“A client-agency relationship is a dance. Without constructive and transparent feedback, nothing is possible.”
Meet Camden, an international advertising agency that tells brand stories in 2 languages, French and English. Their agency offers a full range of services such as branding, media, video production, graphic design and ad creation. Camden has worked with many diverse businesses including TC Transcontinental, PACCAR and Clarins.
Over the last 5 years, Camden has grown their client base with 3 important values: confidence, consideration and collaboration. Before offering a solution to clients, they use a communication method called “pivotal thinking.” Pivotal thinking is the self-imposed duty to set the deliverables list aside and dig deeper before saying yes (scratching the surface just isn’t their style). It’s Camden’s steadfast commitment to awareness, understanding and helping their clients communicate better.
We caught up with Mathieu Bédard, Camden’s CEO, to hear their strategy for growing into an international agency.
Q&A with Mathieu Bédard, Camden’s CEO
Q: What’s your agency’s story?
A: The agency was founded by Claude Dutil in 1991 as Défi Marketing and slowly grew over the next 20 years. In 2012, it had fewer than 10 employees. Marie-Michèle Jacques and I had been managers at the agency for over 5 years when we acquired it in 2013. We renamed it Camden—in tribute to the vibrant, eclectic cultural scene of London’s Camden Town— and invested in a full-service structure, including media, video production and digital departments.
Then we moved into a brand new 6,000-square-foot space in Montreal's Mile End, which earned us a Grand Prix du Design in 2016. Our 5-year strategic plan focused on the creation of a “human-scale” international group that could go head-to-head against advertising goliaths with a hands-on, accessible and agile offering. This led to the acquisition of Montréal-based CGCOM in 2016, the opening of an office in Toronto in 2017 and the acquisition of an agency in Lyon, France in 2018 following market research and a detailed analysis of the French environment.
So, less than 5 years after our initial acquisition of Défi, Marie-Michèle and I had over 50 employees, with a tenfold increase in sales and clients—across two continents, in 2 languages!
Q: When did you realize you wanted to do creative work?
A: I studied typography, and then advertising, before becoming a graphic designer at my own agency in 1995. Design has always been at the heart of my approach. I was drawing new car models and working on ads for my made-up brands when I was 10 years old. Advertising and design are part of my DNA.
"Our 5-year strategic plan focused on the creation of a 'human-scale' international group that could go head-to-head against advertising goliaths with a hands-on, accessible and agile offering."
Q: What motivated you to start your own agency?
A: The single-minded desire to bring a vision to fruition without having to report to a parent company or executives focused on short-term performance. At the root of this desire is a quest for freedom—a willingness to move forward with a community of people who share our values.
Q: Tell us about a customer success story you’re proud of.
A: In 2015, Villa Maria High School, a historic secondary education institution in Montreal, was facing some difficult times, and questions were being raised about the long-term prospects of a girls-only school in an evolving demographic context. That year, we won a request for proposals against 4 other agencies, and within a few months we had completely rebranded the organization, developed their new website in-house and built a recruitment campaign around their major move toward becoming co-ed.
The rest is history: Outstanding yearly increases in open house traffic and qualified admissions, an unwavering commitment to the new positioning—and big results year after year. The client just asked us to helm its ad campaigns and content marketing for a 5th consecutive year, and our partnership has never been better. Needless to say, the school’s long-term prospects are no longer in question.
Q: Share a failure you’ve experienced and how you’ve grown from it.
A: We decided to invest in the car dealership sector in 2013, signing contracts with several Montreal-area dealerships. But we quickly lost patience with a culture that scorned creative advertising and had little regard for advertising professionals, and quickly withdrew from the sector.
We did keep one client, Mercedes-Benz Laval, who we collaborated with for 10 years. Now we’re a lot more careful to gauge “fit” with our clients from the very first development meetings, we want to build lasting business relationships on solid foundations.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration from?
A: Everyday life. Work and family situations. Often in the shower. To me, inspiration is a state of mind rather than a brainstorming exercise.
Q: What does your daily routine look like?
A: Wake up in Montreal at 6:15 AM Check on emergencies and issues in the Lyon office between 6:30 and 7:00 AM, and talk to European colleagues. Leave for the office at 7:45 AM—I get there at 8:15 AM. I make my rounds of the agency and check in with people until 9 AM, to get a feel for the day’s vibe.
Then I jump into a flurry of development meetings, reply to potential clients, exchange with Montreal’s VP Development, VP Creation and Executive VP, as well as with our managers in Toronto. Then there are meetings on internal projects, checks, approvals—in short, each day is about keeping my decision-making success rate up. I leave the agency at around 6 PM, sometimes staying to finish up with teammates until 8 PM.
"To me, inspiration is a state of mind rather than a brainstorming exercise."
Q: What are your current goals for your agency?
A: Fueling our group's international expansion, especially in Asia, and keeping the team motivated to exceed expectations and push our creative further—without losing sight of our values and identity. Our offices feature a star-shaped light fixture that illuminates our offices and reflects our ambitions!
Q: What’s your strategy for growth?
A: Camden has historically never operated at such a high speed as it has since the beginning of the year 2020. Not even close. Dozens of new mandates for a host of new clients will be announced in the coming months in branding, HR marketing and multichannel advertising campaigns.
But what really makes me happy, far beyond our business development conversion rate, is the calm atmosphere, the day-to-day cohesion and the high quality of all the creative products and strategies that emanate from our teams in Lyon, Toronto and Montreal.
Too many processes can be detrimental to the development of individuals, not enough undermines focus, efficiency and talent networking. So finding ourselves in this optimal zone is really a vector of happiness on a daily basis, because with clear roles and respect, we all become better versions of ourselves. It will be a real pleasure to be able to transfer this cohesion to our next international offices in 2021.
"Without confidence and trust, nothing holds. Chronic doubt is an absolute snuffer."
Q: How do you build strong relationships with your clients?
A: At Camden, our business relationships are built on the 3 C's: essential and non-negotiable pillars.
Without confidence and trust, nothing holds. Chronic doubt is an absolute snuffer. You think your agency is trying to rip you off? You doubt its expertise? Why maintain a relationship that's doomed to failure? Have you ever been the best version of yourself when you're not trusted?
How many customers trust in the substance, but lack respect on a daily basis? If an agency is to serve the goals of its clients, its stakeholders don't have to endure being treated like idiots. Personally, I have zero patience for bullies, grumpy people or hypocrites. They don't deserve our attention, regardless of their annual budget.
A client-agency relationship is a dance. Without constructive and transparent feedback, nothing is possible. You can't demand absolute adherence to deadlines and budgets without doing your part. Basic but often deficient.
Without one of the 3 "C's", the relationship is painful. Without two of the three, it becomes an ordeal. It's up to you to see if some relationships need renovation or if they deserve an end. Let's focus on our good customers.
Companies and organizations come to us looking for help in communicating a message, establishing a brand or promoting an offer. But their stated objectives might not be what they really need.
At Camden, we lay a solid foundation for a successful strategy that all client stakeholders can sign off on, and we do it by applying a methodology that we call TLC (Talk, Learn, Challenge).
We open up an honest dialogue and listen attentively. (Because we’re humble enough to know that we don’t know everything.)
We need to understand our clients’ business reality, their marketing contexts, and the results they expect to achieve.
We bring our expertise to the table by asking the right (and often tough) questions. The outcome? New insights on which to build our strategic and creative pathway to success.