Advice From the 6th Best Agency in Canada

Keep your values front and center as you grow

In 2016, Cossette was named agency of the year in Canada. In 2017 and 2018, we repeated that. Along the way we won Grand Clios, Pencils from both sides of the pond, a Grand Prix at Cannes and Canada's first and only Cannes Creative Effectiveness Lion. But I'm not going to bore you with how we did all that. Because last year we were named the 6th best agency in Canada. And how we achieved that honor is, in my opinion, much more inspiring.

Tolstoy said, "All happy families resemble one another, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I believe that applies to advertising agencies as well. Just replace happy with "awesome" and unhappy with "meh." (I know what you're thinking—Tolstoy never had to write a Super Bowl ad. But for the sake of argument, let's move past that flaw.)

We all have our reasons for not being awesome. Sometimes upper management talks a big game but doesn't empower the people to actually play it. That's very demotivating. Sometimes you lose key people who made you amazing. People are all we have. People are everything. A common complaint I've heard is, "We don't have the clients that will let us do the great work. If only we had Nike as a client." This one I'm gonna say is actually stupid. Waiting around to do good work until Nike calls is exactly why Nike is not going to call you. It's not your clients' fault.

Our case, like most, is complex but explainable in hindsight. We grew fast. Very fast. Creative success on big clients like McDonald's, General Mills and SickKids will do that for you. Potential clients want those kinds of results. Our Toronto office alone, big five years ago by Toronto standards, doubled in size quickly. Montreal had a similar trajectory. So now you're faced with a conundrum. As senior management, you can't personally oversee everything that's going on like you used to. So what you now need is MORE STRUCTURE. But let's face it. When I say "senior management," I'm not talking about people in suits at NASA or IBM. Whether you're an art director or an account lead, you're still in advertising. You're still "creative" people. You got to where you are by non-conventional thinking. By magic. Not by a rigid hierarchy.

But we really didn't have a choice. We needed to restructure. And we did all the right stuff according to all the organizational behavior books. We promoted the great people. We set up a HIERARCHY. Implemented a reporting structure. Assigned people to things. Created committees. Starting bathing, even! Aside from some minor bumps, everything ran smoothly. It worked. We functioned in the new larger reality. Done and done.

Done was right. Cut to us about a year ago. Sitting in the auditorium at the agency of the year competition. They're announcing the winners. I usually leave the bar after they announce bronze agency so I have enough time to get to the stage for gold. Except when I got to the stage this time, there were some people from Rethink on the stage. Taking OUR gold agency of the year prize. I looked around in disbelief. "But we have a hierarchy!"

You see, the problem we solved with our new way of working was ironically not about the work at all. I spent nine years at BBDO and I should have known this. They don't mince words about what it's about. "The work. The work. The work." The structural changes we made were not wrong. But we leaped at the solution without regard to what got us here. We needed to look deeply at ourselves. We needed to really look at what got us to success in the first place. And make that structural. That thinking. That feeling. Those VALUES. 

So, we rewrote our values. Capturing what had really gotten us to the top. Capturing what the best of us do to be the best of us. 

We started with "Give a shit." Honestly, if you do, it's everything. It's almost all you need. Wanting to go beyond. Caring about what's keeping your client up at night. Dying to win. "Be relentless." Is good enough good enough? Do you take no for an answer if you know you're right? "Try stuff." Who doesn't want to try something different? Let's create an atmosphere where entrepreneurial thinking is welcomed. "Make it better together." We have the most creative, intelligent people in the world working here. Let them in. "Aim higher. And higher." No one cares if your idea is the best one in Toronto. Is this the best idea in the world? If not, keep going. 

"Do the right thing." This to me is the most interesting. It seems on the surface not about the work. But it very much is. Where are the best ideas coming from? Is it the same people all the time. Where are we hiring from? Who are we casting? Whose stories are we telling? This is such a work in progress. 

And we ended with "Have fun." Wow, we weren't having fun any more. And wow, doing great work and making your client's product famous, and them famous, and getting on stages, and doing talks with them about how you did it, is AMAZING. We needed to get back to having fun. 

Is this going to work? If we can honestly say we're living those values every day, then yes, it already has. Do we still need to be agency of year? If we're doing the best work in the world, people feel included in doing it, and we're having fun, well, then, we're agency of the millennium. 

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