Initiative Canada ‘remixes’ the upfront

With Canadian media companies (except Rogers Media) gearing up to woo media buyers as part of their annual upfront activities, Initiative Canada has flipped the script by making a presentation of its own to sellers.

The IPG Mediabrands network held its first-ever “Reverse Upfront” in Toronto on Wednesday, with senior leaders laying out what clients like Lego, Destination Canada and RBC are seeking from their media partners.

“One of the things we’re hoping to gain from today is some more proactive thinking,” said Initiative Canada president Helen Galanis after the 60-minute presentation, entitled “Remixing the Upfront: Volume 1.” “In the past we’ve discouraged proactive proposals, because unless you have real client insight, they never hit the mark—there’s so much nuance and context behind each client’s business.”

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Initiative Canada president Helen Galanis

Approximately 140 representatives from 60 media companies and platforms—including Facebook, Snap, Spotify, Pinterest, Twitter and CBC—were in attendance at the afternoon event. They watched Initiative leaders present campaigns from clients including Lego and RBC, and pose related questions such as “How do we compete with Fortnite?” and “How do we stay relevant in a world of convenience?”

The move reflects Initiative’s continued efforts to transform its clients into cultural leaders. “We believe culture is a brand’s bridge to relevance. And you can’t ad-block culture,” it said in a nifty takeaway that included a random repurposed vinyl album for each attendee.

(The Message got a 1978 album from the late Leon Russell entitled Americana, whose best-known song is a country-fied take on the Percy Sledge standard “When a Man Loves a Woman” that’s doomed by a tepid saxophone solo.)

The goal of the Reverse Upfront, said Galanis, is to encourage vendors to come up with bespoke solutions that best represent their capabilities, while at the same time putting less emphasis on the price negotiations that have long characterized their relationship.

“In a negotiation you hold your cards close to your chest, but now it’s not about buying things that are commoditized,” said Galanis. “Creative brainstorming and unlocking the power of these interesting media ecosystems is much more important than getting the lowest cost per point.

“We’re lobbing the ball over and saying ‘Here’s what we know, bring us things that actually address these client needs.’ The hope is better proposals and more proactive thinking.”

Initiative first introduced the Reverse Upfront concept in the U.S. in 2017 (it was dubbed a “souped-up RFP” by Ad Age) and has since rolled it out to other markets around the world. “I don’t think there’s another agency in the market that has gone this far to change the conventions of the agency and sales side relationship,” says Galanis.

Wednesday’s presentation was held at the Toronto event space Revival, an appropriately named venue since Initiative’s global fortunes have been on the upswing after a bleak period leading to a major network overhaul in 2016, including the appointment of Mat Baxter as global CEO (Galanis also joined the company from Rogers Media that year).

Initiative was candid about its past missteps in Wednesday’s presentation, revealing that a 2016 survey of its vendor partners provided feedback that was “much, much worse” than expected. Vendor feedback, said Galanis, suggested that the agency was “falling down” on fundamentals, such as providing timely briefs or fair feedback, and granting access to teams.

“[Vendors] are always hungry to come in and share their thinking, and we’re the ones who have made it difficult by not being proactive and sharing what the clients needs are,” said Galanis, who admitted she was “shocked” at the agency’s reputation among vendor partners. “My expectation is that we’re going to get much better thinking as a result of today.”

Initiative says that its Net Promoter Score has since climbed back into positive territory after being a worrisome -30.6, and it was recently named “Comeback Agency of the Year” by Ad Age, which cited the Reverse Upfront—along with a new planning process called “cultural velocity” and Baxter’s no-holds-barred rebuke of Facebook on his LinkedIn page—among the reasons for the turnaround.

“It was a tremendous comeback,” Galanis told the gathering on Wednesday. “Globally and locally we exceeded all of our goals and expectations.”

Vendors seemed to appreciate the effort too. Speaking anonymously with The Message, one media leader described the Reverse Upfront as “a great show of partnership,” which demonstrated that Initiative cares about how it engages with its media partners.

“I think it was also a great way for them to showcase their senior leaders and the approach they take to their clients’ businesses,” she said. “The whole tone of the event was uplifting and reminded us of the creative work we all enjoy doing in the ad business, shifting focus from the more negative topics that we so frequently seem to get bogged down in.”

Chris Powell