Inside Canada's Golden Age of Indie Ad Agencies

It's all about people, product and POV

This past fall, something significant occurred in the world of Canadian advertising when Strategy Magazine released its Agency of the Year shortlist identifying the top dozen or so shops. Of the 11 agencies shortlisted, six were independently owned. For the first time, indies outnumbered network players.

And a few weeks later, when the top three agencies were awarded, two out of three were independents, with Rethink—an indie—named AOY. (For those of us keeping score, this is a recognition they've deservedly received for five years running.)

Of course, such selections are subjective. Far less easy to ignore, especially for the networks, are recent new-business trends. Last year was somewhat quiet on that front, but many brands that moved accounts chose independents.

Kimberly-Clark, Burger King and Telus shifted creative assignments to indie shops. In fact, this annual Canadian Agency Pitch Report, a summary compiled by consultants at Listenmore, found that independents won almost 75 percent of AOR pitches last year. Plus, indie powerhouse Wieden+Kennedy opened an office in Toronto to service a newly-landed portion of McDonald's. 

None of this is to suggest there aren't wildly talented people doing world-class work at the networks. But it does signal a shift that's happening across the advertising landscape.

In 2022, I jumped to an independent after nearly two decades working at big players. I joined Courage as a partner a few months into its existence, and last year we were lucky enough to rank among the firms shortlisted for AOY honors.

Having recently left the network world, I have some thoughts about the underlying reasons for the recent rise of independents.

Indies attract great people

A large portion of senior creative talent choose to work for independent agencies. This is mostly because senior people, creative or otherwise, seek situations where they have genuine control. And when you work for a network in a smaller market like Canada, you're always accountable to New York, London or Paris. Even at an executive level, there are often several layers above your head, influencing decisions on everything from staffing and creative to client relationships. The degree of influence varies significantly from one agency to the next, but in all cases there is a ceiling to the autonomy of decision makers.

This causes leaders to pursue, or often create, scenarios outside the holding-company structure where they can be masters of their own destiny (to the degree that any service industry allows). And where the top senior talent go, so follow the intermediates and juniors who want to work with them and learn from the best.

A laser focus on product 

For most independent agencies in Canada, our product is world-class creative and strategy—full stop. Bigger players "specialize" in creative and media and PR—and they can do your CRM as well. And consulting, they've got that too. You also need your brakes checked? Uh, I think they have some staff for that, sure.

Clients aren't impressed by your full suite of services if you can't do the main thing they hired you for. When you focus on one or two things, and you have the best people doing them, you're going to do them really well.

Point of view

We work in a highly commoditized category, and within that landscape it's difficult to create differentiation. For an ad agency, a point of view can be one of the most valuable ways of doing so. It's important to have a point of view on workplace culture, the creative product and the process of getting the job done. Even a point of view on what a cool office looks like can be key. The value of differentiation in a commoditized category is something we preach to our clients all the time. Yet, the network merger and consolidation model makes having a distinct POV increasingly challenging. 

More than most industries, advertising is characterized by constant evolution. The only constant is that things will change, probably sooner than later. But amid such ebb and flow, it seems we are entering a golden age of independent agencies here in Canada and beyond. Many have built a model that nurtures people, generates superior work and helps clients achieve their goals. How it will continue to play out in years to come is impossible to predict, but I'm excited to have a front row seat.

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Tom Kenny
Tom Kenny is chief strategy officer and partner at Courage.

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