Why the Quebec government was right to hire Cossette

—Some want government work to go only to Quebec-owned agencies. They should think twice, says Eric Blais.—

On May 12, the Government of Québec announced its decision to award a significant chunk of business, worth $15 million a year for up to three years, to Cossette. The agency will be tasked with developing a strategy and campaign to build greater public understanding of the measures being taken to re-open the province in post-pandemic times.

The short-listed agencies included lg2, Cartier, Havas, Publicis, Ogilvy, and Forsman & Bodenfors. Only the first two are Quebec-owned.

Some in the Quebec ad community were quick to react on social media. How can a government that’s preaching the importance of supporting the local economy give this plum assignment to an internationally owned conglomerate?

The reaction would likely have been the same had the chosen agency been headquartered in Toronto. When the iconic rotisserie chicken restaurant chain St-Hubert was acquired by the Ontario-based owner of Swiss Chalet, some headlines said the Quebec jewel had been swallowed by “foreign interests.”

It is indeed ironic that a government that has dialled up protectionism in response to the devastating impact of the pandemic on its local economy would choose to award this assignment to an agency with foreign ownership—albeit one founded by Quebeckers and with deep roots in the province.

Some pointed out the Legault government has gone out of its way to promote Quebec-based businesses by very publicly supporting initiatives such as the recently launched Panier Bleu. As Pierre Fitzgibbon, the Minister of Economy and Innovation, declares on the website, “The Le Panier Bleu initiative encourages Quebeckers to favour local products and businesses while promoting the sustainability of businesses in all regions of Quebec. Let us remember that every dollar invested counts and helps support our local products and our expertise, which further stimulates our economy. Let’s buy local” [The translation is mine.]

But what does buy local really mean? Buy goods and services produced in Quebec? Or buy goods and services produced by Quebec-based companies? The former might be beer brewed in Montreal by a U.S.-based group. It provides local jobs and uses local vendors. The latter might be a motorized vehicle assembled in Mexico. Its owners are in Quebec, while its workers enjoy a warmer climate.

Many of those disappointed by the decision acknowledge that Cossette has the talent and capabilities to deliver. They also recognize that a large portion of the $45 million will pay local salaries and suppliers. But many feel it doesn’t deserve the business, since it’s not owned by Québécois and the profits will flow to foreign interests. Some are calling for the government to select only Quebec-owned agencies for its advertising work. They should think twice.

Quebec’s taxpayers deserve their government’s ad campaigns to be planned and executed by the most qualified talent in the province, for the greatest return on investment. Not for its return to a few private shareholders. That is presumably what the agency selection committee was tasked with in this agency search.

Attracting foreign investment and enticing foreign companies to set up shop in Quebec is an equally important way to grow the province’s economy. Global networks have made a significant contribution to Quebec’s advertising industry. Young & Rubicam’s first international office was opened in Montreal in 1932. These networks have also signed big cheques to acquire Quebec-owned agencies.

Minister Fitzgibbon asks Quebeckers to “remember that every dollar invested counts and helps support our local products and our expertise, which further stimulates our economy.” He’s right.

Investing $45 million, with Cossette or with any other shop, is good for Quebec’s economy and its advertising industry, no matter who pockets the profits. Restricting access to Quebec government business could have the perverse effect of limiting the number of communication agencies thriving in the province, resulting in fewer opportunities for local talent to earn a living, and buy local.

Eric Blais is the president of Headspace Marketing, a consultancy that helps marketers build brands in Quebec.

David Brown