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Agency Profile: CARTEBLANCHE

Posted on August 22, 2011 and read 4,172 times

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brianna Agency Profile: CARTEBLANCHEBrianna Graves

It is not by coincidence that one of Quebec’s up-and-coming agencies is located on one of Montreal’s most renowned streets. Boulevard Saint-Laurent used to mark the divide between English and French-speaking Montreal, but now that we can all play nice in the sandbox of language and linguistics, Saint-Laurent is known for neater things. Like the path it takes directly through some of Montreal’s funkiest neighbourhoods, from Old Montreal to Little Italy, with Chinatown, the Plateau and others in between.

CARTEBLANCHE is just south of Little Italy on Saint-Laurent. Inside the agency, the atmosphere is fresh and uncluttered. There is no reception, so I was greeted by the incredible fact that “CARTEBLANCHE” is written across five walls facing the door in a three-dimensional mind trip, above a selection of free weights, a bench and a boombox. Quickly thereafter, I was welcomed by Johann Smith, one of CARTEBLANCHE’s Founders, and Sylvain Raymond, the Director of Creative Strategy, who showed me around the joint and took me on a conversational tour of their philosophy and work.

Predominately a French-speaking agency, Smith and Raymond warned me of the limitations of their English, and I mentally prepared to stumble through a resurrection of my long-dormant French studies to ask questions en français. Though that would have been useful, it was not necessary. Not only was everyone’s English more-than-adequate, CARTEBLANCHE’s work and track record speak for themselves.


The CARTEBLANCHE team may be small in numbers, but they are big on motivation. Ingrained with a DIY mentality, everyone in this Montreal agency is ready to go the distance and carry far more than his or her own weight.

Should carrying weight become a challenge, the team can always press a few on the bench in the entryway of the office to strengthen up.

benchpressentry Agency Profile: CARTEBLANCHE

The bench is also a great conversation starter for every person who crosses the threshold of CARTEBLANCHE, and as I learned, conversation around an experience is what really gets this agency fired up.

CARTEBLANCHE was founded in 2002 by two young innovators, Johann Smith and Marc-André Trépanier, who left experiential marketing and creative branding careers to start the agency. Neither came from a design or web background, but they aimed to deliver on a 360º vision and built a multidisciplinary team to bring that integrated vision to life. Smith, Trépanier and the CARTEBLANCHE team remain the kind of innovators who will roll up their sleeves and make it happen, no matter what “it” is.

CARTEBLANCHE certainly doesn’t wait for others to blaze a path for them. The agency was the first in Montreal to create an intern intensive in 2009-2010. Called Le Dortoir CARTEBLANCHE, young creatives from Europe and Quebec lived and worked in the agency 24/7 (one at a time) for 30-60 days each. The second floor of CARTEBLANCHE’s office, which became the home of each intern, is equipped with the essentials of a one-bedroom apartment. The agency shares a communal kitchen and living room, but there is also a private bedroom and bathroom. There was no fetching coffee for executives or making copies during Le Dortoir. CARTEBLANCHE’s interns were thrown right in to the deep end, immersed in concrete projects that provided real value to client work. Never ones to let an experience go undocumented, CARTEBLANCHE also had each intern chronicle their experience on a blog, through a Facebook page and on the agency’s Twitter. The program received great press throughout the year, including some interesting clips from the likes of Hugh Hefner and Quentin Tarantino.

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Blazing the CARTEBLANCHE path also includes standing up for causes they believe in, and stepping up to the microphone when a voice needs to be heard. Such was the case with the 2004 Formula 1 Grand Prix. Montreal loves its Grand Prix, but because Quebec legislation prevents tobacco companies from sponsoring a cultural or sporting event, Formula One Management President Bernie Ecclestone removed Montreal from the circuit for the year. When CARTEBLANCHE got wind of this, the team took matters into their own hands, launching a voice of protest in a matter of three days.

CARTEBLANCHE designed a card with an image of a burning cigarette and smoke that together curled into an abstract “F1” with a message of displeasure written to Ecclestone across the back, and enlisted a printer to produce 200,000 of the cards for free. CARTEBLANCHE sent out press releases, gave television and radio interviews, and distributed the cards everywhere across Montreal. Local papers printed the image and the story, and the message went viral online across the world, as other Grand Prix cities became nervous that their event could be cancelled as well. By no surprise, the Grand Prix did end up flying around the Montreal track in 2004.

CARTEBLANCHE’s sensibility propels them to go beyond a brief to seek the craziest, rogue idea that is still strategically sound, and often, to insert digital components into the brief where they have not been requested. While adept in traditional campaign work, CARTEBLANCHE’s expertise resonates best in a digital environment, which is reflected in the fact that 50% of the agency’s business is now digital. CARTEBLANCHE’s philosophy works well online, where the most outrageously successful ideas begin with faith in saying “let’s try it and see what happens.”

“You cannot plan a viral success,” CARTEBLANCHE Director of Creative Strategy Sylvain Raymond said, “and if you try to plan it too much, it will not work.”

Neither the unknown, nor a lack of client funds prevent CARTEBLANCHE from trying an idea they believe is best for the brand. Digital budgets are not yet where they need to be, so CARTEBLANCHE has, on occasion, funded work that clients did not have the budget to pay for. By allowing them to experiment with new tools and gauge the target’s reaction, the effort pays itself forward, giving CARTEBLANCHE the right tools and arguments to later sell the idea and make it work better for future clients. You can never be 100% certain how your audience will respond online, but that, said Smith, is the benefit of social media. “It’s the biggest focus group in the world,” he asserted.

“The keyword is ‘interaction,’” Raymond said, “It’s not ‘Facebook.’” It is not the quantity, but the quality of interactions, and therefore it is imperative to know and understand the purpose of each platform and interact accordingly. CARTEBLANCHE maintains that if brands want to have a real conversation with their consumers, they have to speak up and be on these platforms.

In 2008, what seems like the early days of social media innovation, CARTEBLANCHE took on one of its aforementioned not-for-pay digital projects for restaurant chain and sandwich shop, Dagwoods. A project the agency knew was the right execution for the brief, and one that has informed and improved their work since, called “Ask the Slicer” (“Demande au Trancheur”). The Dagwoods differentiator is that each sandwich-maker slices the meat and cheese fresh while making a sandwich, so CARTEBLANCHE turned this into a brand personality trait embodied by a gruff little character called the Slicer (“Le Trancheur”). Customers and sandwich-lovers could pose any question on any topic, including Britney Spears or customizing and tuning cars, and the Slicer would answer. Questions were asked and answered through social media, via Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, (yes, you read that correctly, it was 2008) and an “Ask the Slicer” microsite. CARTEBLANCHE produced 15 videos featuring the Slicer’s wise responses, posting one weekly across Dagwoods digital footprint.

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Should an intended message ever miss the mark, CARTEBLANCHE remains insouciant. Another benefit of online marketing and a big difference between traditional and digital, according to Smith, is the flexibility to adjust. And adjust they do at CARTEBLANCHE, taking full advantage of the world’s biggest focus group to listen for the feedback consumers willingly offer, and to optimize the conversation in real time. The ability to admit and correct faux pas in an online environment makes brands more human, Smith pointed out. Communication is based on feedback and digital gives a brand the chance to embrace the flaws in all of us, acknowledge them, fix them and move on.

Recently, CARTEBLANCHE paired celebrity superheroes with cancer to instigate engagement with St-Hubert, a chain of casual dining restaurants best known for rotisserie chicken. To raise awareness and donations for a cause close to the family and community-oriented brand’s heart, the Charles-Bruneau Cancer Center Foundation, CARTEBLANCHE brought together the superstar power of four popular athletes, comedians and actors. They were assigned a mission to make deliveries and collect donations, raising funds to battle cancer while battling each other for the title of Super Livreur (“Super Deliveryperson”). The campaign began and was centralized through social media, integrating Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, but was also complemented by natural PR and point-of-sale materials inside the restaurants. As with most of their work, CARTEBLANCHE listened and optimized throughout the campaign. Fans of the St-Hubert Facebook page showed support by transforming their profile pictures into Super Livreur versions of themselves and voting for their favorite Super Livreur. All four heroes truly surprised St-Hubert customers, making deliveries around Quebec.

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In one of Quebec’s biggest social media successes in 2010, CARTEBLANCHE traded fans for teddy bears in a campaign for The Sainte-Justine Hospital Foundation called “50 000 Adeptes 5000 Toutous.” The challenge to the public was to “like,” and thus support the Sainte-Justine Facebook page. But not for nothing. Once the page reached (and then far surpassed) 50,000 fans, Sainte-Justine and the Clement boutiques donated 5,000 teddy bears to children hospitalized at Sainte-Justine. Beyond the fan-for-teddy trade-off, the campaign microsite and Facebook page also encouraged donations toward the Foundation. Again using celebrities and a worthy cause to entertain site visitors, CARTEBLANCHE produced five vignettes featuring well-known Québécois actors, actresses, comedians and musicians, to drive home the message that at some point, everyone needs a teddy bear.

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With a portfolio of work like this, you’d assume there was a freight engine team of people working behind the scenes at CARTEBLANCHE. Clients expect them to be nimble and adventurous and to bring brains to the table that will navigate through any business challenge with passion, creativity, originality and drive. But not unlike social media itself, the quantity of brains does not matter. It is the quality of the CARTEBLANCHE idea that will carry the weight.




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