The 2010s: Industry challenges persist, but nabs holds firm

The second decade of the millennium was a pivotal time for Canada’s marketing industry, which found itself in the midst of its biggest transformation since the advent of television more than half a century earlier.

Considered dead and buried after the great dot-com bust of 2000, digital advertising had instead come roaring back stronger than ever, beginning a steady climb that would culminate in it becoming the world’s dominant advertising medium.

The recession of 2008-09—the worst financial calamity since the Great Depression—had played a key role in digital’s ascendancy. And even as the economy began its slow but steady rebound, the migration of marketing dollars away from legacy media continued at a pace that caught many industry leaders by surprise.

The decade began with total digital advertising spend surpassing print for the first time in 2010, and by 2019 it was more than print and TV advertising combined.

“There was a huge transformation,” said Brent Bernie, who, as president of media measurement firm comScore Canada, had a front row seat to the massive change occurring within the industry.

“There were a lot of constituencies that put their heads in the sand and pretended that [digital] wasn’t going to be real and would never become anything,” he said. “Numerous people said to me that digital couldn’t be anything, and they couldn’t have been more wrong.”

It was a period of upheaval and radical transformation that only compounded the persistent problems and challenges faced by the marketing industry over the decades—financial hardship, substance abuse, a need for skills training after an unexpected job loss, etc.

And just as it had been for the previous two decades, the stalwart industry charity nabs was there to provide invaluable assistance for its workforce. But it did so with a new generation of board members and leaders.

Bernie would become all-too-familiar with the effect this massive change was having on the industry after taking over as nabs chair in 2011. He had arrived at the charity in 2008, after spending a number of years on the IAB Canada board, including serving as chair between 2005 and 2007.

He was keen to find another way to continue giving back to the industry, but one offering a more personal approach. Nabs felt like a natural next step. “I very much felt that the industry had been good to me… and it was important for me to give back,” he said. “I didn’t take very long looking around to say that nabs is an organization that I’d like to get involved with.”

He already knew two longtime nabs board members in Ed Voltan and Brian Pearman, both of whom he had a “ton of respect” for. “My sense was that if they were involved, this organization must have a lot to offer, and I’d like to get involved,” he said.

Bernie’s time with nabs was an experience even more rewarding and edifying than he imagined. In large part that was a result of the work he did on the charity’s allocation committee, which provided assistance to people experiencing extraordinary personal difficulties.

“It was an unbelievable experience in so many ways,” he said. “Not just because of the people from different walks of life that were looking for help, and the different stories about what had happened to them, some of them incredibly tragic and some that were unbelievable in the lack of vision that people had about what could happen in the industry. It was emotionally taxing at times,” he said.

In many ways, said Bernie, the issues that bedevilled the industry during those difficult years persist to this day, making nabs/becs just as essential. “Our industry is not getting any easier,” he said, noting its relentless drive to do things faster and cheaper. “[T]he net byproduct of that is an impact on people’s well being and stress.”

Before stepping directly into his role as chair, LG2 partner and president Jeremy Gayton’s impression of nabs and its Quebec arm, bec, was that it primarily helped people struggling with addiction issues (a not uncommon perception of the charity). Gayton was appointed chair without any previous experience as a director, which he remembers as being “a little unusual.”

He quickly found his footing in the new role, however. Looking back, his time as chair provided a truly eye-opening perspective on the charity’s importance to the industry, its small-but-mighty staff working tirelessly to provide comfort and support to people, many of whom were at a low point in their life.

“Talk about an organization committed selflessly to an industry,” he said. “Like, they get up every single day, and their sole purpose and focus is to help people. That really struck me on a professional level, but probably more so on a personal level.”

He remembers thinking that the organization was the industry’s best-kept secret, especially since it seemed to subsist  solely on funding from the industry itself. “Like, how could that be?” he said. “How could you not feel compelled to get involved?”

He struggled to think of a comparable organization whose remit was so broad. While there are professional associations for industries like healthcare or sales, for example, their purview tends to be more focused on professional development rather than providing assistance to people who’ve fallen on hard times.

“It’s an interesting industry in that it’s kind of proud of how everyone plays hardball,” he said. “It’s rough and tumble, and you’re dealing with your elbows up, but everyone knows each other. I think they feel they ca  empathize with people who get beat down, or have a few losses. I think there might be something in the character of the industry there that speaks to this too.”

Nabs continues to hold a place in Gayton’s heart, and he makes sure that his agency supports the charity every year. “It does hold a pretty important place in my heart, not just from the industry perspective, but also from the organization perspective,” he said. “I have such a deep respect for all those people that work there.”

Chris Powell