Paying the Toronto tax

If you’ll pardon the pun, there was something troubling in the extreme about the Nova Scotia government’s recent decision to award a two-year, $12-million contract to tout the province’s many and various (not to forget self-evident-to-us) charms as a tourism destination… to a Toronto-based advertising firm.

In late October, DDB Canada won the competition over — among others — Extreme Group, the Halifax-based agency that had held the lucrative contract for the past two years, and had been able to claim as a legacy a modest increase in the number of visitors to the province after a decade of decline.

On the face of it, the process seemed fair enough. Last summer, the government issued a public request for proposals. Twenty firms submitted bids. A selection panel that included representatives of Tourism Nova Scotia, industry groups and procurement experts “reviewed and scored submissions against criteria outlined in the proposal.”

“The process,” explained a government spokesperson, “identified DDB Canada as the organization whose submission had the best plan to aggressively market our province so Nova Scotia can meet the goal of doubling tourism revenues.”

But Toronto?

The issue, explains Nova Scotia Services Minister Labi Kousoulis helpfully, is that under interprovincial trade rules designed to level the supplier playing field, you can’t give extra points to local companies just for being local.

But isn’t being local sort of important when part of the job is identifying said charms to pitch to an unknowing world?

Which is why, explained Kousoulis, the government required each bidder to demonstrate that it knew and understood the province it was auditioning to peddle to the world.

DDB’s local get-in-the-game card was Trampoline Branding, a smaller Halifax-based firm with which it is “partnering.” But while Trampoline will help with “sourcing,” DDB will do all the creative heavy lifting. In Toronto.

That’s not to downplay what DDB brings to the table. The company has been Destination Canada’s go-to agency for more than a decade. And it’s part of DDB Worldwide, a global marketing communications network, which gives it clout when negotiating for ad buys to make our own modest $5 million a year worth of advertising dollars stretch even further.

But Toronto?

Phil Otto, the CEO of Revolve Branding & Marketing, another losing bidder, calls the province’s decision “scandalous.” While he insists he isn’t upset his firm lost, he is angry about where the contract went. “This just feels like government saying ‘We don’t have the talent around here and it’s got to come from away.’”

But perhaps such outcomes are inevitable.

The dark downside to the much-heralded glories of interprovincial, international and intergalactic free trade is that there will be losers, and more often than not, the losers will be those at the end of the chain.

Consider Extreme Group. When they lost the tourism contract, they had to lay off eight well-paid, highly creative people. Those were in addition to the 12 it let go earlier in the year when regional Bell Aliant was swallowed by giant BCE Inc., and moved its multi-million-dollar account westward. Paul LeBlanc, the founder and chief entrepreneurial officer at Extreme, remembers a day when there were 1,300 jobs in the ad industry in this region. “Today, that number across Atlantic Canada in agencies is probably around 300.”

When contracts like tourism leave the region, he says, “it continues to disable our advertising industry.” And, of course, leaves us even more dependent on much bigger, much more distant companies with initials like DDB and BCE.

There is a double irony here.

The Ivany report had called on Nova Scotia’s tourism industry to up its game, to more than double tourism revenues to $4 billion by 2024.

Hiring DDB is part of the up-the-game effort to achieve that ambitious goal.

But at what expense? The Ivany report’s first-amongequals goal was for Nova Scotia to attract 1,000 more, presumably well paid newcomers and returnees to the province each year.

Instead, we’ve just sent eight of our best and brightest jobs packing to Toronto.

Farewell to Nova Scotia?

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