The 2000s: a new millennium, a new nabs

Looking back now, that whole Y2K thing feels a bit like a cruel trick. We spent much of the late ’90s fretting about what would happen to our computers when the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31, 1999. And then… we had nothing to worry about after all.

But in reality, Jan. 1, 2000 was actually the first day of a new decade that brought transformative change across society, politics, culture, technology, media—and the ad industry.

Nabs had to change along with it, reinventing itself with a new vision for the future, and finally expanding to Quebec, with two well-known industry executives leading the charge on both fronts: Sunni Boot and Daniel Rabinowicz.

Like many senior leaders across media and advertising, Boot, the longtime CEO of ZenithOptimedia, thought she knew about nabs. But when she became chair in 2005, she was amazed by what she learned.

“I was so impressed with how they handled their clientele; they were discreet. They did it with dignity. They were very respectful. And that really intrigued me,” she said.

But she also quickly learned that nabs had a perception problem. It was seen as a charity of last resort, providing emergency financial support to those in desperate need of help.

Boot and the rest of the board realized that it could be so much more—especially on the agency side of the industry, where the HR function was undeveloped and many of the human problems weren’t being well managed.

“And there were problems,” said Boot. Many arose from the sweeping and challenging change of the industry itself. “I would describe the decade as mad men, mad women—exhilarating and exhausting,” she said.

The wave of acquisitions and mergers that defined the 1990s and continued into the 2000s were starting to have a deeper effect across the industry, and the pressure at the major holding companies to make those massive deals pay off grew, with effects rippling across the industry.

“There was a lot of stress,” she said “For one thing, a 70- to 80-hour workweek was not uncommon… it became part of our lifestyle—your work was your lifestyle.”

It became the decade of “do more with less,” with consultants called in to figure out ways to maximize returns and drive efficiencies, which usually meant “cutting the fat.”

“But one of my clients said to me, ‘You know Sunni, we’ve gone from cutting the fat to cutting the muscle,'” she said.

In 2003, those industry pressures also led Daniel Rabinowicz to ask why, 20 years after launching, nabs still hadn’t expanded to Quebec.

Rabinowicz had been a shareholder with Cossette, and when he left the agency as president in 2001, he did so with, as he puts it, “a fair chunk of money.” But while he was fine,  he also knew others around the industry were not so fortunate. “It’s a tough business,” he said. “But I got lucky.”

In many ways, Montreal was going through the same things as the industry in Toronto, which meant there was a real need for “backstop insurance program” to help those getting left behind or otherwise suffering because of the transformation. But the wave of change also washed across the smaller shops, and with a lot more independent and local agencies, Montreal was particularly vulnerable.

“Typically it’s the small shops and the freelancers, and all of those other players in the industry that are least covered by group insurance programs and are most likely to find themselves in difficult situations without any kind of resources to fall back on,” he said.

Rabinowicz reached out to then nabs president and CEO Mike Fenton to ask why they weren’t present in Quebec. “It was a typical Torontonian answer for the time, which was: ‘Quebec is just so complicated, and it’s different and we don’t know how to approach it and so we’re not there.’”

Rabinowicz offered to do it for them. Fenton liked the idea, took it to the nabs board and got the go-ahead. Rabionowicz got to work calling on friends to help build the brand and start raising awareness. Publicis Montreal developed the branding, “Bénévolat d’entraide aux communicateurs,” and when he was named president of Taxi Montreal in early 2004, Rabinowicz made Taxi the official agency behind Bec.

“I have to admit that it was it was very slow going at the start. Very, very slow,” he said. But each person they helped became a real-life story for him to share with the community.

“In many instances, they really touched my heart. And while protecting the confidentiality of individuals, I was able to speak about these cases as examples of the needs that were real in the industry,” he said.Those conversations helped convince people they had to support Bec in some way, and over time momentum began to build.

Back in Toronto, Boot and her board believed that rather than a last-resort resource for someone in crisis, nabs could become more proactive, offering services like counselling and support for emotional issues before they reached crisis stage.

To do that, they needed data, rather than just their own opinions, to help chart a new path. In 2006, they produced the first nabs Monitor, a wide-ranging survey of the people working in the industry to understand exactly how they were feeling and the challenges they were facing.

“It allowed us to take a pulse of the industry, and it told us that, absolutely, ‘You have very little awareness, your relevance is sinking, and you can be more,’” said Boot. There was, in fact, a need for nabs to become a “de facto” HR department for the industry, providing a wider range of supports and services, and being more proactive rather than reactive, she said. “So we were able reposition to become more relevant.”

Two decades later, those two key developments stand out as turning points for nabs, helping define what the charity is today.

After leaving advertising in 2009, Rabinowicz, who is now chair of Reitmans Canada, wanted to reconnect with Bec in 2016—in part because both of his daughters work in the industry.

He found that awareness and support was much higher than when he left, but he also saw an even greater need for what it was doing: Google and Facebook had  turned the ad world upside down, client-agency relationships had generally soured, people felt squeezed on remuneration, and there was just generally more stress, he said. “And here we are in 2023, and I guarantee you that the needs are far greater than they were in 2016.”   

But now nabs and bec offer so much more than they did in the past; from mental and physical health, to financial support, career management, and work-life balance.

”And you say to yourself, these were all things that were largely neglected for so many years,” he said. “It was like, work your ass off, do your thing to keep the agency alive, and if you fall by the wayside, tough luck.”

“Thankfully, at least to the extent we are able, [nabs and bec] provide a cushion for people to fall back on, and it’s needed now more than ever. So hopefully we’re around for the next 20 or 40 years.”

David Brown