Letter from Canada: incubators and ad agencies

Creativity in an incubator

I’m writing this Marketing Society Pacific Northwest Update from the Tectoria tech incubator in Victoria, BC, Canada http://forttectoria.ca/ .

The espresso machine is hissing down the hall, and the free workspaces around me are buzzing with enthusiastic people chatting in their best golf announcer voices to avoid bothering everyone around them.

I love this space. I’m surrounded by people of all ages who are laying it on the line to launch ventures their more sober-minded friends would faint at. These people have guts, although they’d probably tell you to start drinking decaf if you complimented them for their courage. It doesn’t feel brave if you’re all doing it together.

Canada is a resource-based economy, reliant on stuff you pull out of the ground, chop down or hook in the water. Exploiting natural resources to keep the bank account full is a bit like being born on third base and believing you hit a triple. It breeds fat complacency and risk averse behaviour (Barring, of course, the mavericks who are doing the exploring for new sources of the resources. But that’s another story.)

However, if you look at the stats, you realize it’s small business that really drives Canada https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/061.nsf/eng/02804.html. And I believe, more and more, it’s startup businesses that drive creativity in this country.

Last time I checked, big ad agencies weren’t doing anything remarkable or innovative. Call me biased, but I think they’re actually dead in the water. I’d blame it on the fact that corporate communication has migrated from a monopoly to commons model (In simple English, the internet enables me to sell my product as well as an agency can. Except I can do it for free). Ironically, agencies seem to be incubating new product and service ideas for their clients. Just like… well, incubators.

Great. I’ve just revealed an obvious trend that’s sweeping North America. Nothing new in that.

What is new is the ‘innovate or die’ spirit I sense in my small town. There simply aren’t any good jobs for creative people who still crave the security of a big company. You want to sell new ideas? Get out there, invent the product, and start selling it. You want dental benefits? Go work for the government or the branch office of a bigco. And die a slow, painful, soul-destroying death by boredom.

Like the disappearing middle class in the US, jobs for risk-averse creative types are dying out here. It’s getting harder and harder to say “Oh, my startup failed – I’ll just go back to my agency job.”

I can’t speak for everyone with a big agency background, but I kinda think it’s a good thing. It’s terrifying to realize there’s no safety net. But geez, it certainly puts a spark in your ideas that complacency and comfort can’t match. The great thing about living by your wits is that it really feels like you’re living.

The other benefit to the startup innovation boom happening here? For the first time in my life (and I’ve had a long life) I feel like I’m making something real, not simply hawking storyboards. There are times I feel a bit Amish, making my own furniture. Actually, I never feel Amish. I just put that in as a joke to reward people who actually read this far.

So what are the mind-expanding conclusions I can draw in this missive from the Pacific Northwest? Ideas are alive and well up here, although you won’t find them in the burnt out shells of big agencies. If you want to create great marketing, start by creating your own great product. It’s terrifying, but hey, isn’t terror just excitement dialled up on too much caffeine?

Marc Stoiber is a brand strategist, entrepreneur, author, university professor and founder of Your Ultimate Speech and Incomm.

Yourultimatespeech.com is now live. Marc is actively looking for execs who need killer speeches, but don’t have the time or resources to do them. The service is 100% virtual, so there is NO geographic / time zone constraint. In fact, the first speech he did was written for an exec jetting between Beijing, South Africa and London. He lives and works in Victoria, BC, Canada. https://www.linkedin.com/in/marcstoiber.