December 3, 2021


Gavin Barrett is the founder and Chief Creative Officer of Barrett and Welsh in Toronto. Before advertising, Gavin worked as a door-to-door market researcher and pharmaceutical sales manager (not a euphemism). In pursuit of big ideas he nibbled on pigs' ears (not on a live pig at the time), rode an elephant in the Thai jungle (no elephants were hurt), and gambled in a Macau casino (was destroyed). His campaigns, which have run in 35 countries, have targeted Scotch-drinking businesswomen, male tailors of the Muslim faith, people trapped in planes, men who smoke Virginia Slims, car mechanics, and wedding planners. Gavin’s work has been brought to life on screen and page by Deepa Mehta, David Carson, Bruno Barbey, and Louis Ng. His poems can be found in Understan, his new book and in Penguin’s anthology of 14 contemporary Indian poets, Reasons for Belonging.

We asked the 2021 Advertising Awards judge to pick a recent project that he thought particularly “shone through.” His choice was personal and powerful: The Sikh Heritage Museum of Canada is a Canadian museum that celebrates the unique culture, history and legacy of Sikh Canadians.

What were some unique features of the campaign?

While most Sikhs are aware of this history, most non-Sikhs are not, and the Sikh Heritage Museum itself is not as widely known as it should be. This campaign took the museum to its audience, with historical exhibits disguised as advertising. Long copy and engaging digital and video content delivered rich, complex and often troubling stories to the museum’s audience. 

Like the story of the Komagata Maru, a ship with 337 Sikh immigrants (all British subjects) that was turned away from Vancouver in 1914, and sent back to India, where 19 were killed and 202 imprisoned by the British. 

Or the story of how RCMP Officer Baltej Singh battled for the right to serve in his turban and beard and won. Ads closed by reminding the audience why it is important to honour these stories: we must remember our past, so our presence endures. In doing so, we enrich Canada’s future.

What were the success stats or indicators?

The campaign was considered to be extremely successful by SHMC engagement benchmarks. Online engagement rates reached a high of 16%, and clickthrough rates hit 7.62—nearly 100 times the industry benchmark of 0.08. The campaign went on to win two awards at the 2020 Marketing Awards. When The Message covered the campaign, it validated all the pro-bono love that had been poured into the work.

Can you give us some "peeks" behind-the-scenes?

I was "working on vacation”: Writing copy, editing video and approving the creative produced by the rest of my team from a beach in Goa, India.

Passion carried this. Lived experience was invaluable—everyone on the team was South Asian and they felt every word and visual personally.

It was an incredible honour for my team to be able to interact directly with Baltej Singh. While the RCMP themselves were characteristically disinterested (my personal opinion) in supplying archival imagery and permissions, Mr Singh was incredibly supportive and supplied as many images as he could from his personal collection. 

The team have promised him we will gather over a Punjabi feast when he visits Toronto next.

Why is this particular project a fave?

Pardeep Singh Nagra, the executive director of the museum, is a legend in his own right—there’s even a movie about him, featuring Mickey Rourke. Pardeep is a DEI superhero in my books. It was a joy to work with a kindred spirit warrior like him.

Can you give us your opinion on what you think made this project a success?

Nothing makes work more authentic than when lived experience, cultural insight, incredible talent, and a believer-client intersect. The result is work that changes attitudes and eventually, lives. When this campaign was launched in early 2020 we had no idea what was about to happen. We did not know the pandemic was coming. We didn’t foresee the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Wilson, and Ejaz Choudhury. This work brought back into the light the xenophobic, racist and, frequently, genocidal inflections in Canadian history at an incredibly important time. Yet, one year later, as we celebrated the settler holiday of Victoria Day in 2021 on May 24th, there were almost no mentions at all that the day before was the anniversary of the arrival of the Komagata Maru. So that success, that resonance, in a way, is a howl of pain. The tacit, systemic amnesia in Canada is a reason why this work has resonated: it speaks for those who continue to be lacerated by the whip of ongoing oppression.

It was a tremendous pleasure having Gavin on this year’s Advertising Awards jury and we can’t thank him enough for sharing his work for the SHMC. It is emblematic of how the skills honed in advertising can be used to enact and support meaningful change. To see more of Gavin’s work, follow him on Twitter here, Instagram here and LinkedIn here. Moreover, you can visit his personal website here and Barrett and Welsh’s site here.