Lockdowns are ending, but small businesses’ struggle to stay alive continues: Toronto BIAs

Who: Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas (TABIA) and Berners Bowie Lee for creative, with production and post partners Untitled Films (directed by Jesse Louttit), Grayson Music Group, Alter Ego, Saints Editorial, and photography by Ian Willms. Corus Media donated billboard space, while Glossy handled PR.

What: “Buy Toronto Time,” an integrated campaign to remind Torontonians that even as things start to open up, many of the city’s small businesses face financial ruin without local support.

When & Where: The campaign debuted early this week, running on TV, radio and social, with a lot of out of home—billboards, TSAs and in-store posters.

Why: While many small businesses have been forced to close for good during the pandemic, many more have managed to hang on only by taking on large amounts of debt. Roughly 16% of all small and mid-sized businesses are still at risk of closing, and the average small business has between $150,000 and $170,000 in debt, according to the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses.

“Just because we’re opening and just because the pandemic is slowly going away, businesses have to pay back a lot of debt, people still might not be comfortable going into stores, bars are only open on patios,” said Michael Murray, founding partner, creative, Berners Bowie Lee. “Businesses are still in trouble, and by implication it means that our neighbourhoods and the communities that depend on those businesses will also be affected for a long time to come.”

How: The double meaning tagline is both a call-to-action and a plea to help keep Toronto businesses alive: It’s time to buy from Toronto businesses, and give Toronto businesses more time.

The TV: The 60-second spot is a poetic homage to the many small businesses that aren’t just businesses, but a vital part of their community—from cleaners and record shops, to hardware stores and corner stores. Narrated by Clifford Paul, whose barbershop has been closed since November, it hits on the overall campaign theme that small businesses help breathe life into communities across the city. “These are our neighbourhoods,” says Paul. “The barber who knows everything, but keeps it to himself.” It closes with another provocative message: “The end is nearly here.”

Outdoor: The life and death nature of the struggle is most vividly depicted in hyper-local outdoor creative, which uses in-store posters featuring tombstones containing the year the business opened and the second date blank, a reminder to people in the neighbourhood that the future of the business is unknown. More than 400 businesses have their own poster so far, and others are being invited to sign up to get their own. Billboards and TSAs use the same idea, but with the tombstone superimposed over photos of nearby businesses.

Instagram: Stories of small businesses struggling to stay alive are being told through Instagram. “Stories of how people are surviving, the debt they’re in, the impact on their mental health, and honestly the despair of what they’re going to do in the coming months is all laid out there,” said Murray.

The agency originally pitched the idea to one of Toronto’s local BIAs, which in turn took it to John Kiru, executive director of the Toronto Association of Business Improvement Areas, as an option for all 85 BIAs across the city. “It was different,” said Kiru. “It wasn’t another ‘shop local’ [campaign], it was a little edgy—but times are what they are, and if edgy is what’s going to work, we were willing to take a shot at it.”

The idea for the campaign came from seeing how people react to their favourite small businesses closing, said Murray. “There’s basically remorse,” he said. The campaign says that rather than waiting to shop somewhere after the “closing soon” sign goes up and then feeling remorseful, they should shop now before it’s too late.

David Brown