Some agencies are happy with the business equivalent of speed-dating and summer romances. Not Canadian communication agency lg2. What this Montréal- and Québec City-based company really wants are long-term relationships. “We want to develop partnerships with our clients,” says lg2 partner, vice-president and managing director Mathieu Roy. “We like to have a great conversation about how we can help build a brand and sell some product and create some velocity. And when things are happening at their best, someone could enter the room and not see a difference between the client and the agency side.”
As Roy explains it, the agency’s consistent ability to retain clients dates to 1991, when Sylvain Labarre and Paul Gauthier founded lg2 in Montréal with just three employees. At first, the fledgling company focused on retail promotion, which was all the rage with recession-stricken clients. However, as the world economy recovered, clients wanted to branch out; lg2 expanded into strategic planning, advertising, interactive communications, design and production, and today it has 180 employees in its two offices. As it grew, lg2 focused on its philosophy, Think like a brand, act like a retailer. “Back in 1991, a lot of agencies were pretty good at building brands,” Roy says. “But no one really cared about the actual point of sale, or driving results or being accountable the next day or the next week.”
“We were willing to look at what’s happening at point of sale, and we were engaged with [client’s] salespeople,” agrees Marc Fortin, lg2 partner, vice-president and creative director. “That vision was very unique at that time. And it’s evolved. Today the point of sale takes the form of a mobile phone, and it’s also online shopping. A lot of agencies are just still trying to do great ads. But we’re really looking at the business of our clients and trying to come up with what’s best, regardless of the tools.”
How does lg2 create partnerships that are more like symphonies than three-minute pop songs? With a unique working style that brings everyone—and they mean everyone—to the table from the very first meeting. At some agencies, Roy says, account executives meet with clients for the brief, which is passed along to creative “and two weeks [later] the work comes back and it has nothing to do with what the client has in mind. [At lg2], we include the creative people in the planning process. From the very beginning, it’s a rich conversation about what the client needs. Clients love it.”
Those outside the industry might assume that today’s clients push for more non-traditional solutions, such as mobile apps or games. That is sometimes, but not always, the case. Roy says, “We have very smart clients, and they look for a solution that’s going to drive the best results. We look at the brand, we look at the opportunities, and, to us, the channel doesn’t matter.” As an example of a non-traditional solution, he points to “Disappearance,” a “magic trick” lg2 crafted for the Québec City Magic Festival that made it seem as if passersby “disappeared” from a series of television screens located inside a storefront. Another such solution was the “virtual dressing room” for Rockland mall that allowed visitors to virtually mix and match clothes and then head off to the physical stores to buy them. “Sometimes the solution is [non-traditional],” Roy says. “The key is that we’re unbiased to what the solution might be. But it has to be always coming back to the business challenges of the client.”
lg2’s flexibility about solutions made Krispy Kernels one of the agency’s biggest fans. A few years ago the Canadian snack-food company, which sells nuts, seeds and dried fruits, found itself at a crossroads. “We’re the leader in the C and G [convenience stores and gas stations] channel, but that’s not even ten percent of the snack [food] revenue,” says marketing director Renée-Maude Jalbert. “Being the leader is great, but it’s only ten percent of the pie. Grocery stores were our target.” Krispy Kernels, which hadn’t done much advertising during its 60-year history, decided to work with lg2 on a new campaign designed to persuade grocery stores to carry its products.
In the past, Krispy Kernels had emphasized that its products are healthy and 100 percent Canadian. But lg2 convinced the company that “if you want to stand out, especially in the snack business, where we have huge competitors with big money, the more strategic way to do it is to focus on the fun,” Jalbert says. The agency first recommended a radio plan, but when Krispy Kernels wanted something bigger, the agency helped the company craft a two-spot television campaign, “President” and “Couch.” This was a big deal for Krispy Kernels. “We had never been on TV before,” Jalbert says. “But we really trusted them. They were convinced [the commercials] would make people talk about us.”
The commercials were funny and got attention. As the “Couch” spot opens, a young man sits on a couch in his family’s home. Photos of his parents are conspicuous on the walls. The man upends a bag of peanuts and shakes some into his mouth, but a few fall and disappear into the couch cushions. Trying to retrieve them, he sticks first his arm and then his entire head into the couch. He finds himself looking into a sort of crawl space that is filled with peanuts. Suddenly, his father surfaces from the sea of snacks. “Dad?” the young man says. “I thought you’d left us.” His father, munching away, puts a finger to his lips: “Shhhhh.”
“Couch,” which won lg2 its first Bronze Lion at the 2012 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, garnered plenty of attention for Krispy Kernels. “The best news is that the results [of this and the ongoing efforts of the company] were phenomenal for them,” says Luc Du Sault, lg2 partner, vice-president and creative director. “They could enter big [stores] for distribution, which they couldn’t get into before. It was a major break for them.”
“We’re in all the major chains now,” Jalbert confirms. “It was like we put Krispy Kernels back in people’s heads.”
Crafting memorable branding is one of lg2’s strengths, but the agency doesn’t create a client’s image without considerable input, says Claude Auchu, lg2 partner, vice-president, creative director, design. “We have to come to the essence of what the client is,” he says. “We are like archeologists. We have to discover what is there, not invent something. We have to discover [the client’s] story and refresh it.”
Auchu is the head of lg2boutique, the agency’s in-house design unit. The fifteen members of his staff share projects and clients with other parts of lg2, including lg2fabrique, the in-house production unit. In Montréal, lg2’s offices are on the eighth and ninth floors of the Le Balfour building. Visitors walk through a large, open work space filled with sunlight from the huge windows that line the walls. The pale room dividers, white walls and pine doors and woodwork create a calm, relaxed atmosphere spiced with humor—caricature-like sketches made by employees strung across Auchu’s office, the screensaver that plays a variation on an Internet meme: “Keep calm and make the logo bigger.” The office is filled with the low murmur of conversations in both French and English—Montréal is, after all, in Québec province, and many of the campaigns lg2 creates for its clients are done partially or entirely in French.
Auchu says that when lg2boutique first meets with a new client, “we’re not even thinking about creation.” Instead, staffers ask about the client’s history, its market and its competitors, and they try to understand the look and feel the company wants to achieve. Ask five different people to explain what “cool, fresh and jazzy” means, Auchu notes, and you’ll get five different answers; lg2boutique wants to understand what the client means by those words.
Staffers take what they learn in that first meeting and work up designs. And here, Auchu says, is where lg2boutique is different from other agencies: At the second meeting, lg2 designers don’t present their work to the client. Instead, they hang their work on white boards in the conference room and send the client in to look at it—alone. “They can sell or debate or hate what they see among themselves,” Auchu says. “There’s not the stress or confrontation of when the agency’s people are present when the client first sees the project.” After a short time, lg2boutique designers enter the room and discuss the work with the client: “’What was your first impression? Did it talk to your heart?’”
For designers, this method of working can take some getting used to, Auchu says, but it garners results, not to mention happier clients. And lg2boutique is turning heads in the design world. The branding atelier brought home 2 Grand Prix distinctions and 11 awards from the 2013 Grafika competition, which recognizes excellence in Québec graphic design, and recently beat out 27 other Canadian agencies to become Telefilm Canada’s agency of choice for the next 3 years. Auchu says that lg2boutique is developing a platform that the organization, which funds and promotes Canadian films internationally, will use at film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance.
The agency’s mantel is crowded with other awards: Clios, Cassies, awards from Communication Arts, and a “Top 3 Canadian agency” recognition from the 2012 Marketing Magazine awards. At the 2012 Boomerang competition, which recognizes excellence in interactive marketing in Québec, lg2 won an award for the Focus Mode mobile application it created for the Québec Auto Insurance Corporation. Drivers trying to resist the temptation to text while driving are prompted to turn on the app when they get behind the wheel. The app blocks all calls and texts until drivers arrive at work or home, when they can view the messages they missed. While they’re en route, the app sends this message to people trying to reach them: “I am currently driving. I will respond as soon as I’ve reached my destination.” lg2 supported the app with a series of inventive, startling TV and radio ads that highlight the dangers of texting while driving.
lg2’s partners believe the agency is able to reach its current level of creative achievement for several reasons. For one thing, Roy says, “We’re an independent shop, which [in Canada and in Québec] is a rarity. We’re totally in control of our destiny. Money doesn’t drive our business here. It’s really a shop about the work. That’s something unique and absolutely powerful that clients are really looking for, to deal with the owners directly.” Du Sault and Fortin cheer his statement as Roy elaborates, “We’re nimble and agile, and we don’t have to please any board in London or New York. We just have to please our clients, so that simplifies things.”
Du Sault adds that lg2’s success can also be credited to the cooperation between the agency’s two offices, which often work together on the same accounts and spend time together at holiday parties and other events. “Sometimes, when you’ve got two entities, you’ve got competition,” Du Sault says. “But it’s like we’re in the same office. There is no lg2 Québec or lg2 Montréal. We have something quite unique.”
Currently, about two-thirds of lg2’s clients are in Québec, but several clients (Desjardins, Bell) are national. The partners are considering opening an office in Toronto and are beginning to do business in other parts of Canada and the United States. But wherever its next client is located, lg2 plans to stick with what works: the development of a long-term relationship that discovers the perfect solution, no matter the channel, for a client’s challenges. “It’s about communication,” Du Sault says. “We have to surprise people.” ca