hockey hero, seems to be suffering from arthritis.”

On the 15th, the item was on the front page of the Globe & Mail.

On the 16th, the TV commercials began. Interview format, Wayne Gretzky claiming to use Tylenol to treat the symptoms of a disease which he does not have.

Well, it blew up in the company’s face, with the media crying foul and Gretzky back-pedaling at slap-shot speed, telling the National Post that he often uses paying gigs to promote worthy causes, and claiming to be the victim of a newspaper war.

But Gretzky ain’t Bambi, and I doubt that it’s coincidence that the Tylenol/arthritis thing, the announcement of his new National Post column (yeah, right), the naming of an Edmonton highway after him etc., coincided with the launch of his clothing line at The Bay.

All of this got me thinking that Gretzky’s PR people forgot a crucial rule: Never make a journalist look foolish. There isn’t a journalist alive who hasn’t been duped–who’s been too busy, or too lazy, or too ambitious, or too short of time to check a fact. Who has printed information from a press release, or the newswire, without stopping to question the information. Who has then found himself with egg on his face.

‘Thing is, burned journalists have terrific memories. And the next time they receive information from that guilty PR firm, account executive or client, they will remember. And toss it aside. Or fact-check it until the subject screams for mercy.

The moral of this Gretzky story, then, is that unscrupulous, untruthful PR campaigns benefit no one, demean all involved and, in the long run, do nothing but damage.