Politics

ADBUSTERS

The Gomery inquiry’s revelations rocked Quebec’s advertising industry

BENOIT AUBIN November 14 2005
Politics

ADBUSTERS

The Gomery inquiry’s revelations rocked Quebec’s advertising industry

BENOIT AUBIN November 14 2005

ADBUSTERS

Politics

The Gomery inquiry’s revelations rocked Quebec’s advertising industry

BENOIT AUBIN

THEY WERE LIKE firefighters watching the station house burn down—with the hoses inside. Advertising, communications and marketing agencies are the experts that people turn to when the you-know-what hits the fan, and they need to control damage, put a fresh spin on things, or splash a coat of shellac on a tarnished brand. But Quebec advertisers had no one but themselves to turn to when revelations of mismanagement, graft and generalized

quaffing at the public trough, some of it by Quebec advertising firms, started flying at the Gomery commission. “There was a high level of frustration and panic in the industry, especially last spring,” Yves Dupré, a communications expert, told Maclean’s. “But, frankly, what could they do?”

What the business did, in the end, was to follow the one piece of advice most of its high-paying customers hate to hear when they’re in a bind: hunker down, and wait out the storm. “If we’d undertaken to correct every miscon-

ception and misleading bit of information about our business at the time, we’d have held six or seven press conferences every day,” Yves St-Amant, an industry spokesman, says. “And no one would have listened anyway— the press had smelled blood, and everything was fair game to them.” The Gomery inquiry hurt the whole advertising industry because “we had not previously immunized ourselves against such allegations of wrongdoing,” one senior advertising executive said privately. “The media were confusing everything, commissions and kickbacks, creative work and media placement, sponsorship and flag-waving. Genuine, established businesses were lumped with two-bit rackets also calling themselves ad agencies. It was a mess.”

Now, with Justice John Gomery’s first report on the record, and all eyes turned back

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toward politicians again, the dust is settling. The Quebec advertising industry remains a $370-million-a-year business, and although the damage was real, it was mostly peripheral, according to St-Amant. “Our core asset is the trust of our key clients, and I think that was protected, because professionals know professionals,” he notes. “Besides, it’s now apparent the problems were not with the industry so much as upstream, with the client.”

The peripheral damage, he adds, “is what I call the brother-in-law factor: the smirks, the raised eyebrows, the clearing of throats when it is revealed that you work in an advertising agency.”

That, and alleged Quebec-bashing by hardnosed rivals in Toronto, according to JeanJacques Strelisky, a communications expert in Montreal. “It’s a tough world out there, and if the scandal can give you an edge, and help you get a bigger share of the pie, you’ll use it, and it’s been done.”

Of all the agencies singled out for wrongdoing by the Gomery inquiry, only Groupaction and Groupe Everest were fullfledged, diversified advertising agencies.

“The others were niche outfits nobody had heard of before,” said Marie-Claude Ducas, a senior editor at Info-presse, a trade magazine published in Montreal.

All have folded, were sold, or have become little more than empty shells. “It has been a personal drama for several honest professionals who lost their livelihood almost overnight,” St-Amant says. “Some of them had to fiddle with their resumés to fudge periods spent working for the tainted agencies.”

Quebec’s advertising industry is facing other problems as well. Back in the ’70s, local agencies were way out there with folksingers and writers on the vanguard, forging a new, modern identity for Quebec.

That role has changed. “The biggest threat to local advertising today does not flow from the sponsorship scandal, but from increasing foreign ownership and globalization,” Strelisky says. “Very often nowadays we are back to translating and adapting national or global campaigns into Quebec French, exactly what we fought against in the ’70s. That’s the big setback.” And if advertisers are not cultural folk heroes anymore, it makes it difficult to attract bright, new talent, observers say. “Sure, the Gomery inquiry gave a bad image to the industry, but that image was quite bad already,” says Ducas. “Advertisers, like politicians and journalists, are at the bottom of the popularity list.”

Meanwhile, the fallout from Gomery has extended to cultural events and festivals in Quebec. Up until two years ago, Ottawa and Quebec City were fighting it out for the title of biggest advertising spender in the province—“a thinly disguised war of flagism,” says industry watcher Emmanuelle Gamaud. But after the scandal erupted, the Martin government cancelled all sponsorship programs and tightened advertising budgets (last year, Ottawa ranked as only the seventh biggest advertiser in Quebec, its spending down to roughly $25 million from $29 million the previous year).

“The problem was not with the sponsorship program, it was with the management of it, but it’s the legitimate sponsored events that paid the price and had to scramble,” says Luc Fournier, a spokesman for the Canadian Festivals Coalition. “Quebec has developed world-leading expertise in holding major cultural and sports events and using them as an engine driving the tourism industry. The scandal has thrown a wrench into this well-oiled and legitimate business. So, don’t ask me what I think of the crooks who killed the milk cow.” ICT

«Recherchons cadre publicitaire spécialisé dans les commandites»

Le prés en audi

‘SURE, the Gomery

inquiry gave a bad image to the industry, but that image was quite bad already’