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Agency Profile: Grey Northwest

Posted on September 29, 2005 and read 1,646 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: Grey NorthwestBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

If you haven’t paying close attention to this site in recent months, ihaveanidea hosted Portfolio Night in Canada III back in May. Imagine a party/portfolio review being held in seven different Canadian cities simultaneously (or as simultaneously as four different time zones will allow). For the first two years of this event, I was a part of the Toronto soiree, but this year I had the opportunity to accompany Julie Pratt, from First Light (Our amazing sponsor & partner), to help out with the Vancouver event. You can read ihaabout Vancouver’s Portfolio Night here but our trip also allowed us to visit a number of Vancouver’s incredible ad agencies and design shops. Here is Brett McKenzie’s Vancouver-ganza!

NOTE: Our visit to Grey Northwest took place prior to the announcement that Marc Stoiber would be scaling back his role at the agency, taking on a creative consultative position. Both ihaveanidea and Stoiber agree this won’t affect the essence of this agency review. It’s still Grey Northwest, Marc is still involved over there, and it still has an amazing view.

Hooray! It’s not raining! Sure, the sky on this Tuesday morning is still a little cloudy, but with all the running around Julie and I will have to do today in preparation for Portfolio Night in Canada that evening, it’s nice that our hands aren’t busy carrying umbrellas. We leave our hotel bright and early and walk north along Hornby St, passing

DDB Canada along the way, until we eventually reach West Hastings, close to the waterfront. Grey Northwest is located near the southeast corner of this intersection, on the 10th floor of 850 West Hastings St. We’re early for our 9:00 AM appointment, but as we learned from DDB and Rethink, everybody is probably already there, working away.

Marc Stoiber, Grey Northwest’s VP, Creative Director, greets us with a lot of enthusiasm and a few select expletives for me (Marc and I have a bit of history; he gave me my first internship back when he was CD of Grey Worldwide, Toronto.) Marc and the crew at Grey were responsible for much of the work involved in organizing Portfolio Night, and there was a feeling of excitement in the air as their efforts would rewarded later on that day. We make a quick stop at Grey’s kitchen area, which is well stocked with Starbucks since Grey Northwest is the coffee giant’s agency of record for the US and Canada everywhere west of Chicago. Then Marc takes us around the place on a little tour.

And it IS a little tour. Grey Northwest doesn’t have an expansive office like DDB, or one decorated with Astroturf and other eye-catching things like Rethink. It’s fairly small, and quite… office-like. Which is not to say it doesn’t have any appeal; there are lots of interesting ads on the walls, and any place that has a prominent spot for a Dogs Playing Poker print is all right with me. The creative teams have their own offices with nice, big windows, and it’s worth mentioning that these windows offer some incredible views. Marc says in the wintertime, you just look outside across to the mountains to see if there’s snow for skiing.

So what goes on inside this small shop with a view? What sorts of philosophies are incorporated into the work and environment at Grey Northwest? Marc sits us down in the lounge area and explains. “ ‘Idea Partnership’ is what we stand for here. Vancouver’s a small city, relatively speaking, and you find that clients out here don’t have big, developed marketing departments. This means they rely on agencies a lot more, not just to bring creative ideas to the table after they’ve been briefed, but to bring ideas that will improve all aspects of their business. They won’t come to us and say ‘okay, we need one TV spot, one print, two radio.’ Instead they come and say ‘how do we sell more stuff?’ So you become an ‘Idea Partner’ with your clients, and that’s what I think Grey Northwest is very good at.”

As I mentioned earlier, Marc was also the CD of Grey in Toronto, returning to Vancouver in 2003 (Marc is a former PJDDBer) so I asked him in what ways is Grey Northwest better than Grey Toronto? “The people of Grey Northwest seem to show a lot more initiative,” he said. “People here aren’t sitting around waiting for stuff to come to them. Instead you see them hustling their ideas and looking for new projects themselves.”

“Grey Toronto is much more of a big multinational agency,” Marc continues. Over there we have huge clients like Procter & Gamble and AIM Trimark, and Grey Toronto is much more adept at servicing big clients who need big national campaigns running throughout their network. On the other hand, Grey Northwest is a lot more like a boutique. We’ve got a lot more small clients who don’t need wide scale national campaigns, they need things to be small and fast, and that’s what Grey Northwest delivers well.”

What’s it like to work at Grey Northwest? Marc takes us through the typical week at Grey. “We start each week with a meeting, and all the creatives come to this meeting with all the work they presently have on their plates. The account people come to the meeting with all the new jobs that we’ve going on, and we simply divvy them up. There’s not a lot of bureaucracy here, just a simple way of doing things. And other than that beginning of the week meeting, there aren’t a lot of meetings that take place. Instead there are more informal gatherings.”

“For example,” he continues, “somebody walks into your office at 10:00 AM and says ‘you’re working on this project here, could you add this one part to it?’ That’s the extent of a ‘meeting’. By afternoon, there’s not even many of those. Instead, everyone is really getting down to work, so they can leave at 5:30 or so. Quitting time is respected around here. You don’t find people working after hours often here, and I believe it’s because there’s less meetings, less bafflegab, and less doubletalk to eat up the time. Just people working faster and with more focus.”

During our tour of the offices, I noticed that Grey Northwest doesn’t have a pool table. No foosball table, no TV with an Xbox or PS2 hooked up to it, not even a fancy drum kit a la Rethink. So what do the creatives do here to break up the day? “Nobody here is longing for a pool table or foosball table, because nobody is looking to fill their work day with distractions,” says Marc. “They save all of that for home time. And at home time, they’re not headed to an established advertising bar or hangout like the Pilot in Toronto, where everybody goes to drink and complain about their office after work. In Toronto, people meet up after work and say ‘hi, how are you, where do you work, where do you live?’ so they can guesstimate what income bracket you’re in and decide if they should talk to you or not. People here leave at 5:30, 6:00 PM, and they go out and have lives. And I don’t even know exactly what they’re doing, and they don’t know what I’m doing after work, because none of it really matters.

Another important aspect of working at Grey was the lack of an “Us vs. Them” mentality between the creatives and the suits. “One of the most reassuring things I found when I arrived at grey Northwest was that even though some of the work wasn’t that great, everybody here, suits and creatives, had a genuine desire to do great work,” says Marc. “Since everybody’s here for the same reason, there’s far less tension amongst the staff. And because the office is small, creatives and suits talk to each other about their problems, as opposed to taking things to ‘Daddy’ or just stewing over them.”

Because Vancouver has very few schools dedicated to advertising, much of the creative talent in the city isn’t homegrown, but rather comes from places like Toronto. If they’re used to the Toronto/big city version of the advertising world, how do they make the transition if they’re coming to Grey Northwest? “I just brought two guys out west, a writer and an art director,” Marc replies. “What they had to do was get their heads around the idea of taking control of their destinies. They had to adjust to making small things happen very quickly. They had to switch from the Toronto mentality of doing five thousand layouts just to get one ad done, and switch to a mentality where you don’t have a lot of money. In Vancouver, you have to pitch your own tent, and kill and cook your own food, due to the much smaller infrastructure here. It takes a lot of getting used to, but I think both of them have ultimately found it a lot more rewarding, because even though they’re working with much smaller budgets than they’re used to, they get a lot more work done, and have greater control over the calibre of their work.”

As our interview time draws to a close, I ask Marc to reflect on the future on Grey Northwest and on the Vancouver ad scene. “I think Vancouver has its ups and downs. You don’t have the budgets and the scope for huge projects. That said, this is a ‘new’ city. It has a very new feel to it, and with that you get a feeling of tremendous potential. The longer you stay here, the more you see this potential. Look around: real estate is on fire, there are construction cranes everywhere, building like crazy. This whole city is an idea fermentation place. While Toronto feels like a corporate head office, Vancouver is where ideas are given room to play. And with the Olympics coming here in 2010, the next five years in this business, in this city, they’re going to be bananas.”

Thanks to Marc Stoiber and the rest of Grey Northwest for spending the morning with us. All aboard! Our next stop will take us to an up and coming design shop called Subplot.




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