Agency Provocateur

Carl Johnson on Anomaly's Toronto expansion

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Carl Johnson on Anomaly’s Toronto expansion

Anomaly is from that cluster of agencies that prefaces “advertising” with the words “not just.”

It’s in the same arena as Droga5 and 72andSunny, which, sure, can do advertising if you need them to. Hell, they’ll win Grand Prix Lions for outdoor campaigns if you want. But they’re rebellious, entrepreneurial and eclectic. They’d rather invent new technology or start a charity or, perhaps, breed new life forms in the name of “business solutions.” Not, you see, just advertising.

And now Anomaly, newly heralded to Canadians with a stellar hockey-themed ad for Budweiser, is about to open a Toronto office. Founded in New York with offices in the U.K. and the Netherlands, the MDC-owned shop wants a piece of the Canadian market. But with Vision 7’s hungry agency Dare newly arrived in Toronto, Sid Lee expanding with a global appetite and Zulu Alpha Kilo handling an impressive client roster (Coke, Bell, Corona), Anomaly lands in a market already flush with successful ad iconoclasts. So how does one rebel among the rebels?

According to Carl Johnson, it’s not a problem. He’s even a bit blasé about it. “You can overthink differentiation. We created a company called Anomaly; it’s essential that we be an anomaly and that we’ve thought through what that really means. If others are ‘different,’ then great. There’s a ton of business out there. If you’re any good, you do well. If you’re not, you won’t. For us, the most important thing is ask if we do good, effective work for our clients… We don’t need other [agencies] to fail for us to succeed.”

An agency that purports to do more than just make ads is now hackneyed, but it was much more rare in 2004 when Johnson helped found the shop. He’d previously built a successful career in London, founding Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson in 1988, which was sold to Omnicom and merged with TBWA. Now his shop (in which MDC Partners took a 60% stake last year) is launching cosmetic lines they helped create (Eos) and staging flash mobs for amateur hockey games (see “Acting Out,” pg. 16).

Johnson braved Toronto’s first serious blasts of winter in February to search for both an office and a “high-talent, low-ego” exec to steer it, a mere five months after expanding to Amsterdam. He is already planning further growth into Brazil and possibly China (who isn’t?), but Toronto came first, he said, for unapologetically philosophical reasons.

“We do what we want to do. We’re driven by questions like ‘Where is there talent? Where do we think our proposition will play well in the marketplace? And where do we want to go as human beings?’… Toronto’s a really good city. It’s not far away, and we’re emotionally quite connected to it,” said Johnson, sitting in a corner of the Thompson Hotel bar. “Even if we could make more money in other markets, we wouldn’t open there.”

Luckily, there’s a bit of cash to back that philosophy. Anomaly is, of course, Budweiser’s global brand agency and oversees the big-picture stuff for “The King of Beers” in Canada. Unlike the Amsterdam expansion, there will be work to do and invoices to send on the first day in Toronto. Johnson wouldn’t talk about Budweiser or its Canadian plans, but the work speaks for itself in a way. The brand is slowly reversing its market share declines in the U.S. where Anomaly most recently helmed its Super Bowl spots.

“Anomaly’s work continues to reposition Budweiser as the brand leader it once was,” wrote Tim Arnold in the pages of Advertising Age. Arnold, the agency vet who ran Bud in the U.S. for 10 years, called the Super Bowl ads “the latest expressions of this once-great brand reconnecting with its heritage, acknowledging that there’s more to the beer market than sophomoric frat boys under the age of 24… These latest examples, along with a special commercial they created for Canada—a spot that’s gone viral and will generate millions of hits before it’s done—are wonderful storytelling and emotionally engaging.” Not bad for an agency that wants to do more than just TV.

So maybe Anomaly doesn’t need to urgently differentiate right away to survive in Canada. It could comfortably work Budweiser for years with nary another AOR gig. But it’s not necessarily an agency to be feared in RFPs anyway. It doesn’t take part in all that many. It’s far more likely to call your clients once their reviews have finished to ask if they’re interested in fixing declining sales with, say, a new mobile commerce platform or funding a new web series. It does, after all, have an entire division dedicated to developing new intellectual properties.

With shrinking budgets that are only a fraction of those in larger markets to begin with, one might wonder if there’s opportunity at all to do such boundary-pushing in Canada. Again, Johnson is calmly optimistic.

“We will work well with clients who are ambitious and willing to embrace a progressive solution. Ambition and budget size are not the same thing.”

Will Anomaly need to work to differentiate itself, or does its reputation precede it? Post your thoughts in our comment section.

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