Go Canadians, Go: Leo Burnett’s Sean Ohlenkamp

"This is Canada! We don’t get sued."

As part of our “Go Canadians, Go” project, Marketing asked dozens of Canucks working abroad (or those who’ve returned with a few years of international experience) to give us their impressions of the differences between Canada’s industry and others. Does being Canadian give you a leg up?

Six years ago, I had just moved to Toronto from Los Angeles when I stepped into a meeting at my then-agency. A large group was gathered around the table to review creative work. An idea was put on the table that was impactful but pushed more than a few limits. Everyone oo’d and ahh’d at the possibility, but, playing the voice of reason, I said we couldn’t execute the idea because we would be sued.

The whole table stared blankly at me before bursting out in laughter. One person explained, “Sued? This is Canada! We don’t get sued. We just apologize and don’t do it again.”

One of the most obvious differences between the U.S. and Canada are the budgets. My very first commercial in the U.S. cost more than all of the commercials I have done in Canada combined. And while it’s nice to travel the globe shooting epic live-action spots, the financial limitations of Canadian brands can often force incredibly creative solutions.

A few years after moving here, I produced a campaign of six TV spots that featured simply a photograph and some sound design. The following year, we told another brand’s story through a television campaign that used six black dots on a white field. When an agency and client can embrace the limitations rather than compare them to the U.S., it opens the doors to reimagine what a commercial should be. And, in my experience, can lead to work that is often simpler and more disruptive.

One day, after I had left a very large agency in Los Angeles, I received an email from a friend who still worked there. He was in a crowded internal meeting when an account person looked around the room and abruptly asked, “Shouldn’t Sean be in this meeting?” Not only was I know longer working there, but I had been living in Canada for two years.

The sheer size of the ad industry in the U.S. goes without saying. With the new, smaller size of the Canadian industry came a friendliness and familiarity that I hadn’t before experienced. In my time in Canada, I have found the industry to be much more supportive, less aggressive, and more respectful. Powerful work is applauded no matter who created it, and the industry as a whole seems to work together to prove itself as one of the most creative in the world. And it has a comforting size where every person matters more than once every two years.

Sean Ohlenkamp is creative director at Leo Burnett Canada

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