Putting Down a Global Footprint

by Chris Daniels

October 17, 2017


Zulu Alpha Kilo's Say No to Spec
Zulu Alpha Kilo's Say No to Spec

How Canadian independents are expanding beyond their borders through word of mouth


Design shop Paprika is based in Montreal, but has clients in France (La maison d’édition Noir sur Blanc), Belize (Matachica Resort & Spa), the U.S. (Denver Art Museum) and Germany (Taschen Books). How has the independent firm built an international client base? By letting its work do most of the talking.


Paprika submits into award shows (including the Applied Arts Awards) and posts client work to social media channels and third-party validators. “It is very difficult to measure all of those things that make getting international work important,” says Paprika president Joanne Lefebvre. “I think that’s because it’s all of those things working in combination.”


And the result when they do? Lefebvre says it's like when she was looking for an architect for a home renovation: “I heard the same name suggested to me two or three times in one week. It made me think, ‘This is the right person.’” 


Here’s how to position your company as the right agency:


Award shows

Once upon a time, a Cannes Lion or a One Show Gold Pencil could put an independent on the map. But as Toronto’s Zulu Alpha Kilo founder Zak Mroueh says, a lot of the international competitions are "agencies talking to other agencies. They can involve a lot of politics, especially from agency holding companies." 


That means winning one is great for recruitment and retention, but without some other elements to build on (read below), awards don't carry as much weight with clients as they once did, says Mroueh. In other words: an award is not a silver bullet. 


Nick Asik, creative director at WAX in Calgary, says his team submits work to certain international competitions to help illustrate that their expertise transcends borders. He says this is important not just for the agency in getting international assignments, but also for one of WAX’s Canadian-based multinational clients, Allseating.


The seating designer and manufacturer is Toronto based, but has offices globally including in New York and Chicago. “We probably do a lot more work for Allseating that is seen in the U.S. and internationally than in Canada,” Asik says. “So while Allseating is Canadian-owned, it is important that we're seen as an agency whose work feels international,” he explains. 


WAX's "One-Year Break"


Third-party validators

Awards shows are just one way to be validated. But Asik, Mroueh and Lefebrve say you shouldn’t neglect going after international press and other third parties that spotlight work regardless of geography.


In 2017, Ad Age named Zulu as its International Small Agency of the Year, and, in 2016, as its Small Agency of the Year. Editors decide the winners rather than fellow agency people. Being singled out by the industry publication proved pivotal for Zulu. The agency already had big clients in Canada, such as Cineplex and Harley-Davidson. But as a direct result of the Ad Age distinction, New York–based smart home platform Wink invited Zulu to pitch for its business. Although the only Canadian shop on the consideration list, Zulu won the business. “The Ad Age win meant way more than an international award, because I think clients are looking for something different,” says Mroueh.


Paprika posts work on Behance, dubbed the world's largest showcase for designers. Behance has a “curatorial team” that reviews every project published in the network and spotlights those they deem most innovative. "A lot of the emails we receive from abroad are because they discovered our work on Behance," says Lefebvre. "I'd say more than 60 per cent of the companies that reach out to us from global markets [see] our work that way."


That, in turn, leads to an actual contract or assignment 10 per cent of the time, she says. 



Paprika's work for Taschen Books 


Content creation

Zulu creates content that promotes itself by showing how creative the agency can be without tooting its own horn. Its website, for instance, is a parody of the stereotypical ad agency site, featuring fictitious founders and ridiculous client case studies. And its “Say No To Spec” videos took a stand on an industry issue—spec creative—in a clever and funny way that spoke to Zulu's creative, but also to its personality. 


This past summer, WAX took a jab at Publicis Groupe’s decision to stop entering award shows. In a cheeky video, the agency offered a one-year contract to Publicis Groupe creatives “at an agency with a long track record of winning awards.” (For the record: WAX received more than 30 applications, including from Sao Paulo, Istanbul, Paris and New York.)


Both Zulu and WAX have garnered media coverage for their content from as far away as Australia, and their senior creatives think these international stories help to raise their agencies’ profile and to illustrate their personalities to potential clients—not only here but abroad. 


This is the first instalment in a web series on how Canadian creative firms compete in the global market.


Chris Daniels is a writer whose work has appeared in Applied Arts, Maclean’s and Marketing.


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