Tim Hortons: a cautionary tale of bean counters and brands.

A recent Globe and Mail story described the ‘brutal’ transformation of beloved Canadian restaurant brand Tim Hortons. The cause of the messy shift? Budget cuts by Tim’s new owners – Brazilian holding company 3G Capital and Restaurant Brands International (RBI).

I was invited by Mark Brennae of CFAX radio to chat about this disruption. If you’d like to listen to our interview, simply click on the link. Or you can skim the notes below to get the highlights.

The disruption of Tim Hortons seems to be linked to cost-cutting measures by 3G and RBI – Tim’s parent companies. And perhaps driven by declining numbers, RBI is looking to open new franchise partnerships in markets as far afield as the Philippines, Mexico and the UK. But is this the right strategy? In my view, a wiser route would be to return to the assets that made you great in the first place – in this case, Tim’s incredible ‘local Canadian success story’ brand.

This disruption isn’t a unique phenomenon – I’ve seen it happen many times. Great brands (usually at the behest of number crunchers) lose their brand’s north star, and cut corners to drive up shareholder value. The unfortunate downside? Morale plummets, and customers feel the brand they once loved has gone away.

Brands are incredibly fragile. It takes careful cultivation to create a great one. And the trust can be easily dashed by apparent betrayal of brand values.

Tim Hortons has a brand asset – local Canadian franchise ownership – that even great brands like McDonald’s don’t have. This asset would be invaluable if leveraged properly. Unfortunately, right now, many of us still don’t know that Tim’s is a local Canadian franchise phenomenon. Given a choice, fast food fans would always go local.

Quotable Quotes

“What we’re seeing is the holding company pulling the planks off the brand boat to make a fire. Eventually, you run out of planks and the boat sinks.”

“In addition to feeling the heat to cut budgets, Tim’s is taking heat from local competitors. They’re getting squeezed from both sides.”

“When same store sales are plummeting, looking for new markets is like looking for new branches when the tree trunk is rotting. It doesn’t work.”

“In my own experience, I remember McDonald’s (a brand I worked on personally) reacting to declining same store sales by going afield to open new restaurants. It didn’t work. Then, they rediscovered a winning formula – fix the coffee, fix the food, fix the experience, fix the brand.”

“Tim’s has an incredible brand asset. Local Canadian. If they leveraged this properly, they would create a renewed reason for Canadians to visit.”

“When I spoke to my friend, franchise expert Angela Cote, her immediate reaction to the news of RBI looking for new Tim’s franchise markets was ‘What, because they can’t make the brand work?’ Cote understands that successful franchises need to be built on successful brands – not the other way around.”

Honorable Mentions


Mark Brennae

Angela Cote



Globe and Mail

Tim Horton’s

Restaurant Brands International

3G Capital

As a brand strategy expert, successful entrepreneur, and award-winning author, Marc Stoiber uses simplicity and creativity to help people discover what’s awesome about their business… and then helps them tell the world. For more on creating your company’s value proposition, connect with Marc on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up to his monthly newsletter.  

Want to try building your own powerful brand to create an unfair business advantage? Try out Marc’s Brand DIY – available now.

Don’t let your brand ruin the spirit of Christmas

For most of us, Christmas can be a tad stressful. And companies that assault us with terrible ads, grating songs and depersonalized cards only make things worse.

In the spirit of the season, I went on the air with Mark Brennae of CFAX 1070 and created a Santa’s list of wishes for brands that want to brighten, not dampen, the mood of their audience at Christmas.

Hope some of the tips help your brand this holiday season!

Christmas, Insincerity, and the Death of Advertising

It’s Christmas. I should be feeling charitable. But “Coca Cola – Top of the Christmas wish list.” Really? Who approved that advertising campaign? Do they really, really believe people are wishing for a Coke for Christmas? And no, don’t pontificate about hapless folks who are so poverty-stricken they actually are wishing for a Coke. This ad isn’t meant for them.

There’s been enough talk surrounding the death of the ad game. When I see messages like this, shilling with the sincerity and charm of a televangelist, I say bring on the end. Because surely, there has to be something better to replace it.

But why the shock? Advertising has always been superficial.

My reaction has less to do with the status quo of bad advertising, and more to do with our evolution. Which brings me to the merry bit.

Speak for yourself

First off, in the spirit of Christmas, I’m thankful for the democratization and demonetization of the selling game. Because of technology, things like design, film production, media buying and product placement have been wrested from ad agencies and given to product creators and entrepreneurs. In other words, instead of someone speaking for your product, you now have the power to speak for yourself.

No, this hasn’t made ads better. But even the bad ones get more of a sympathetic nod. Hey look, the guy who made the widget is selling it. Man, he’s terrible. But hats off for trying, buddy.

At its best, though, the democratization of marketing allows the entrepreneur’s real, authentic spirit to shine through. Yes, I can feel sincerity through my computer youtube window. And I know the gent from the Dollar Shave Club actually does believe his blades are f**king great.

Did I mention the democratization of data? If the entrepreneur’s spirit is, well, not the sort of spirit people warm up to, there are approximately a million points at which to collect and analyze data about the selling message. Easy to collect and analyze means easy to troubleshoot and fix.

The upside of speaking for yourself is, of course, that all of us consumers are wired to hear personal stories. I want to know the person who invented that mop, rototiller, or wedgie-free underwear. And I want to hear about his or her trials and tribulations. It brings us closer together and lets me in on the impact that person hopes to make on the world. A spiritual, or human, benefit, not just a monetary one. Even though a lack of wedgies is great on its own.


I grew up in an advertising world dominated by big brands. It was a world devoid of brand courage.

Instead of taking risks, the big brands would defer their opinions to endless rounds of consumer research, trying to be all things to all people. Their ads ended up looking like the Coke billboard we started this conversation with. Well-produced, shiny milquetoast.

I believe ad agencies, famous for berating clients about not having the cojones to take risks, are similarly risk-averse. True, they have ventured into new media to promote products. Some of them have dabbled as incubators for business ideas. But relatively few of them have made big, risky jumps, like successfully launching their own products. Especially not cereal that makes you poop. Hats off, Spring Advertising.

Not surprisingly, the risk-averse gravy train couldn’t last forever. Today, companies are shedding jobs like dogs shed hair in the spring. Risk-averse marketers are finding their risk-averse butts out on the street. The world is filling with accidental entrepreneurs. Which brings me to my final point.

innovation at the grown-up’s table

I want to say thank you this Christmas for all the incubators, accelerators, and other idea-developers that have sprung up like mushrooms across our continent, helping newly minted entrepreneurs find their voice and grow their business courage.

I was fortunate enough to get mixed up with a terrific group at Viatec. I’ve never met a more enthusiastic, positive, supportive bunch. About as far from the cynical world of advertising as one could imagine.

I’m constantly reminded of Steve Jobs’ words to Pepsi executive John Sculley as he was trying to lure him to Apple: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

Innovation has replaced marketing at the grown-up’s table. Or perhaps more accurately, marketing amazing ideas you create has replaced ‘agency for hire’ communication. Creating truly great things that change the world. That has a nice ring to it. Add it to my list of New Year’s resolutions.

As a brand strategy expert, successful entrepreneur, and award-winning author, Marc Stoiber uses simplicity and creativity to help people discover what’s awesome about their business… and then helps them tell the world. For more on creating your company’s value proposition, connect with Marc on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up to his monthly newsletter.  

Want to try building your own powerful brand to create unfair business advantage? Try out Marc’s DIY Brand Build Guide – available now.

Instead of selling cereal, OWN cereal.

Yesterday, I had a terrific conversation with Spring Advertising founder and Creative Director Rob Schlyecher.

Like myself, Rob believes the classic ad agency model is flawed. His ‘a-ha’ moment came when he created a  campaign that enabled his clients to sell their company for millions – while Spring was paid a nominal (in hindsight) fee.

That got Rob scratching his head and wondering how he could avoid this sort of conundrum in the future. His solution? Create products, instead of just selling them for others.

Sure, other agencies have done it. But most of them have failed, because they don’t get the entrepreneurial (vs service industry) mindset.

Spring seems to be charting a course for success in innovation. Their first product, Poop Like A Champion cereal, is selling out.

If you’d like to get in on Rob’s secret, listen in to our conversation here.

As a brand strategy expert, successful entrepreneur, and award-winning author, Marc Stoiber uses simplicity and creativity to help people discover what’s awesome about their business… and then helps them tell the world. For more on creating your company’s value proposition, connect with Marc on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and sign up to his monthly newsletter.  

Want to try building your own powerful brand to create unfair business advantage? Try out Marc’s DIY Brand Build Guide – available now.

Bootstrap Marketing and the Beautiful Idea

Bootstrap Marketing and the Beautiful Idea is one of the keynote addresses I give on a regular basis. It resonates particularly well with startup audiences – although I’ve seen a fair number of big brand marketers in my audiences as well. Apparently, stretching your marketing budget with highly creative, low cost ideas has universal appeal.

The reason I’m bringing up this keynote now? I just received a wonderful graphic rendering of my speech’s content from Deborah LeFrank, graphic journalist and owner of Visual Life Stories, who heard me give the talk at the SOHO conference a few months back. I wanted to share the graphic with you, recommend Deborah’s services and – as an added bonus – provide you with a manuscript of the actual speech. Enjoy!

here’s the picture

Marc Stoiber_SOHO_Bootstrap marketing and beautiful idea

and here are the words

Here’s my favorite bootstrap marketing story.

An acquaintance of mine was a top-notch creative director at Fallon McElligott in Minneapolis, one of the best ad agencies in America. He had just retired when I met him on a consulting project.

In addition to consulting, he told me, he also took on pet projects. One of those projects was to help his young son-in-law get a new business off the ground.

The son-in-law’s business was dog treats. He had figured out how to make dog treats that were healthy, and that dogs preferred over just about anything.

The company was called Scaredy Cat. Because, after all, dogs love a Scaredy Cat. It was a great name.

Scaredy Cat Dog Treats was a classic start up. The son-in-law bootstrapped everything.

He mixed the ingredients himself, baked them in the family oven himself, then bagged and delivered them to local stores…himself.

He asked his father-in-law, my friend, how he could do some bootstrap marketing. No budget, big impact. How hard could it be?

My friend, who had created multi-million dollar ad campaigns that earned his clients billions, took up the challenge. And started thinking about it.

A few days later, driving home, my friend and his son-in-law saw an old, beat up courier van for sale. One of those big ones that look like rolling billboards. This one had broken windows, no engine. It was basically scrap metal.

My friend said buy it. Couple hundred bucks. Price was right.

Buy it? Why? The son-in-law didn’t have any money to spend, least of all on an old, broken down van. My friend just said… trust me.

They took the van home, and together, painted it jet black. Then they painted a bunch of yellow cartoon dogs on the side that looked like they were jumping up right over the driver’s head. The same sort of dogs that were on each package of Scaredy Cats treats.

Next, my friend got a fishing pole, and on the end of the pole, he hung a stuffed cat. One of those fluffy toys that kids love to snuggle with.

He stuck the fishing pole on the front of the hood, so it looked like the cartoon dogs were jumping up over the driver to get to the little kitty hanging from the pole. A bit like the old joke about hanging a carrot in front of the horse.

Final touch? They wrote Scaredy Cats Dog Treats on the side. And their phone number.

It looked great. But this was the 1990’s, when camera phones didn’t exist – let alone Instagram or Facebook. To the son-in-law, it looked like a great idea that would pass in the night, unnoticed by all except a few amused neighbors.

A waste of his $0 marketing budget.

But my friend wasn’t done. He said “Let’s tow it down to the local radio station.” Once there, they parked it outside the front door. And left.

A couple of days later, they got the call. “Do you guys own this van with the cat on the fishing pole?” the voice said. It was the radio station.

The son-in-law explained the story behind the van, and told the station what Scaredy Cats treats were. The guy at the station thought the company was pretty cool, and the stunt was funny, to boot. So he asked if the son-in-law would like to come by and talk to the DJ’s about it, on the air.

They set up a day, and the son-in-law asked that every dog owner at the station bring their pet that day. When he showed up with an armful of treats, everyone’s dog went nuts. The DJ’s loved the story. They all had a great time on the air, talking about the van, the treats, how great dogs are, and this great local business.

Well, after that success, my friend and his son-in-law did it again. And again. Radio stations. TV stations. Newspapers. When they’d hit every media outlet in town, they drove to the next town, and did it all over.

Sales began to grow. Soon, Scaredy Cat dog treats were outselling every other dog treat in their state, including national brands with multi-million dollar ad budgets.

All for the price of one broken down van.


There are so many things to love about this story. The van, the cat on the pole, the media attention, the success.

What I love most about it, though, is that it’s not really a bootstrap marketing story at all. It’s just a story about a great idea, executed really well.

At it’s core, it’s a brilliant brand idea. Hometown boy makes great product for dog lovers who have a sense of humor.

It had a great insight into the target market. I’m a dog owner. I know dog owners love dogs that scare cats. Even though sometimes, in polite company, we don’t admit it. It’s a guilty pleasure.

It was a great creative execution. And it had great media placement. Right outside the media’s front door, in fact.

My point is, if you start with a great brand idea, you understand your audience, you do a great creative execution, and you have great media placement, you win. Bootstrap or not.

This is fundamental stuff. Unfortunately, though, I think too many of us today look right past the fundamentals.


We’re living in times where you can shortcut everything.

A friend of mine, Jason, is the creative director of Doner Advertising in LA. He works with a lot of what he calls Yuc’ies. Young urban creatives. He said to me they all want to be Disney moguls like Hannah Montana or iCarly. Actors, singers, clothing designers. TV hosts, loving children, CEO’s. They want it all, they want it now, and they don’t really want to hear about the craft and work it takes to get there.

He contrasts this with the heroes we saw in the 1980s. Rocky comes to mind. An underdog who worked really, really hard on one thing, and got his shot at greatness that way.

That’s not so interesting to Yuc’ies. And, ironically, thanks to technology, they don’t have to focus on one thing. Or even focus on sticking to anything in particular for any length of time. They can create a professional sounding song on their laptop. Shoot a movie. Do a multimedia ad campaign for pretty much zero dollars.

They don’t do a good job of it. The results may be OK, but certainly not immortal.

But in a world where attention span has gone the way of the dodo, they…can…do…it.

Same goes for bootstrap marketing. Google it, and you get hundreds of hints on how to market your company for almost nothing…right now. Here’s some of the ideas I found on page one of Google.

  • Build your email list
  • Optimize your conversion
  • Get your SEO right, and your Pay-Per-Click
  • Write blogs
  • Organize a flash mob
  • Send press releases
  • Build a list of prospects
  • Network

These aren’t ideas. They’re tactics. And if I put my experienced creative director hat on, they’re not particularly inspiring tactics either.

If you have a non-idea, and you send it out over email, or write it in a blog, or send it in a press release, it will flop. No matter if you get the SEO right, no matter if you optimize for conversion, no matter if you A/B test.

But if you look around, 99% of the noise we see on the internet is just that. Non-ideas mass-communicated.

But what do we say when we put a non-idea out into the world and it falls flat as a pancake? ‘Fast fail’. Somewhere along the line, we’ve decided it’s sexy to fail, and fail, and fail again. When never think any deeper than that.

Failing has become too easy. It’s a bit like writing ad copy on a computer, as opposed to the old fashioned pencil and eraser way. With a pencil and eraser, you know it’s hard to erase, so you think about what you’re going to write.  On a computer, you can delete…instantly. So you type more, faster, with less thought. I’m not sure that’s better.

Failing has also become synonymous with painless. Our production and online media are free. You screw up, you haven’t lost any money.

Or have you?

This little bit of free marketing ended up costing Kenneth Cole millions.

This nice little online campaign got American Apparel in the news, in all the wrong ways.

And here’s a great example of using technology to respond to your customers. Big time and money saver, that one.


So what’s my answer?

It’s simple. Stop. Stop and think about the problem sitting right in front of you.

Albert Einstein was asked what he would do if the world was coming to an end in an hour. How would he solve that problem? He famously replied that he’d spend 59 minutes thinking about the problem, and one minute creating the solution.

My friend, the Scaredy Cats fellow, didn’t just pop out an idea to his son-in-law. He thought about it for a few days before deciding on what to do.

When I say stop and think, I also mean turn off the computer.

John Cleese famously said “We don’t know where we get our ideas from. What we do know is that we do not get them from our laptops.”

That’s how I think you come up with brilliant bootstrap marketing.


I mentioned at the beginning that it would be a shame to think of Scaredy Cats as just bootstrap marketing. It was brilliant marketing. It had everything a brilliant marketing campaign needs:

  1. A great brand idea
  2. A great insight into the target audience
  3. A great creative execution
  4. And great media placement.

I’m going to show you other bootstrap marketing ideas that really nail these four things.

Take a look at this. Big company, sure, but this ad cost nothing. Thanks to social media, it’s been seen by millions. Behind it all, there’s a great brand idea. Slim-Fast is a wonderful way to lose weight on the go.

Now if you stop to think about it, there must be a million places on the go where you could get this message out.

Slim-Fast thought of that. Here’s another piece they did.

What I love is that they took a simple idea – great weight loss on the go – and through exaggeration, made it hilarious. You’re allowed to do that in marketing.

What about this one? Calgary Farmer’s Market hung these apples from trees in the middle of winter with little tags saying ‘Fresh All Winter’. I’m sure the folks at the farmer’s market used that line when they were talking about what their brand represented. Fresh all winter is not a clever ad line. By exaggerating it, though, it becomes a brilliant bootstrap marketing idea.

And another one. The brand idea – it’s easy to transport yourself somewhere else with this travel magazine. Add a little exaggeration, a little mixed media,  and bingo, you have a viral campaign.


So those are great brand ideas.

What about the second part of the equation: understanding your audience?

In the Scaredy Cats example, my friend knew that dog owners think Scaredy Cats – the real, live ones – are pretty funny. Even if they won’t say so in polite company. Because at the root of it all, as the book says, Cat Spelled Backwards doesn’t spell God.  Dogs are better than cats, so making fun of cats is fair game.

Here’s another great example of understanding your audience.

I can remember back when there were only two options for getting rid of junk. Take it to the dump yourself, or go through the yellow pages and hire a couple of shady characters to move it.

Brian Scudamore turned the whole business upside down with 1-800-Got-Junk. And a big part of his success, right from day one, was his truck billboards.

Not only were they parked everywhere. But they were clean. And they stuck a phone number in your head.

In other words, they knew that I didn’t know how to get rid of my junk. And I needed to be reminded on my way home. In a way I could remember without trying to scribble something down while I was driving.

Here’s another great example. Based on the simple insight that we all hate baggage handlers.

And another great example, this one from my friends at Rethink. This one deserves a bit of explanation. See the 3M logo? You’d think it was 3M that did the ad. It wasn’t. It was a small local dealer of film that you applied to windows to make them shatterproof. He didn’t have any budget.

Now you see the bus shelter? Bus shelters are expensive. What you don’t see is that there was only one bus shelter in this media buy. Right in front of Rethink’s office.

What they did was cover the bus shelter ad window with this special film. Then they put money inside. Real bills on top, fake ones underneath. I know, I asked them.

Then, they told the journalists.

The stunt made national news. And if you think about it, it’s all based on the simplest guy insight. If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to do it.

By the way, nobody broke the glass.


Now let’s finish off by talking about a great execution, and a great media placement. In the context of bootstrap marketing, they’re kinda the same thing. Because often, your medium IS your execution.

Like here. A bit of paint that washes off in the rain, a nice ribbed grating, and a camera phone. Nothing fancy, but a great way to really get the product benefit across to millions of people on the internet.

Here’s another one. This one makes the Slim-Fast can ad look positively big budget. A barbecue fork, a stencil and paint, and a great eye for stuff that looks like beat up barbecue grills.

When it comes to bootstrap marketing executions, that is often the mark of a great one. Finding something that looks like something else, but that nobody takes the time to notice.

Walk stripes look like French fries.

Bus straps look like watch straps.

A pizza box looks like a mouth. I can’t believe this hasn’t been done for shark week.

A door knob looks like a…well, anyways. You get the point.


The thing is, I could go on all day about how much I love bootstrap marketing. In a country where 99% of the employers are small businesses, I think bootstrap marketing is the only marketing that makes any sense.

I know it’s easy to do a terrible job of it. But if you get back to the fundamentals, understand your brand, understand your audience, and use the world around you as a canvas for a great creative execution, you’ll do great things.

Now, I’m going to end on a challenge. I have 10 copies of my book that I’ll sign and send to the first 10 brilliant bootstrap marketing ideas I see coming from you. Do them, take a picture of them, and send me the photo.

There you go. Now get bootstrapping.

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Will enlightened consumers stop buying your brand?

Brands were created to make us happy – for a fleeting moment, at any rate. After that moment passed, they trained us to be dissatisfied until we hit the ‘buy’ button again.

This cycle of desire, fulfillment and dissatisfaction worked beautifully in our economy, built as it was on the concept of planned obsolescence.

But lately, something strange has been happening.

Blame it on sustainability or internet-induced transparency. Blame it on people getting fed up with feeling compelled to buy more on smaller paychecks. Blame it on enlightenment.

Today, people want to be makers, or they want to enjoy experiences. Buying new shiny things is starting to look less, well, shiny.

In this context, I wanted to introduce you to John Habibi.

John caught my eye because his business was teaching tech entrepreneurs to close more deals and take more time off. As I spend considerable time with tech entrepreneurs, this promise seemed like the holy grail. Intoxicating, and unreachable.

When I dug a bit deeper, it turned out John was helping many of these entrepreneurs discover happiness through mindfulness and spirituality through meditation. Again, a concept that seemed incongruent with my impression of the average alpha tech entrepreneur.

John and I have had a number of conversations on his practice, and how our yearning for something ‘more’ than material success is changing the face of our society. As a brand specialist, I dug into his thoughts on how mindfulness could destroy brands, or reshape them.

If you’d like to hear the conversation, press play below. If you’d simply like the Coles Notes version, I’ve summarized some of the highlights for you. Either way, enjoy!


Habibi said key to attaining happiness was being aware of living in the present. Easy to say, hard to do.

“Society has trained our brains to think in terms of the past or the future. Brands do this by constantly promising happiness just ahead. What’s interesting is if we can discover mindfulness, and use it to find happiness in the moment.”

Not surprisingly, this isn’t easy when you’re dealing with tech entrepreneurs. As Habibi said, men are generally wired to be more goal and action oriented – always striving for more. And men comprise the overwhelming majority of tech entrepreneurs.

“I teach them that happiness is a process – like a marriage. The point is enjoying the results every day, at multiple levels. Happiness comes not from trying to make your marriage better tomorrow, but in making it better moment by moment. To be a happy entrepreneur, you need to figure out how to treat your job the same way.”

This concept is also core to brand thinking. We have created a linear approach to consumption – desire, buy, use, discard. The results have been environmentally disastrous, and haven’t made us very happy in the process.


Habibi believes this linear approach to consumption is coming to a close.

“Most tech guys are just passionate about what they do. But some of them are coming around to the idea of a circular world. In the same way, authors like Peter Diamantis have shown that we live in a world of abundance – ruling out the brand-centric concept of linear consumption and scarcity.”

According to Diamantis, ‘exponential’ technology unleashes new thinking and ways of getting things done. At this stage, the technology is monetized as it is taken to market. If successful, it creates a wealth of new products at progressively lower prices, until those products are given away – completely demonetized.

Where does this leave brands?

Look at the trajectory of demonetization. Through exponential technology – and our search for happiness beyond consumption – we discover that money cannot buy us spiritual happiness. What we discover all around us (again through technology) is a growing movement toward mindful living. For free.

So where do brands go as we happiness becomes demonetized? That’s the big question.

Habibi believes looking at our current reality and fixating on that to determine the future is like looking in the rearview mirror to drive. Pointless and dangerous.

However, there are some signs of brands in transition as we move toward demonetization.


The ultimate experience is created from the inside out. We need to find happiness inside, not in the world around us.

Nike’s Find Your Greatness campaign is a good example of this. The athletic equipment manufacturer asserts that we already have everything we need inside us. All Nike wants to do is join us on the journey.

This is a wonderful example of a brand that understands how people on the road to mindfulness think.  The further they get from their personal essence, the less happy they’re going to be. The closer they get, the happier.

Rather than signalling doom for brands, Habibi thinks it will be a motherlode of creativity. “If a brand person has to imagine creating a product for people who don’t need products to be happy, imagine the new avenues they could explore!”

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Has advertising lost its focus on innovation?

Leading North American advertising agencies used to be headed by creatives and innovators. Today, managers and accountants hold the reins. The result? Less focus on innovation, and more on efficiency and maintaining revenue.

This has created a crisis in confidence in the sector, with vital young talent pursuing their passion in sectors like tech.

Andrew Carty’s agency Send+Receive is rethinking the role of agencies, and changing a number of accepted practices to put the focus back where it belongs. Crafting great ideas.

Carty’s agency is also re-emphasizing the importance of selling, striving to achieve outcomes that should make any client CFO smile.

Andrew joined me for a lively discussion where we covered these issues, and more.

You can check out the actual interview by pressing play. Or skip ahead to the highlights that follow. Enjoy!

listen to the podcast

Has advertising lost its way?

Advertising is the business of selling things. We are vital cogs in the machine of capitalism. And while the bloom may have gone off the capitalist rose,  it remains our most effective tool for creating outcomes we all desire – comfort, wealth and security.

Carty feels advertisers have grown bored with selling, chasing more ethereal, complex measures of success instead. Driving impressions, creating engagement… everything but sales. This could be a direct outcome of an hourly billing structure, which tends to encourage adding non-essentials to justify more work. Or it could simply be the result of sales becoming disassociated from marketing – a trend that could put advertising agencies in serious jeopardy.

Either way, it’s a sad state of affairs. As Carty says “Our job is to get to the heart of what makes a product special and figure out how to sell that. It’s simple. And, I believe, endlessly exciting.”


Post-recession, consumers may have less money, but large companies and brands are sitting on unprecedented wealth. How do advertisers get them to unlock the war chest?

According to Carty, it isn’t by doing defensive, status quo work.  “We aren’t in the maintenance business – we’re in the creation business. But the creative modus operandi contradicts the status quo mandate of holding companies and shareholders. Risky, bold work is, by its nature, well, risky. Unfortunately, timidity has become the new normal. What client would pay vast sums of money for work that, at best, maintains market share?”

Consumer insights vs product stories

Carty bemoans the sameness of most advertising. While he does point the finger at the ‘status quo mentality’, he also sees another fundamental fault in the system – consumer insight driven research. “We’ve come to believe that ads should cater to consumer needs. This completely de-emphasizes the awesome stories products have to tell. I believe if you start by unearthing the magic of the product, then go to consumer, you create much more original, impactful advertising.”

the way forward

Carty’s agency Send+Receive was created to answer to rapidly shifting client priorities. “We haven’t seen the agency model fundamentally change in 50 years, despite the last half century being one of unprecedented change and innovation.”

Carty points out simple fixes like moving to an outcome-based fee as progress. He also emphasizes the importance of building an agency that’s small and nimble, without the burdens of network overhead inflating client costs.

Ultimately, it’s about getting to better results, faster. A mantra of modern capitalism. And, with any luck, a breath of fresh air for ad agencies.

Does your brand have an awesome but?

Consumers don’t care about your brand’s terrific features. In fact, most of them wouldn’t notice if you evaporated into the ether.

There’s more than sensory overload at work here. It has to do with the way our brains are wired.

As Oren Klaff writes in Pitch Anything, our lizard brain – the primitive one we started with – is our most trusted gatekeeper. And it’s programmed to respond to every stimulus in one of three ways:

  1. Should I run from it?
  2. Should I kill and eat it?
  3. Should I try to mate with it?

Assuming your brand doesn’t frighten consumers off, make them hungry or frisky, the lizard brain instructs them to ignore you and move on.

So how do you get the lizard brain’s attention, and potentially even get your message passed along to the more sophisticated neo-cortex, where your scintillating persuasion can have its day in court?

You need to create tension, and attraction.

brand tension – the awesome but.

If you’re in advertising, you were schooled in creating attraction. Bright colours, chiselled abs, catchy jingles and clever turns of a phrase are your stock in trade. You know but sounds like butt, and cheap shots like that grab eyeballs.

But attraction alone isn’t enough. We’ve all seen enough beautiful people in ads. The attraction wears thin after a few seconds.

What’s needed to hold the lizard brain is something novel, something that just doesn’t seem right, a source of tension and discord.

Tension is tricky. Too much, and it triggers fear in the lizard brain. That just makes consumers turn tail and run away. Too little, and the lizard brain tells the consumer to move along, nothing to see here.

In simple english, you need to create a “it’s this…but it’s also that.”

Here’s how it works, when it’s working perfectly. The consumer is attracted to your brand, because it somehow stands out from the crowd in a non-threatening way. She zooms in to take a closer look. At that point, she notices that something isn’t quite right. Not in a ‘bear-trap-under-the-leaves’ way, but in a ‘I’ve never seen these two attributes combined before’ way. Not threatening, but intriguing.

Her lizard brain then does something miraculous. Having vetted your message as safe but worth investigating, it passes you along to the neo-cortex, where your copy gets read, your offer gets considered, and perhaps you even get pulled off the shelf for a closer look.

So how do you get to that kind of tension? Truth is, most brands worth buying already have it. You just need to look a bit.

 high octane and better for the environment?

One of the first projects I worked on where we explicitly triggered tension in every ad was for Sunoco Ultra 94. This fuel combined high octane (for better engine performance) with ethanol (for less pollution). Those two attributes simply didn’t belong together.

Combined with a highly attractive bright yellow license plate ad format, the messages resonated extremely well with consumers. Sales went up on a shoestring ad budget. There was an added bonus for the teams working on Sunoco messages – it was easy to find ways to express tension. We had no problem coming up with hundreds of ads that reiterated the juxtaposition between high octane and low emissions.

The tension doesn’t need to be in the product to work, either. I just completed a project where our brand united engineers with managers – two groups who see eye to eye on very little. This is the classic ‘You got peanut butter on my chocolate / You got chocolate in my peanut butter’ tension. One product that creates harmony between conflicting worldviews.

Take a look at your brand. Chances are, it was the result of two products blended together in a new way (conditioning shampoo), two benefits that didn’t previously co-exist (luxurious, yet affordable clothing), two worlds combined (mixed martial arts). It’s worth digging for.

it’s gotta pay

I mentioned before that the lizard brain doesn’t have much patience. It also doesn’t handle nuance terribly well.

That means your tension has to be real. Your Miller Lite actually does have to taste great and be less filling.

If it isn’t, the neo-cortex will instruct the lizard brain to simply ignore any further entreaties by your brand. You’ll be thrown out of the kingdom forever. Or until your brand creates a new device for attraction / tension that overrides the lizard brain’s wariness. Not an easy task.


Saving advertising, one dollar at a time.

Advertising is in decline.

Pundits and observers blame it on everything from the million channel universe and digital-era tilting of the scale from persuasion to information, to the muscle of consulting behemoths pushing agencies out of the game.

Cal Harrison has another problem to add to the pile. Price-based bidding.

According to Harrison, the preponderance of RFPs with cost criteria has turned bidding for projects into a lowest-price-wins-all battlefield. The result, unsurprisingly, is a toxic environment where the winning agency feels forever shortchanged, the client sees hidden costs in everything, and mistrust and acrimony rule. Inevitably, the relationship ends prematurely, with the client storming off in search of a better – aka less costly – agency.

Harrison came onto my radar as a result of a thought-provoking TEDx talk he delivered on the subject. I took the opportunity to reach out to him for a chat that covered how to turn RFPs into a Qualification Based Selection process – a methodology being used to great acclaim in the US. (You can check out his book on the subject here)

If you’d like to listen to our conversation, simply click play. And if you’d like the Coles notes highlights, read on.

Qualification Based Selection

QBS is a concept that comes from the world of engineering and architecture, but is beginning to see use in the bidding process for ad agencies.

In essence, QBS eliminates price from the bidding criteria. Instead, it hones in on relevant experience and qualifications, with the goal of finding the partner best suited to the job.

As Harrison explained, the concept works because it fosters innovation and partnership, not nickel and diming.

There’s nothing new or revolutionary about it. In fact QBS reflects the methodology employers use to hire employees. I check out your qualifications and your experience, we determine if we like one another, and I lay the proposed salary on the table. If you accept, you come aboard. If you don’t accept, the search continues. No hard feelings, no harbored resentments on the job.

tasks vs outcomes

In an ideal world, agencies would be remunerated based on the outcomes they create. This may seem pie in the sky (and impossible, given there are so many x factors between the moment a consumer sees an ad and the moment they purchase), but it is entirely possible to hire agencies based on outcomes.

Let’s say a client wanted to launch a new chewing gum and take it to #1. In an RFP scenario, the client would describe the challenge and let the bidding war begin. The victors would probably be cheapest, but would they be the best for the job? Unlikely.

In a QBS scenario, on the other hand, the call for contenders would highlight the need for applicants to demonstrate their previous experience taking edible products to #1. There would be a far higher chance of awarding the work to the most deserving agency.

This ‘outcome’ scenario is too fuzzy for the RFP bid process. After all, getting to an ideal outcome may take several runs at the challenge – a cost no winning agency could afford on their lowball budget. As a result, RFPs most often take the form of task lists in order to make the work expectation more tangible. These task lists eliminate a core competency of good agencies – the ability to devise a creative way to get the job done.

The illusion of savings

Do clients actually save money using the RFP bid process? Not according to Harrison.

He illustrated the point with a terrific story he heard from an architecture firm. This firm was bidding on a $50,000 project. By the principal’s estimation, preparing the bid was going to cost a whopping $20,000 in hours. Did I mention RFPs are generally created by bureaucrats and compare in complexity to tax codes? Kidding. Kinda.

It gets better. The principal discovered 37 other firms were in on the bid. That’s 38 x $20,000 spent pitching, or $760,000. The entire project – not just the architecture – was budgeted at $500,000. The firms were spending 1.5 times the cost of the entire project, simply so that one of them could win the work. And the winning firm was probably going to lowball, meaning they’d get the project for $45,000.

When Harrison relates this story to buyers of architecture services, they shrug their shoulders and tell him it’s simply a cost of doing business for architecture firms. To which Harrison replies that it’s a cost of business the buyers were paying for in the form of overhead charged by the architecture firms. That is, the buyers pay an inflated cost – even if they get a lowball bid – because the ‘going rate’ of architecture firms is padded with overhead ballooned by bids.

stop the insanity

Harrison pointed out that in the US, the Brooks Act eliminated price bidding from RFPs in architecture and engineering. In Canada, there’s a growing movement toward the QBS methodology. The results – higher calibre work with fewer cost overruns – are welcomed by both buyers and suppliers.

So can QBS save advertising agencies from becoming lowballing commodity providers? It would certainly be a step in the right direction.


Turning Ugly Constraints into Beautiful Innovation.

I had the opportunity to interview ‘A Beautiful Constraint’ co-author Mark Barden a short while back (if you’d like to hear the interview, click onto the podcast here).

The interview produced such an embarassment of innovation inspiration, I transcribed the greatest bits and posted them on Unreasonable.is, the blogsite tied to startup disruptor The Unreasonable Institute.

If you’d like a jolt of ‘lemons to lemonade’ thinking, check out the transcribed story here!

What the Heck is an Authentic Brand, Anyway?

I should know this. I’m a brand specialist.

But again and again, I find myself throwing authentic brand around in conversation, enjoying the feeling of gravitas it lends, without actually understanding what the heck it really means.

Go ahead, smart guy, you tell me. See?

A term like authentic brand comes along every once in a while, and grabs all of us tired brand stewards by the collar with its promise of revitalization and redemption.

We jump aboard, vowing to build greater authenticity (or synergy, or innovation, or whatever the mot du jour is) into our brand. Inevitably, our enthusiasm wanes and we get back to worrying about pressing things like channel strategy and website bounce rate.

I put this down to the fuzziness of the term. Fuzzy terms may impress for a while, but then they sound dated and over.

I didn’t want authenticity to suffer this fate. So I decided to go back to basics: what defines authenticity in life? Perhaps by understanding this, we can begin to apply these principles to brands.

Happily, that subtle shift cleared the air. When I pondered about how I’d like to live, I had no trouble hammering out seven principles that would leave me smiling, content, and feeling, well, more authentic.

Here they are. I hope they help you, your brand, and your cocktail conversation.

Understand who you are, and why you’re here

Why the heck was your brand born in the first place? Somewhere back in the fog of history, somebody must’ve felt a burning need for something. Your brand was invented to scratch that itch.

I’m always surprised by how many brand stewards don’t know this stuff – especially if the brand predates their tenure with the company.

Brands are never born just because. Dig into your roots, and you’ll probably find a rich history of people driven to bring your brand to life, and people whose lives were enriched because of your brand.

Brands are never born just because.

I’m certain it will make you stand a bit straighter, help you make brand decisions with a bit more conviction, and feel you have a purpose. Purpose is a good thing. It beats shiftless meandering hands down.

Know what you value – beyond money

If you can’t think of a reason to exist beyond getting rich, you’re just sad.

The problem is, when people describe what they (or their brand) value, they inevitably come up with a list so pathetic, they may as well just put down ‘we love money’.

You’ve seen the list:

1. We value people
2. We’re passionate about service
3. We push for excellence!

The problem is, if you asked someone to put together a list of what they really value, they’d have a hard time squaring it with the brand they represent.

1. I love my family
2. I want to help my kids, my wife, and my friends
3. I want to die knowing I at least tried to make a difference

But let’s turn the tables. Let’s say you read an annual report, and discovered the people behind your favourite deodorant / mop / air freshener did everything they could to help their employees maintain a great family life? What if they played an active role in their community – beyond the ‘Hey let’s volunteer one day a year!’ PR stunt.

What would you think of that company? Good guys, eh? Sort of guys you want to support.

Maintain your humility and vulnerability

I saw an absolutely awesomely dumbass window display a while back. It read ‘On the Eighth Day, Chip invented Lululemon.’
I love Lulu. But mannnnnn, if you want to invite the wrath of God, put that kind of arrogance in your window.

In brands, as in life, I think it really pays to listen to others’ stories, rather than talk about yourself. The less I talk, the smarter people think I am.

In brands, as in life, it pays to listen to others’ stories, not talk about yourself.

And when I do talk, I like to talk about unfinished ideas. Get feedback. Put stuff out there that may seem hare-brained, but could be better if others just help me with their genius insights. People like genuine invitations to help and brainstorm. No arrogance. Just enthusiasm for making things better.

Vulnerability is disarming. Humility is in short supply. Make them your differentiator.

Have an open mind, never stop learning

I’m a big Bowie fan. Yes, I love his music, and the way he keeps pushing beyond his comfort zone and challenging fans. But there’s more. From what I understand, Bowie has never lost his enthusiasm for digging into the cool stuff other people are doing. He’s shamelessly curious and wide-eyed.

If you put this in a brand context, don’t you love brands that aren’t afraid of trying new stuff? Think of the flak Apple took when they jumped beyond computers into readers, and music. No, of course you don’t. All we remember is their wild success and the richness that exploring new territory lent their brand.

Don’t you love brands that aren’t afraid of trying new stuff?

A note of caution here. Leaning and trying new things is wonderful. But be prepared to fail. Not every new thing will fit with your brand personality. The point is, it’s better to put a clanker out every once in a while. Much better than being too afraid to try.


If you show up 364 days a year in khakis and a Brooks Brothers shirt, then show up on the 365th day in rubber fetish wear, people will think the cheese slipped off your cracker.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s wonderful to have an open mind and try new things. But it’s spooky to behave one way, then radically shift your behaviour. Schizophrenic, I believe they call it.

How does this apply to your brand?

I was doing a workshop with a group of execs a while back. We were on the topic of company values. One exec spoke up “You want to see a company’s values – check the staff toilet!”

It’s true. If a brand is all love and happiness when they talk to consumers, but treats their employees like dirt, that’s schizo. So check your staff toilet – does it reflect the same values as your show window?

You want to see a company’s values – check the staff toilet!

I bet Kathie Lee Gifford wishes her endorsement team had thought of this before they had her shill sweatshop goods.

Open the kimono

Transparency is probably the second most overused term in current brand lingo – right behind authentic.

But jeez, it’s hard to tell the world everything about everything you do. I mean, nobody’s perfect and do we really have to tell folks how we had to lay off all those people because we got our projections wrong?

Transparency is hard. But people value it immensely. It shows vulnerability, imperfection, and all those traits that will enable humans to beat the cyborgs in the Singularity Wars.

Try it. You’ll find the more you do it, the more you’re rewarded. And the more people share right back.

Trust your intuition

I hate politicians. Everybody hates politicians.

We all hate politicians because they’re on point, scripted by pollsters, and absolutely devoid of spontaneity.

Chances are, your brand wasn’t created by pollsters. It was created by real people with a credit card and a napkin pitch. People who trusted in their intuition.

Chances are, your brand wasn’t created by pollsters.

The problem is, this spontaneity gets drummed out of brands the more successful they become. Preserving brand equity becomes Job One. That means taking as few risks as possible. Helllooo, Kodak.

Did that help?

I hope so. But I’m certain I gave short shrift to some points, or forgot others completely.

If so, let me know. Heck, I’m only human.


This story first appeared on Linkedin June 25th, 2015.

Social Media, Brand Strategy and Storytelling. The Didn’t See It Coming Podcast

In this program, host Ian Jessop and I discuss how brands often leapfrog brand strategy and story to arrive at social media tactics…with disastrous results.

Inspired by my keynote at this month’s Social Media Camp conference (download the transcript here) and my new book, the conversation includes good, bad and ugly examples of branded social media.

If you’re in charge of brand strategy for your company, it’s well worth a listen.

Didn’t See It Coming 1: The Podcast


For those of you unfamiliar with my book Didn’t See It Coming, this podcast should help.

It’s the first in an ongoing series, pulled from my monthly radio appearances on CFAX radio. In each appearance, I discuss a headlining topic, and how it relates to futureproofing brands.

This first podcast is a merry romp through the death of old advertising and the chaos of what’s replacing it.

All kidding aside, host Ian Jessop and I lay the groundwork for podcasts to come by chatting about the book’s inspiration, the iterations of advertising I’ve experienced in my career, and lessons for brands that want to thrive into the future.

Look for a fresh podcast monthly!

Why marketing is averse to new thinking.

I had a fascinating conversation this morning with Guy Dauncey, a futurist and big brain in the sustainability field. Guy is writing his latest book, a novel that projects us into the Vancouver of 2040. His vision isn’t apocalyptic – it describes how we as a civilization finally came around to embrace ‘new’, and turn it into post-fossil-fuel prosperity. Inspiring stuff, especially when the vision is supported by the science Dauncey painstakingly assembles.

I’m a marketer with a penchant for projects that, more often than not, trumpet new and sustainability. I’ve come to believe my field has a surprisingly uncomfortable relationship with new.

Why is this?

In a nutshell, new thinking scares big clients. It scares them because it may scare their consumers, and that may drive those consumers to the competition.

To avoid freaked-out consumers, big clients planning a communications campaign go through exhaustive research to gauge consumer reactions to insights, copy, layout, finished ads, everything.

Marketing has an uncomfortable relationship with new.

Three things come out of research.

First, you get ads with all the interesting, pointy bits sanded off. If you’re testing for approval with the largest possible number of people, you’re going to have to delete things that could offend anyone. That’s a lot of cutting. What you’re left with is about as exciting as, well, 90 percent of the boring ads you ignore on your screen.

Second, research generates a stack of information the CMO can cover his or her butt with in case the campaign tanks. And, yes, they do tank on a regular basis. Remember, you’re ignoring that 90 percent of boring ads on your screen.

And the final thing that comes from big research? A big paycheck for research companies. Go figure.

This culture of caution makes big advertising feel out of touch and irrelevant. Natalie Zmuda of Advertising Age described it best in her story “Ad Campaigns Are Finally Reflecting Diversity of US”. Zmuda profiled a raft of new commercials by big brands like GM and Coke that aired during the Sochi Olympics and 2014 Super Bowl. These spots showed mixed-race families, same-sex couples, people in wheelchairs, and even, yes, Muslims.

Zmuda’s point is that while these images of diversity might be perfectly “so what?” for consumers, on Madison Avenue they were trumpeted as a great leap forward, an “All New!” in a flashing starburst. As Zmuda writes, “Marketing experts say this is the moment that historians and social commentators will likely declare a tipping point for advertising enlightenment in the years to come. But, in truth, adland is late to the game, and plenty of progress is still to be made.”

Diversity is “so what?” for consumers, but in ads it’s seen as revolutionary.

Unfortunately, despite the upheaval threatening the ad business, big agencies and their big clients aren’t going to stop the vanilla messaging madness. If anything, the more the palace gates are stormed by new ideas, the more big brands will draw the velvet curtains and retreat to the salon of low-risk thinking.

Of course, there’s a bright side. For every dinosaur, there are dozens of mammals scurrying underfoot. Upstart companies that don’t have the budget to research their communication into oblivion. Companies that have little to lose and everything to gain. Companies that are letting their fans do the communicating for them, instead of entrusting the message to big agency bureaucracy. Companies that don’t care if they alienate a few folks, as long as the consumers they want are crazy happy.

Big brands may be dabbling with diversity now. Benetton was splashing it on billboards around the world with its United Colors of Benetton campaign…in 1986.

This excerpt from Didn’t See It Coming, Marc Stoiber’s new book, first appeared in Sustainable Brands January 21st, 2015.