Agencies step up to help Canada’s small business operators at a crucial time

The considerable consumer distrust that has long-plagued the marketing industry has only been amplified and reinforced during the era of big data and targeted advertising.

But what is less understood by people outside the industry—perhaps owing to an entrenched view of advertising as some kind of dark art designed to cajole people into buying things they don’t need—is the altruism that exists in many corners of the industry.

Advertising practitioners are problem-solvers at heart, whether it’s getting people to buy more soap and beer, or inspiring them to open their wallet for a worthy cause. And there is perhaps no bigger problem facing the Canadian economy right now than the plight of its small businesses.

There are an estimated 1.15 million small businesses operating in Canada according to government statistics, many of them mom and pop outfits whose very future is imperilled by the ongoing economic shutdown.

According to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, small and medium business (SMEs)—companies with fewer than 500 employees—account for an estimated 30% of Canadian GDP and 95% of all net job creation.

Their health is vital to the country’s economy, but ongoing surveys conducted by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business since the COVID crisis began paint a grim picture:

  • Nearly three-quarters of business said they’ve seen revenues drop by 30% or more, while 43% said revenues have fallen by 70% or more; and
  • Only three-quarters of business owners are confident their business will survive the crisis.

While marketing and ad agencies can’t magically solve the problems of an economy in lockdown, its proponents argue that it has a vital role to play in propping businesses up during difficult times.

“This is not the time for advertising or brands to stop,” says Publicis Toronto art director Alek von Felkerzam, who launched a program called “Now Open” providing marketing and consulting services to local business owners. “This is an opportunity to re-assess what’s happening in the market and embrace the moment.”

Many people working in advertising and marketing have themselves been hard-hard by the downturn, with clients postponing or even cancelling projects outright. It’s a dire situation, one that has already led to layoffs and a significant loss of livelihood even within the industry.

But despite all that, we’ve also seen numerous examples of people from across the industry stepping forward with their own ideas to tackle big problems for small businesses.

Here, is a (no doubt incomplete) list of some of those initiatives launched by agencies and individuals in recent weeks. Please let us know if your agency or company has a similar initiative it hopes to promote:

Blackjet/Impossible Studios: “Creativity for Good”

“Creativity for Good” is offering pro bono content creation to businesses and charities that are struggling because of the economic shutdown. The program has recruited nearly 100 volunteers since its inception, and also enlisted Faulhaber Communications for PR support.

The initiative has already led to the creation of a video for Good Shepherd Ministries (below), while work for several Toronto businesses including Hot Black Coffee, Lift Corktown, Ontario Equestrian, Tribespace and WarChild Canada is currently in post-production.

“We grew tired of all of the negativity and wanted to use our creativity to do something positive and give back using our resources,” says Blackjet CEO Rob Galletta. “It feels great to actually contribute versus just sitting back and watching.”

Naked Creative Consultancy: “Here to Help”

The Toronto-based agency has launched a program called “Here to Help,” designed to provide small to medium-sized businesses with access to marketing assistance and creative thinking.

“You can’t just sit by and watch this happen,” says Naked’s president and owner Peter Shier, who says that the agency is willing to defer or discount payment, and even offer some services for free.

He is promising clients access to the agency’s roster of writers, art directors, social media experts, web developers and designers.

“For over 20 years Naked has been using creativity to help our clients solve business problems,” says Shier in a video to promote the program (see below).  “It’s what we do, and we’re pretty good at it.”

Ruby & Foster

Ruby & Foster co-founder and chief operations office Anna Halfpenny recently saw a meme that perfectly summed up 2020 so far: a beat-up car, held together by duct tape.

“It was also a great analogy for how many small businesses owners are feeling right now,” says Halfpenny in a note to The Message.

Throughout the month of May, Ruby & Foster is offering free one-on-one brand and business consulting (valued at $10,000) to 10 small businesses. The analysis includes insight into immediate steps owners/managers can take to keep their business operating successfully—tactics that can be employed to raise awareness and grow customer base.

“We know first-hand the challenges you face as a small business owner in the best of times,” says a note introducing the program. “Add a global pandemic that forces you to run, or even pivot, your business from the confines of your make-shift home office, and, well, to say that these are challenging times is the understatement of the century.”

Alek von Felkerzam, “Now Open”

With work at a standstill, the Toronto-based art director is providing small business clients with expertise garnered during 20 years of experience across advertising sectors including retail, fast food and fitness.

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“My mind is always working, so I wanted to find a way to give back,” says von Felkerzam. “I can’t give money, but I can give my creativity away.”

Von Felkerzam has tried to recruit small business clients at every agency he’s worked at, and “Now Open” feels like a natural extension of those efforts.

As of mid-May, he had worked with five local businesses, developing an online campaign for the injury recovery studio Body Engineers (right) and a brand redesign for the wellness business Japan Reiki Studio in Toronto’s west end.

Top Drawer

Edmonton-based digital marketing agency Top Drawer is giving away a free social media advertising bundle to local businesses each weekday through May 22 as part of its “Social Acts of Kindness” initiative.

President and CEO Ken Jurina says that his agency is committed to helping businesses realize their full potential online and, saying they need to connect with audiences on social more than ever before.

Businesses can enter a daily draw via a dedicated website for a chance to win one of eight bundles with a focus on a different social media channel.

Photo by Mike Petrucci on Unsplash


Chris Powell