A Canadian agency unionizes. Could others be far behind?

An independent agency with operations across the country says it has become the first advertising services company in Canada—and among the first in the world—to unionize.

Point Blank Creative, which employs 50 full-time employees across brick-and-mortar offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, said that 85.2% of its employees voted in favour of the agency’s first collective bargaining agreement last week.

While most employers dread the thought of a union coming to their workplace, Point Blank’s management welcomed it with open arms. “The idea of an ad agency being unionized sounds completely foreign in our industry, but we did it,” said executive creative director Pierre Chan, a member of the agency’s management team, in an email to The Message. “So often people are overworked in the ad industry and feel undervalued—we hear about people burning out all the time.

“So this collective agreement is groundbreaking for our industry, and it’ll hopefully set the stage for other Canadian agencies to set similarly high standards.”

The difference here may be how Point Blank views itself, and the clients it wants to work with.

The agency was already a certified living wage employer, but the new agreement with New Westminster, B.C. based UFCW 1518 includes a 20% cost of living increase over its three years, as well as full salary transparency for every role and department across the agency.

Point Blank, which describes itself as the country’s largest “progressive creative and digital agency,” also has longstanding ties to the labour movement, having produced work for United Steelworkers, Unifor, the Alberta Federation of Labour, United Nurses of Alberta, and the B.C. Federation of Labour.

Despite the progressive approach to its staff and labour, Colette G. St-Onge, a strategist at the agency, said that unionization was important to herself and her coworkers. “While relationships with the employer are likely better here compared to other companies, it’s important for management to hear from workers and their representatives on what can be improved,” she said.

Under the new agreement, staff now have guaranteed wage increases, paid family responsibility leave, and paid bereavement leave. “Point Blank has had explosive growth in the past few years,” she said. “But with recent changes in similar sectors such as tech, we feel secure knowing that our rights at work can withstand whatever changes happen beyond the company’s control.”

Chief strategy officer Natasha Madison, also a member of the agency’s management team, said that an agency that does so much work for trade unions should be able to demonstrate “authentic support” for the labour movement by being supportive of its own staff organizing and “meeting them at the bargaining table to negotiate a good fair deal.”

“Being unionized offers fair and transparent wages; equity across all departments; fairness, including a formal process to resolve any grievances with your employer; the security of a full-time permanent job, and the ability to bargain collectively instead of negotiating 1:1,” she said. “Things don’t have to be ‘bad’ to unionize.”

Point Blank’s new agreement means staff can plan their future without worrying about navigating inflationary challenges, which should help the agency with employee retention, said Madison. “Not only does this give people job security and stability, it gives them income security,” she said. “[Employees] can very clearly see over the next three years what their financial future is with our company. I think people will stay to see that out, to get the cost of living increases they deserve, and I also think it makes us far more competitive.

“I’d ask other agencies to consider, if you’re not open to unionizing, why?” she added.

The union also aligns with Point Blank’s practice of offering good, full-time permanent jobs, said Madison. The creative sector, she said, has become “over-reliant” on the gig economy, with many of these employees not afforded protections around fair wages, job security, etc.

“That’s great if you want to be self-employed, but agencies should be playing a role in helping more creatives move out of the gig economy and into good permanent jobs where they’re fairly paid and respected for that work,” she said. “We take that responsibility seriously.

“But we aren’t and shouldn’t be the outlier here. Our message to other agencies is—we’re in a new way of working and it’s time to catch up.”

Point Blank first affiliated with UFCW 1518 in 2020, signalling that it intended to unionize. The union represents workers in sectors including grocery and retail, industrial, and healthcare.

“There wasn’t too much friction going into [the bargaining], and that is rare,” said UFCW 1518’s managing director, Parm Kahlon. “They’re a very progressive organization and they understand the importance of unions. It also speaks to their leadership: they’re running their shop in a particular way, and we have good relationships with them and are going to continue to have good relationships with them.”

Unions are largely unheard of in advertising, but Madison suggested their time has come. The industry has long been plagued by issues such as low pay for junior staff, long hours and unpaid overtime, she said. And those problems have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.

“People in all professions, including the creative economy, should have access to unions” she said. “Why should creatives and others be left behind when it comes to what’s fair?”

And while Point Blank is an outlier, there are some signs the union movement might be gaining momentum. In the U.K., where more than 1.6 million days of work were lost to strike action between June and November of 2022 (a 30-year high), two agency employees Sammi Ferhaoui (an account manager at Havas London) and Thom Binding (a planning director at Oliver) recently formed the industry’s first union, Creative Communications Workers. It currently has about 100 members, some of whom are freelancers or independent contractors.

Ferhaoui said that CCW was created in response to several enduring problems within the industry, including low pay among entry-level employees; pay inequality between different demographics; working conditions, and how they work against diversity and representation.

“Long hours and unpaid overtime are the norm in our sector,” said Ferhaoui via email. “It has a terrible effect on work-life balance and mental health. It’s essentially a safety issue.”

A variety of factors, including the pandemic and the new way of working it ushered in, combined with growing economic pressures, have all brought about a change in employees’ mindset, he said.

“The cost-of-living crisis across the developed world has also led to an upsurge of union activity and outright militancy in a range of sectors,” said Ferhaoui. “In the U.K., the public sector unions, as well as unions representing many low-paid and precarious workers… have been fighting back against a system that has exploited and taken advantage of them for too long—and this has inspired workers across the economy, and especially in our sector.”

A recent wave of union activity in the tech sector, which he described as “adjacent” to the marcom industry, has also been “a source of inspiration.” Tech companies including Amazon, Apple, and the gaming studio Activision Blizzard have all seen union activity in recent months, while a recent Gallup poll found that Americans’ support of labour unions is higher than it has been since the mid-1960s.

Farhaoui said there’s no precedent for unionizing within the ad industry in the U.K., but that CCW is currently working on building union density in workplaces across the country. And, he adds, clients can also be a factor in creating the workplace conditions that lead employees to consider unionizing.

“Long payment-terms, cost squeezing etc. are things that help create the bad conditions suffered by workers in our sector,” he said. “However, our remit is to represent the workers; the remit of management is to respond appropriately to clients with the fact that they lead agencies full of finite, mortal human beings with physical and mental limits, in their minds.

“We often hear about how management is responding to market forces affecting our sector—but we, the workers, are also a market force and we have to assert our interests strongly and collectively, otherwise we will be the part of this equation that fares the worst,” he said.

Binding told AdWeek recently that the ad industry has cultivated the idea that its employees are part of “something lofty and culturally connected,” which helped them overlook sometimes gruelling working conditions. But many people have “woken up” to the fact that their job isn’t more important than health or human rights, he said.

While Madison is aware of only one other agency that is currently unionized, a New York shop called Blue State, she, too, believes the conditions are right for a labour movement to take hold.

With workers in a variety of industries, including those in the gig economy and in companies like Starbucks, beginning to push back against unfair working conditions, others start to believe it might be possible for their workplace. The creative sector should be no different, said Madison.

“[U]nionizing shouldn’t be something we’re afraid of,” she said. “It makes for a better, healthier workplace, and when it’s fair and when everyone’s needs are met, it ultimately makes for better work. I think every agency can do this, and should do this.”

Chris Powell