Canadian advertising loses its Grip

Nearly 20 years after launching, and five years after first being acquired by Dentsu, creative agency Grip Ltd. is no more—replaced by a new brand in the market: dentsuOne.

The rebranding reflects larger changes going on at Dentsu said Stephen Kiely, chair of Dentsu Canada’s creative service line, which includes dentsu Mcgarrybowen, Isobar and now dentsuOne.

Dentsu announced late last year that it was undertaking a significant reorganization that included reducing its more than 160 agency brands around the world to as few as six. The changes will lead to as many as 6,000 layoffs, but are also meant to result in a more simplified and integrated operations driven by technology and data. (Dentsu declined to comment on how Canadian operations have been affected by the layoffs.)

“We want some consistency market to market,” said Kiely of the restructuring. “Dentsu has been a collection of brands… and we are looking to show up with a more significant force from a global perspective.”

DentsuOne already exists in Asia, but the Toronto office will be its first in North America. “And Grip, and all the wonderful things that it is and was, we’re really using that as the cornerstone and the bedrock of dentsuOne in North America,” said Kiely.

Grip founding partners Bob Shanks and David Crichton are both leaving the agency March 31. Another founding partner, David Chiavegato, is the head of creative for dentsuOne, while Stephanie Gordon is the new managing director. “She’s an incredible talent,” said Kiely. “She is absolutely the right person to bring us into this new era.” The agency’s key clients include Honda, Royal Bank of Canada, Taco Bell, and Lactalis.

Grip had a long history of producing breakthrough work, and the intent is to retain the same creative spirit and attitude, said Kiely. “The difference is that we’re able to wrap that product now around the might that Dentsu brings, and that involves media thinking, experiential thinking, and data.”

Though Dentsu still has Grip’s (currently empty) office space on John St. in Toronto, the 70-strong team will eventually move to Dentsu’s head office on University Avenue. “Our goal is to tether our groups together, from media to creative to CRM and CXM, and the physical manifestation of that is all of us in one building,” said Kiely.

While Grip’s history is not a long one compared to some of the other recently retired agency brands, such as J. Walter Thompson, Y&R, Grey and the Canadian agency Bos—which was recently folded into Dentsu’s mcgarrybowen—it had a big impact on Canadian advertising over the last two decades.

It caused a stir in the industry when it launched as Labatt’s creative agency in early 2002, named for the design firm where several members of the Group of Seven worked in the early 1900s. The agency’s founders claimed a new flatter organizational structure that would be more efficient than its competitors. “Grip says it will provide top-drawer advertising at lower cost, thanks to a streamlined structure that avoids the layers of administration in a traditional agency,” reported The Globe and Mail at the time.

At the same time, the agency had a significant number of high-priced creative partners, all of them sharing management responsibilities. At launch, Mike Robitaille and Bob Shanks were the key partners on the account side of the business (Robitaille having been a top marketer at Labatt), with key creative partners Chiavegato, Rich Pryce-Jones (now head of creative at dentsumcgarrybowen), Crichton, Graham Lee, Randy Stein, and Scott Dube. They operated without a president and, despite the creative firepower, skipped award shows in the early years.

The Grip buzz grew louder in 2004, when the still small agency shocked many by winning the entire Bell account. Grip had to grow quickly to manage the business, including bringing in new partners. However, the relationship with Bell was short-lived: less than two years after winning the business, a big part of the account went back to Cossette.

Despite that major setback, the agency managed to retain its “trailblazer” reputation with a heavy focus on creativity, while also becoming more digitally focused.

“I’m incredibly proud of the agency we built, the clients we were fortunate enough to work with, and the strong people-first culture we fostered,” said Stein, who left the agency nearly a year ago. “Look at the leadership of almost any top Canadian agency or brand, and there is someone who spent very formative years at Grip,” he added, offering a list that includes Zulu Alpha Kilo’s Mike Sutton, Rethink’s Joel Holtby, FCB/Six’s Ian Mackenzie, Canada Goose’s Pia Nummi, and RBC’s Georgia Fong.

Holtby recalls arriving at the agency as a young art director in 2010 and being struck by its creative energy. “The feeling in that space was electric to me; everything about it screamed creativity,” he said. “At the time, Grip was an agency that had a great track record of strong creative work and a deeper knowledge than most agencies for digital. It was not siloed—unlike most of the industry—where ‘mass’ and ‘digital’ creatives all worked and sat together.

“It gave this amazing fertile soil for more junior creatives to let creativity be the driver, versus the media,” he said, pointing to “iconic” Canadian campaigns like Budweiser’s “Paint Your Face” for the 2010 World Cup, or Kokanee’s The Movie out Here—which won a Gold Lion in Cannes in 2013.

“It was a place that changed those who worked there,” he said. “Lots of ex ‘Grippers’ feel thankful and lucky that they had the opportunity to be a part of Grip during such a special time.”

Mackenzie started in the industry with Grip in 2005. “The partners were a pretty inspiring group. I looked up to them and learned a lot from them,” he said. “They were also one of the first agencies to really invest in digital…. That was really foundational to my career.”

“Grip was a really special place with a structure and methodology that was unique and highly effective,” said Bob Goulart, who joined the agency in 2004, and is now creative director at Deloitte:Isaac. “At the outset, it was fiercely independent, an important tenet of its original design. Specifically, it was built to be forever private to keep clients and employees at its centre, not shareholders. It was certainly no accident that it was the fastest-growing agency in Canada, with Labatt, Bell, Honda, YUM, Expedia, and RBC among its clients.”

But the partners opted to sell Grip to Dentsu in 2016. While the agency—which was 150-employees strong at the time—gave up its independent status five years ago, Mackenzie says the formal end of the Grip era is important.

“I think it’s a loss,” he said. “I think it’s an iconic Canadian advertising brand. And I think it made a great contribution to Canadian advertising… Change is good, but I think it’s worth stopping and remembering what an achievement that agency was.”

But Kiely said the intent is to maintain the creative ethos of Grip within dentsuOne. “Grip was always the agency I wanted to get hired by,” he said. “That name is synonymous with creative excellence, and that is exactly the bedrock of what we want to bring forward now fusing it with the might of Dentsu behind it.”

David Brown