How do you respond to disruption in an industry?
A: By breaking the model?
B: By cutting business to the bone and turning your employees into overworked galley slaves?
The correct answer is “A,” though Geoffrey Roche says you would not know it by looking at the advertising industry, where once he reigned among the most creative minds in the game, with his own agency (different iterations) and a reputation for puckish creative. “Where’s the joy?” he asks of the industry he thought he had left behind, noting a contemporary “time sheet meter mentality” that squeezes inventiveness and burns out employees.
He need not be pondering this dilemma. Having sold his final stake in Lowe Roche in 2011 he could be spending his winters in sunny climes. Instead, he is spending snowy days in his pool house in north Toronto, which he had renovated as his new headquarters in partnership with Jack Harding. Roche is 65. Harding is 26.
The name of the company? It was going to be called Open Marriage. In the end, they named the company Disruptincy, which, thank goodness, offers slightly more clarity as to what the new shop is all about.
But let’s talk about the old shop first. There were three stints working for the legendary, and mercurial, Jay Chiat. “He would say that when you win an account is when you start to lose it,” Roche remembers. He doesn’t mention that the Chiat/Day agency was famous for working endless hours, earning it the moniker Chiat/Day and Night.
He founded Geoffrey B. Roche and Partners in 1991, winning early notice for such campaigns as the nine-metre-long python posters that ran half the length of a TTC subway car. The campaign for the Royal Ontario Museum was a hit (the Star reported that teenagers were stealing individual panels “and trading them like baseball cards”), and was also cancelled due to ophidiophobia. Suggestions that snake-phobics turn away from the posters fell on deaf ears. Roche even suggested posting “No Snakes on Board” signs. No luck.
Following the collapse of Robert Campeau’s real estate empire, Roche ran a car dealership advertisement in this newspaper for the $9,000 budget-conscious Nissan Micra under the boldface headline “Mr. Campeau, your car is ready.” On the bottom of the ad, in small type, were the words “With permission of M. Campeau of Toronto.” Roche paid Mr. M. Campeau $50 for the privilege on the advice of a lawyer.
The firm, later rebranded as Roche Macauley & Partners with Andy Macauley, beat out Chiat/Day for the Ikea account and, in 1998, was named international agency of the year by U.S. industry bible AdAge. Noting the agency’s “biting” work on Mercedez-Benz Canada, Reebok Canada and others, AdAge appeared especially impressed given that the agency was “operating in a country not known for inspiring creative work.”
Remember Capital One’s “Hands in Your Pocket” campaign? Like an earworm, I know. But when an agency can claim a 93-per-cent recall rate, the result is massive corporate contentment. Even the parodies are seen as positive.
Business was not all roses. The Ikea account was lost after five years — “That was a dark day,” says Roche. Some relationships were rockier than others. “We had Boston Pizza for 18 months,” he says. “Roots fired me three times. They were notorious.”
Four years after Roche exited what had become Lowe Roche, the acquiring multinational agency shut the doors on the Toronto company, part of a trend of ad agencies growing by acquisition and diminishing in personality.
Today? “I don’t need to do another TV commercial,” he says. Yet he’s creatively restless.
A recent report out of U.K. consultancy Blueprint, drawing on conversations with top advertising talent in the U.K. and the U.S., came to some stark conclusions. “The agency business model is broken and nobody seems to have the courage to fix it,” is one. Focusing on short-term targets and constant cost cutting instead of business transformation is another. And this: “Rather than rewarding innovators and mavericks, conformists are rising to the top.” One interviewee lamented that “advertising isn’t full of people with big personalities and big opinions any more.”
Roche’s personality is on the large side, so here he is with Disruptincy, breaking a few rules. The company transparently, and amusingly, sets out a rate structure. “We have idea rates, not hourly rates. That’s for divorce lawyers,” the website states. So $1,500 for an initial session with a $500 refund if the firm concludes it can’t be of much help. If there’s potential client chemistry a half-day off-site runs to five grand. Nine days later Disruptincy will return with nine ideas, addressing the particular challenge, be it heightening brand awareness or changing tactical course. For that the cost is $10,000.
“It’s a new way of thinking… It’s really refreshing. It’s not this sort of big pitch idea. It’s not this big media-driven idea.” That’s Joe Mimran speaking. The Club Monaco founder whose current firm, Gibraltar, is a financial and strategic accelerator for early and midstage companies, is lending his expertise to the initiative by joining Roche’s roster of “forward thinkers.”
Disruptincy promises a web of connections offering creative assistance according to expertise, be it retail, banking, politics or a not-for-profit start-up. Roche is particularly interested in social innovation projects. He likens the firm’s advisers to a SWAT team. “The great thing is they’re as blunt as blunt can be,” he says.
Mimran describes the pricing model as simple and smart. “Everybody knows what they’re getting into as opposed to an agency wanting a creative brief, they get the brief, they come back, they tell you well, phase one is this amount, phase two is this. You don’t really know what you might be getting into and before you know it you’re already into it and you’ve committed to a lot of money.”
With Disruptincy clients get fast access to ideas. “It’s like speed dating!” Mimran says.
Umbra co-founder Paul Rowan is another member of the brain trust. “I think there’s all these people out there with enormous amounts of experience whose experience is basically untapped,” Rowan says. “Geoff is giving them an opportunity to connect with startups and younger people.”
The world is changing, as Rowan says, and he questions whether a sclerotic industry can keep pace. We’re at a strong turning point in how people approach business, products and services, he says, “thinking about their purpose rather than just their functionality or design or price.” His preferred focus: “Products that are going to be innovative and actually help the earth. Sustainable products.”
Where is the weakness in the Disruptincy plan? Joe Mimran answers the question with a question: “How many speed dates can you actually do without getting exhausted? Is there enough of Geoffrey to go around?”
I put the question to Roche as he heads back to Toronto from a meeting with Miele USA. The German appliance maker has just retained Disruptincy to do some strategic work on its American expansion. “The ideas aren’t dependent on me,” he says, by which he means the execution of the ideas. He’s applying his energies to the front end of the process.
Anyone in the industry who knows him will nod here. “I don’t think I know another person with as much energy as he has about what he wants to do,” says Paul Rowan. I think it comes down to something simple: Geoffrey Roche wants to have fun again.
Jennifer Wells is a business columnist based in Toronto. Reach her on email: email@example.com