Turn over a maple leaf

The Interbrand Group has just acquired a Canadian design consultancy. Is the time is right for Canadian design groups to step out of the shadow cast by US competitors?

Canada has often been overlooked as a source of global design activity, but with the imminent arrival of the Interbrand Group in Toronto only days away, the country’s dusty image could be changing.

This week the Interbrand Group announced it is moving in with the acquisition of the 50-strong leading branding consultancy Tudhope Associates, in Toronto. The ink has yet to dry on the contract forming Interbrand Tudhope, but it will certainly do much for both parties. It may even help put Canadian design consultancies – the growth of which has been overshadowed by their US counterparts – back on the global map.

Obviously, with a base in Canada, Interbrand and its parent Omnicom network can leverage an increasingly global offer, as the jargon duly goes. Recently winning a major branding project with the Alcan aluminium group, which is merging with its French and Swiss counterparts, may also be a strong factor.

According to Tudhope founder, and now Interbrand Tudhope co-chief executive, Bev Tudhope, it has taken a long time for the Canadian design sector to be taken seriously. There are only a small handful of consultancies, such as Spencer Francey Peters, Ove Design and Communiqué with anything like a world class design capability.

“Canada is a well kept secret in a way. There are people here doing some fabulous design work. What is really exciting for us is that there is no other really global design players here,” according to Tudhope.

Toronto-based group Spencer Francey Peters was formed from the merger of the former Michael Peters Group with Canadian design consultancy Spencer Francey in 1991. Founder Peter Francey supports Tudhope’s idea, too.

“I don’t think there is anyone in the Canadian market who can claim to have an international reach. We don’t have the clout globally, so if you have a pitch for a global project you need a global partner,” says Francey.

Tudhope feels that the country’s design groups have suffered twofold in the North American market, a view supported by Francey. First, US client companies have no shortage of US-based design talent to choose from, while those in Canada often prefer the prestige associated with an exotic design group from New York City or London.

“Often when there is a major branding pitch from a Canadian company it will be given to a US consultancy. They will go through the motions and include one or two on the list, but the choicest projects always go south,” he says. Now things may start to swing the other way.

“We will be able to tap into the resources of the Omnicom network and its fabulous practices, from brand valuation, which it just about invented, to its naming and trademark practices as well,” says Tudhope.

While Tudhope makes no distinction between styles of design in Canada and the rest of the world, (to him it is all world class), Francey feels that Canadian consultancies reach a higher level of overall quality than those in the US, because of tough competition and closer cultural ties with the UK and Europe.

Past marriages with Canadian design groups seem to have been rather turbulent. Diefenbach Elkins (now FutureBrand Worldwide) partnered one Canadian consultancy recently, setting up an office in Ontario. It was soon closed. Meanwhile, US-based offices of FutureBrand and Siegelgale routinely pitch and win work north of the border, and Canadian Airlines was rebranded by Landor Associates last year (DW 22 January 1999).

Canada, and Toronto particularly as the financial centre, has reaped its share of economic growth recently from the technology boom. “Toronto has been enjoying a lot of steady growth from traditional and dot.com businesses and for design consultancies there are more opportunities to be had for sure,” continues Francey.

Down the line, overseas expansion may not just be reserved for Tudhope Associates, with Spencer Francey Peters looking to set up outside of Canada.

“Our longer term plans are to have some presence outside this country,” says Francey, but does not suggest where this might be.

The Sterling Group, based in New York, has dealings with the Canadian market but, according to director Simon Williams, if the group were to open another office it would be in Miami, not Toronto.

“Many Americans are sent to Toronto for a two-year stint to cut their teeth. It produces some really good work mixing the bold brashness of American design with the quality of its English and French roots,” says Williams.

He says many Canadian consultancies have tried unsuccessfully to come to the states, but the markets have developed very differently. Williams says the cost of setting up in the US is much higher than in Canada, but this is offset by the fee-income. In Canada, he says, fees are relatively low, despite the high quality of design work.

Given this scenario, in which Canadian design groups produce such innovative, low-cost design, its easier to see why US consultancies have no big urge to go north. For Canadian consultancies, the challenge must be to successfully market its much-lauded design on a national and international level, and Interbrand’s presence can only help this.

However, to some extent the future of Canadian design now sits with Omnicom. How much work it chooses to handle on the ground in Canada and how much it chooses to extract south, could ultimately decide the sector’s fate.

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