Jay Chaney: The creative before the creative

—MARK SMYKA joined the ad world as a reporter with Marketing magazine at the tail end of the Mad Men era. One of the sacred rituals of the day was lunch, a time when industry people would take a break to talk shop, commiserate, quarrel, gossip or simply revel in the business itself. In this series, Smyka revives the lunch tradition for intimate conversations with icons of Canadian advertising and marketing—

The first lesson I learned about the ad business when I started reporting on it some decades ago was that the process is divided into three distinct moving parts: account management, creative, and media.

The account side is where you find the relatively strait-laced women and men who take people to lunch and act as an interface between clients, their money, and the rest of the agency. Creative is home to the storytellers. Media is where the agency takes the money and uses it to purchase the megaphone (TV, radio, print, outdoor, social, etc.) that will get the clients’ brand stories to the right audience in the right place and at the right time.

A tightly knit triumvirate of complementary skills. Made total sense to me.

But sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a fourth player began to appear. The role was described in those days as “account planner.” Its origins and purest form were most often traced back to the highly esteemed U.K. office of agency heavyweight J. Walter Thompson.

Planners gradually began showing up at agencies in Canada throughout the ’80s, and I remember wondering, Who are these people? How and where do they fit into the cozy threesome?

I confess that for a long time I had a hard time figuring it out, especially when the description of the role gradually shifted from “account planner” to “strategist.” Then I met Jay Chaney.

I was there at Cossette when Chaney helped lay the strategic foundation for the brilliant SickKids “Vs.” campaign. He also had a guiding hand in articulating the rationale behind the equally inspiring “Save The Bees” campaign for General Mills’ Honey Nut Cheerios. And even before that, I had been a great admirer of the groundbreaking work Chaney created to help bring McDonald’s Restaurants’ very brave “Our Food. Your Questions” to market when he was at Tribal DDB.

Suddenly I began to see it. The strategists are the absorbers. The thinkers. The ones who take a step back and consider the entire tableau, searching for insights and opportunities which, once found, get reduced to one glowing nugget: the brief.

Here’s how Chaney described the job to me recently over lunch at a west end Toronto pool hall.

“I am the creative before the creative,” he says. “The number one objective of any agency is to produce creative that will gain attention and move people. The strategist gives the agency the best chance to make that happen. The strategist is there to take in all the inputs… often not even relevant or specific to the job… to digest all that information and focus it on what the client needs to get done.

“Any creative can be like a cannon and can blow a hole in anything. But you want it to blow a hole in the right place… the target. And that’s my job.”

So there’s insight. But, just as importantly, there’s salesmanship.

“The best strategists I know,” Chaney says, “are able to get you excited by the potential that they see but that nobody else sees. You need to convince clients, account people and most of all creative people, that this is all going in the right direction.”

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Like so many other agency people I’ve met, Chaney defies stereotyping. At one point in his youth he was headed towards a career in professional baseball, but an injury brought that promise to an end. His interests are truly all over the map. He once told me that if he really had his way he’d be on a farm raising his beloved dachshunds. He’s an outdoorsman and an avid kayaker.

As you listen to him speak, you can’t help wondering how all this passion found its way into advertising.

“It started with me being lost. As a kid I thought I was going to be a marine biologist. I loved everything about Jacques Cousteau. Then, and I’m not really sure how this happened, I went into the Junior Achievement program. I found myself on a team-building project. We were assigned birdhouses. I ended up on the marketing side of it and I remember being fascinated by the challenge. How do you sell these things? Who’s going to buy them? How will you price them? I always loved puzzles. I guess it really was the problem-solving that eventually drew me into advertising.”

At the University of Calgary, a conversation with a professor who worked at the local CBC station led to a part-time job in advertising and TV production. “That’s when I got sucked down the path,” Chaney recalls.

After graduation in the mid 1990s, Chaney found a job at a small agency that was breaking into the emerging digital world, developing DVDs, CDs and websites back in the days when the internet was still a big question mark.

“I really liked the challenge of trying to figure out what businesses were going to do with this stuff. How would websites be used? And I loved the creativity and the craziness of the people,” says Chaney. “It suited my personality.”

Chaney lived through a brief baptism-by-fire in crisis management as a public affairs officer at Imperial Oil in Calgary before making his move to Toronto in 2000, where he joined the Toronto Star’s newly launched video production studio. Once again, he found himself immersed in the early days of content, production and a new, rapidly evolving iteration of digital-based branding.

At the same time, it had become abundantly clear throughout the entire marketing world that the digital wave people were seeing was not merely another trend lapping at the shores of the mainstream. Rather, it was a tsunami, about to crash through the industry and change it utterly and forever.

Predictably, the industry responded with the launch of new specialist agencies. They began appearing in the early part of 2000, offering clients a perspective and a service that tapped into all that digital could provide. Chaney quickly jumped on board as a strategist, first at Blast Radius, then Calgary-based Critical Mass, and eventually Tribal DDB.

At first, Tribal—like other pure play digital shops—was confined to doing banner ads and basic digital work, but was not growing.

“We needed to redefine the business we were in,” recalls Chaney. “We decided to go away from the pure digital position and we said we were an agency with a digital background. That perspective allowed us to shift and compete with all the above-the-line agencies.”

The strategy worked. With a staff of only a dozen or so people, Tribal went on a tear, winning business from some of the country’s leading blue-chip clients, including Canadian Tire, Johnson & Johnson, General Mills and the biggest of them all, McDonald’s Restaurants.

“We were running like crazy,” Chaney remembers. “I was basically living in the office. I was writing pitches in the elevator… and at the same time, we were starting to do great work.”

It was in the middle of this frenzy that Chaney and the Tribal team developed the thinking that led to McDonald’s revolutionary campaign “Our Food. Your Questions.”

The starting point was McDonald’s low “food quality” ratings,  despite the fact it had some of the highest industry standards of food quality production and preparation. How could this be reversed?

“I said, give me a couple of weeks,” says Chaney. “All I did was go on Google to see what people were saying. A lot of it was really grotesque.”

And there was a big disconnect between what was being said online and the McDonald’s advertising that focused on high quality food and showed farms and other pastoral imagery.

The strategy, says Chaney, was to “fight fire with fire.”

“We needed to make our case in a way that would wake people up and make them pay attention. It had to be done in a way that was completely not what people expected to hear from McDonald’s. So we said, ‘Let’s be open and honest and just start stating the facts. Let’s remove the conversation from the internet and place it on the facts.'”

The resulting web-based “Our Food. Your Questions.” campaign mobilized the entire McDonald’s organization. It became a sensation in Canada, was adopted in the U.S. and spread internationally.

The campaign and other high profile work also turned Tribal into a leading agency brand and if anything, the pace at the agency only quickened. After nearly four years at Tribal, Chaney was feeling the burn and decided he needed a change of scenery.

In 2013, he moved to Montreal as vice-president, strategy at the creative agency lg2, but within a year or so returned to Toronto to head strategy at Cossette. He left Cossette after four years to become chief creative officer at fin-tech start-up Koho Financial, where he helped launch the brand in Canada before leaving early last year. Today he’s working as a freelance strategist, but strongly hints that he can see himself launching something of his own in the near future.

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When the conversation turns to his views on the industry today, Chaney says he believes we are on the brink of a renaissance in creativity.

“It is so difficult to get peoples’ attention today. I think people ignore 90% of what they see. So you have to make your brand do something unexpected to get it noticed. When you do something different and you do it with great creativity and with sensitivity, people will reward you for it.

“I can see creative making a comeback. Agencies are getting smaller and there is a weeding out that’s taking place. People who shouldn’t be there, or who don’t want to be there, are leaving the industry. I hope that will lead to a return of the people with personality and creativity. We need more of the crazies.”

It is so fitting that my lunch with Chaney ends with him talking about yet another unfulfilled career option.

“You know, I always wanted to be a chef. I’m now taking a course in Nordic cooking and our instructor said to us, ‘You can only be 20% off when you’re preparing the meal, otherwise it’s going to be garbage.’ That’s kind of how I think about the advertising I’ve done.”

 

Mark Smyka