Bleublancrouge has been a fixture of Québec’s ad agency scene since 1983. But its long-time chief executive officer Sébastien Fauré—or “Seb,” as he is affectionally known—says for the agency, which started out primarily as a design studio, to survive, it needed to expand outside the French-speaking province. That would mean not only into the rest of Canada with a Toronto office, but also finding a way to attract North American and global clients.
“To survive in the world today, you need international connections and scale—or at least North American,” says Fauré. “We tried strategic alliances and looked at forming partnerships and making acquisitions. But none of that really worked.”
He also watched the discouraging outcomes of Montréal shops sold into agency holding companies.
“They think they’re going to have access to all these great business cases, potential clients and partnerships, and make international connections. But it doesn’t really play like that,” he says. “In most cases, when an international network swallows up an independent player, it is to make sure that the independent player delivers in Québec. That’s it, that’s all. The problem with that is the Québec market isn’t growing that much.”
The French words for blue, white and red pushed together, Bleublancrouge—or BBR—has found a solution to expanding beyond borders and traditional agency services that eschews most strategies. It is the engine behind a thriving creative collective, which Fauré began pulling together like pieces of a puzzle four years ago. He searched for small, entrepreneurially driven businesses in Québec with global respect in their highly specialized fields. And then he offered to take off their shoulders tasks like human resources and payroll, a back end BBR already had for decades because of its larger size, freeing them up to focus on what they do best.
In October 2018, the 150-person collective launched under the brand “flag” Humanise. Made up of eight shops so far, it includes alternate reality game creator and gamification design studio Alice & Smith; strategic brand consultancy L’Institut Idée, whose global clients have included Live Nation, Audi and US health insurance giant Humana; and Youville Haussmann Park (YHP), which has been sought out by brands like Mercedes-Benz, Dior and Valentino to stage VIP experiences at events globally, from Montréal and Paris to New York and Los Angeles.
The collective is called Humanise to signal that it isn’t about billable hours and being territorial about clients. A creative whose counsel is sought by a creative at another Humanise firm isn’t suddenly “on the clock.” Fauré’s grand idea is for everyone to help each other unselfishly and without ego. “Maybe we’re just crazy Frenchmen, but I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I have a vision,’” says Fauré. “It was through trial and error that we landed on the collective.”
“It has helped us gain critical mass, assemble specialized expertise and increase the velocity of our entrepreneurs’ growth in a very difficult market,” he says, noting each small business under Humanise has grown between 15 and 20 percent in the year after joining.
BBR is also flourishing since starting the collective. New global remits have come in from Marriott International on several of its hotel brands as well as from Sotheby’s International Realty, a past client of L’Institut Idée. At Sotheby’s annual global networking event, held this year in Vancouver, the luxury real estate company unveiled a new long-term brand platform—Exceptional Defined—and global campaign by the agency. “BBR has become our secret weapon. They’re quietly amazing,” says Isadora Badi, vice president, global marketing of the Madison, New Jersey–headquartered company, in an email.
Those wins have fueled BBR Toronto, opened in November 2016 with four people, to increase its staff to 25 as of June 2019.
The agency also scored the biggest national account based in Québec: Desjardins, a financial services giant that owns State Farm Life Insurance in Canada. Twenty firms pitched to the business. “We work closely with the other entities in the collective. And part of the reason why Desjardins chose BBR was because they really bought into the collective,” says co–creative director Marie-Eve Best. “We can’t introduce ourselves anymore without talking about it.”
Fueled by the power of eight, Humanise pulls in more than $50 million a year in annual billings, with work evenly split between Québec, Canadian and international mandates.
MAKING A COLLECTIVE CONNECT
Creative collectives are not new, but they’re typically made up of freelancers or small agencies pooling their talents together virtually. But Humanise isn’t a collective just in mind-set.
A short distance from downtown Montréal, the firms share a 30,000-square-foot space in an early twentieth-century former industrial building—all on the same floor. That is by design. Given that each firm is autonomous, no one is “above” anyone else even in the most literal sense. While BBR, with 65 staff in Montréal, has the most square footage, each piece of the collective flows seamlessly into the next thanks to a bright, open floor plan. Each is distinguished by a few physical idiosyncrasies. Alice & Smith has a space with beanbag chairs, couches and a flat-screen TV connected to gaming consoles. Two of its smallest residents include hamsters Mr. Noodle and Ms. Noodle, who has her own Instagram account. On the day Communication Arts visited, most of YHP’s staffers were out working events, but a row of spray paint cans in a variety of colors hinted at recent prop work.
The floor is so expansive, employees zip from one end of the collective to another on scooters. In the center of it all is the 2,000-square-foot common space: a bar kitchen stocked with tea, coffee and fruit juices; tiered platform box seating; and a pool table. The creative leadership says the environment has proven conducive to spontaneous, fast-forming and organic collaboration.
“When you’re not on the same floor, let alone the same continent, I think it is really hard to be truly collaborative,” says co–creative director Dominique Bulmer. In fact, he says BBR has done work that otherwise wouldn’t have come to an ad agency because of that collaboration.
Commissioned by NBCUniversal, Alice & Smith developed an alternate reality game for the dystopian TV series Mr. Robot at San Diego Comic-Con. Game cards were handed to attendees for use at almost 20 local businesses to uncover Easter eggs about the show. “Alice & Smith was asked if they could also create the promotion, and they said, ‘We can work with our friends at BBR,’” says Bulmer. “And so they developed the game, and we developed the promotion.”
The work ended up winning awards for both shops.
Conversely, BBR turned to Alice & Smith for an augmented reality treasure hunt game during Christmas for nineteen shopping malls owned by Cadillac Fairview. “My client never would have known to approach Alice & Smith for that kind of work, and Mr. Robot would never have landed in our yard without that connection,” says Bulmer.
The collaborative culture BBR has cultivated extends to how it partners with its clients, who are invited to treat the Humanise offices, where some “war rooms” are designated to specific accounts, just like their own. BBR’s co-creative sessions have proven to be a hit with clients.
“Some agencies just take the brief, run away and come back with mock-ups of ideas that are almost done and to which agencies have already developed attachment,” says Dominique Pépin, associate marketing director of paint brand Sico for PPG Industries. “That can be bad for the agency-client relationship because if I don’t like something, it really shows on my face.”
“But BBR has this way of working, called co-creation, that I’ve only experienced there,” continues Pépin. “We get into this room together, and they present me with routes and options and directions on a brief. We look at it together, and just purge and build on the ideas that are there together. That means there is never a final creative reveal.”
It is a process that led to Sico’s most recent campaign, which deployed 150 different pieces of OOH creative in Québec, connecting Sico paint colors to real-world surroundings.
As far as the collective, Pépin says it is a reflection of the agency’s we’re-in-this-together mind-set. “BBR has no ego. When they present an idea, I don’t know who did what. It isn’t about people trying to take credit for an idea,” she says.
Having already won Marriott and Sotheby’s, the agency’s Toronto office has also been on the move—into a new 5,000-square-foot space with staff from three Humanise firms in June. “I expect we’ll have five or six of the Humanise companies eventually represented with a full-time staff in Toronto,” says Wahn Yoon, president of BBR Toronto. “We envision having 45 to 50 people eventually in the office.”
Though BBR is just in its infancy with the collective, it has already put the Montréal agency on a much bigger map. “We weren’t part of a network, so we created our own, just a little differently,” says Fauré. “With a little more time for the collective to grow—say, another sixteen months—we expect it to make an even bigger difference to our agency.” ca