If you’ve never heard of “Blanchette Black,” it’s because Monique Gamache, design director/partner at WAX, made it up. It’s the only way she can think to describe the rich, solid sheet of sheer, liquid black covering a folder she’s holding, constructed of a smooth, sturdy stock. Gamache is referring to Blanchette Press, an offset printer in Richmond, British Columbia, but she could just as easily be talking about her dealer, where she gets her color fix—that’s how serious her passion is.
“That’s not a Blanchette Black,” she assures, fingering a different (lesser?) black that coats a brochure cover. “I feel like there’s almost a blue going on here. Yeah, not Blanchette.” She puts it aside, but not dismissively. If that job called for a different black, well, that’s what that job needed. Gamache (whose first name, Monique, is pronounced M’nik) can’t help herself. As one of the three principals of WAX in Calgary, Alberta, her responsibility is to make sure the work—and end product—rules.
WAX, founded in 2005, is a full-service advertising and design agency located in an unremarkable downtown business building. It’s only when the elevator leaves you at the top floor that you are transported to a clean, train-car-long space that opens to an airy, colorful environment overlooking Calgary’s skyline. President/partner Dan Wright, executive creative director/partner Joe Hospodarec and Gamache directed the look and feel of the office seven years ago when the agency was founded. It’s sophisticated yet welcoming—kind of like Calgary itself, where fancy restaurants and strangers who say hi occupy the same area.
Thirty-two staffers, sectioned into account, production and creative, sit in the open floor plan. The partners have offices—but they are essentially glass cages, so they, too, are an integral part of the layout. The agency services clients on every level from strategy development, marketing consulting, advertising, design, corporate ID, packaging and annual reports. At WAX, there are no media, research or interactive departments—rather they align themselves with appropriate, case-by-case partners they rely on.
Creatively, their main point of difference is that design is equal to concept. Design is not an afterthought that happens last, it’s a necessary and defining part of the process. Here, the creatives regularly brainstorm in three-person teams at the outset, versus the traditional writer-and-art director model. “Seven years ago, we established a new agency based on the idea that advertising and design should work in sync,” Wright explains. “Separating the two disciplines limits creativity, the sharing of ideas and solutions. To develop truly integrated brands, we use both disciplines to push ideas across multiple media platforms.”
Layering a design discipline into each project, and the very work process, is illustrative of the agency’s philosophy of taking extra care with each piece of work. From their agency profile: “We wanted our agency to do everything—strategy, creative, client services—just a little bit better than everyone else. That got us thinking about the extra care that polishes a classic car or a great pair of skis to a high shine. We called our agency WAX.”
But they also like that “wax” evokes a burning-the-candle-at-both-ends intensity about the pursuit of great work. And the fact that wax, as a material, leaves an impression. Then, their business cards give a final interpretation: for images on their cards, staffers choose among Elizabeth Taylor, George Burns, Bette Midler, Brad Pitt, John F. Kennedy, Judy Garland, to name a few, in their wax likenesses. It’s this last part that truly identifies WAX’s X-factor. And maybe their W-factor: whimsy.
Their work is filled with irony and humor. For clients including Honens International Piano Competition, Mercato Italian Gourmet, Victoria Symphony, Calgary Farmers' Market, The Calgary International Film Fesitval and Calgary Society for Persons with Disabilities, there’s an intelligence and wit that come through, a kind of reward to the consumer for taking the time to read, see, hear or view the communication, but the boutique also services larger, more corporate clients, like energy delivery company Enbridge, Cenovus Energy, Calgary Airport Authority, SAIT Polytechnic and Honda.
In a small, red room tucked away in a corner at WAX, uncharacteristically out of view, sheets and sheets of layout paper are filled with scribbles, headlines, drawings and layouts, in a throwback to agencies of a decade and more ago. Unlike many creative agencies, WAX still employs the “wallpapering” method of creative exploration. Art directors and writers are not required to show computer comps until almost the end of an assignment. “We're able to see what’s working and to make adjustments as we go,” Hospodarec says.
Art director Brad Connell explains, “It’s the first internal review. There will be drawings all over the wall and, generally, Joe likes to see it before anyone else and we’ll talk it through and make changes. Monique will look at it, and she’ll notice all these details and she’ll make us go back and refine it. Dan looks at it from a strategic point of view. Then we'll bring other people in, like the media people we’re working with.” And surprisingly, the client also comes into the little red room to see all the wallpapering at presentation time. “It’s good for them to see where we’ve been, where we are and how we arrived at our decision,” Hospodarec says.
In the case of Honda, the client saw a pitch that made plain as day the benefit of WAX’s solution. In a campaign that skewers conventional car advertising with simple messages like a print ad that declares “This headline was going to be so clever” in a deceptively plain type, the agency was able to leverage the brand of Honda by showing that they are not about hype or gimmicks. “We hung competitive work all over the room, the usual kinds of car ads that all look the same, screaming at you,” Hospodarec says, “and they could see how their work would stand out.” The client awarded WAX the account and left the pitch creative intact. They extended the campaign, which consists of online, print, outdoor and radio, with ads like: “We considered using catchy buzzwords that sell, sell, sell.” And the body copy asserts: “But with deals this good, we don’t need to.”
For Calgary Farmers’ Market, the strategy was to get people to visit year-round. Calgarians would naturally think of summer as the season to buy produce from the local farms, but in winter, traffic waned. So WAX recommended stopping all media in the summer, when business was good, and going to a winter schedule. Besides print and outdoor that said “Open All Winter” with visuals of fruits and vegetables dressed in protective winter clothing, agency staffers hung apples from trees all over downtown Calgary on a snowy day. The apples all had labels—“Fresh All Winter” with the Calgary Farmers’ Market logo. It’s an example of a small account that gives big creative impact.
Connell says, “The budgets in Calgary may be smaller than those in big markets, but really, the best briefs are the ones with no budgets.” And because WAX has had a lot of attention through awards and press, they’re able to attract major, international talent on a modest, Calgary budget. Every three years, WAX creates the triennial Honens International Piano Competition campaign, collateral materials and program guide. Gamache says, “We find artists we never dreamed we’d be able to use on the budgets we have, but they say yes.”
For several restaurants, the agency has informed every bit of the look and feel, from ads to menus to restroom signage. One eatery, Mercato Italian Gourmet, houses a bustling restaurant with an open kitchen on one side, and a vibrant, colorful market brimming with authentic Italian foods on the other. When the restaurant came to WAX for what they thought would be an ad campaign, Wright recommended they first relocate, and then launch a campaign—which is what they did.
The agency then created the entire faux-Renaissance design sense of the bistro and market, for the family-run business, in the form of creative interior graphics, shopping bags, menus and product labeling. The artwork evokes a feeling of classic quality and integrity. For another establishment, a beer hall that was looking for an entire overhaul, from their name to their interior to their very concept, the agency invented Wurst, German yet irreverent.
Just seven years ago, Wright, a founding partner of SasgesWright, a design firm, struck out to form a new agency, one that would combine design with advertising. Wright had an eye for strategy, as well as creative. He and Hospodarec had been business acquaintances; for years Wright had reached out to him from time to time for ideas or insights. So he reached out to him again—this time, to form an agency.
At the time, Hospodarec was a creative director at TBWA. Gamache, meanwhile, owned her own design firm, Relish. She had also known Hospodarec previously when they were both juniors at the same agency, Parallel. The three founding partners, who sort of knew each other and sort of didn’t, formed WAX. Today, they are a seamless triumvirate of complementary, but distinctly different, talents.
Dennis Cant, director of client services, came to WAX from BBDO Toronto two years ago. “In the world marketplace, you have your centers of business and Calgary doesn’t really have a place in that,” he says. “But the work has been remarkable for a 30-person shop. The WAX approach is unique. The agency looks at things holistically. What is the client trying to accomplish? What results will it get them? We look at the big picture. Not just one ad or one thing, the whole picture. It’s hectic and busy and we work hard.”
It’s not a small thing that the agency attracts talent from much bigger Canadian markets and American markets too. Calgary, home to the Calgary Stampede every July, a two-week party of rodeo festivities and fun, marking its one hundredth year in 2012, is still considered an outpost in many ways. Although it’s an oil-and-energy town, it doesn’t have the financial or business center identity of Vancouver or Toronto.
And, it turns out, that’s part of its charm. At WAX, there’s a small town-big agency feel that embraces extracurricular activities like WAX Wednesdays, where selected staffers choose egg nog drinking races, sumo wrestling, line dancing or whatever they feel like, to entertain their fellow workers. In the end, WAX leaves an impression of wit and fun that translates to smart work—that also leaves an impression. ca