Everything

Advertorials: Building Trust Through Storytelling

Greg-Dubeau-The-North-End-Advertorials-Article-Jon-Hamm-01NOTE: This is a critique of the ”Money Diaries” series by Wealthsimple. In no way am I affiliated with Wealthsimple or any creative team or agency that produced this work.

When I was in College, I was introduced to the world of philosophy. It was the first time in my life that I actively took time to sit still and think about ideas and how I felt about them. In my pursuit of varying philosophical perspectives, I discovered the Penguin Great Ideas Series. I was immediately struck by how beautiful each booklet was adorned with illustrated and letterpress typography and decoration. Each 60-page booklet cost $10 at Chapters. I bought three; Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life, Henry David Thoreau’s Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, and Sir Francis Bacon’s Of Empire.

Of Empire was a particularly important read for me because it introduced me to the idea of communicating complex or abstract ideas through storytelling. Bacon wrote short opinionated essays on topics such as revenge, marriage, adversity, innovation, etc. It was wonderful to read because Bacon had a real knack for storytelling his way through fairly abstract concepts. I often think about how incredible a method storytelling is when trying to initiate the uninitiated to new, abstract or complex ideas. In advertising, this type of writing is called an ‘Advertorial’. The word is a neologism.

(Adver)tisement + Edi(torial) = Advertorial

I like to compare advertorials to the Penguin Great Ideas Series booklets because they both provide a long-form, yet approachable medium to communicate abstract, taboo, and often intimidating ideas. 

Why are advertorials important in advertising? Advertorials are the ultimate soft sell. They are the type of change of pace that advertisers need to compete in a saturated promotional marketplace. When the time is right, long-form advertising, like an advertorial, can be more effective than your run-of-the mill promotional ad. It’s a great way to zig when everyone else is zagging.

How do they work? Advertorials bridge the gap between a sales pitch and short story. They live in the grey area where they do not directly advertise a promotion or price point. Instead, advertorials rely on storytelling to provide insight into the subject matter and allows the audience to connect the dots and create their own interpretation of what they just read. Where a typical ad is brief, an advertorial takes time. Where a typical ad is direct, an advertorial is interpretive.

Why do they work? Advertorials combine hard data and soft data. Hard data is a conclusive variable that cannot be interpreted (e.g. statistics, facts, and measurable outcomes). Soft data is a qualitative variable that can be interpreted in multiple ways (e.g. art, editorials, comedy, poetry, and other emotion-driven mediums). The combination of hard data and soft data create a symbiotic relationship within the advertorial. Numbers feel less cold when combined with a plot and characters who have the capacity to display traits such as humility, honesty, bravery, and vulnerability. Characters and plots feel more real and relatable when accentuated by hard data that is familiar to the audience. All of a sudden, we have a yin and yang scenario, where hard data and soft data complement each other and are in perfect balance with one another. 

These are the ideal ingredients to create honest content. Honest content is the stuff that tries to show the full spectrum of human emotions, even the weak ones. It contradicts the predictable content and formulaic delivery that’s been beaten into the zeitgeist. Greg-Dubeau-The-North-End-Advertorials-Mobile-Elijah-Wood-01

August 29, 2017—I noticed a great digital ad campaign by Wealthsimple that used promoted posts on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. They used a series of advertorials, and in my opinion, they knocked it out of the park. Money Diaries is an online series of advertorials by Wealthsimple featuring celebrity (and non-celebrity) spokespeople who speak candidly about their history and relationship with money.

Celebrity endorsement to hock product is nothing new, but Wealthsimple and their bullpen of spokespeople did something I didn’t expect—they were relatable. They provided honest content. It was genius. Wealthsimple tapped into the insight that money is a source of pride for a wide margin of their audience and is often a taboo topic of conversation. That kind of talk is private and opens us up to becoming all sorts of vulnerable. So how did Wealthsimple bypass the ‘pride factor’ and make the money subject more approachable? They built trust, one story at a time.

Wealthsimple found leaders and empowered them to be honest about their financial past. Some stories were gritty with drug use and crime, where others were nostalgic with lemonade stands and paper routes. Through all the stories, there was a unifying theme—“money is not everything”. In comparison to your health, family, happiness, future, passion or spirituality, it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you read between the lines of each advertorial in the series, it becomes quite clear what message they’re implying, “taking care of your finances is important, but there are way more important things in life to focus on than money.”

What is Wealthsimple doing? They’re building trust with their audience. They understand that finance can be intimidating and complex, so they provide relatable stories by seemingly unrelatable people.

How is Wealthsimple doing it? They’re telling stories and not giving a sales pitch. Nobody wants to live alone on an island. That’s also how many people feel about their finances. The purpose of each story is to let the audience know that they’re not alone and that there’s hope for them.

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Imagine you are struggling to break into a competitive industry and you read that actor, Jon Hamm, spent just as much time being a waiter in Hollywood than he’s been a regular working actor. It’s an eye-opening story because you couldn’t imagine someone like Don Draper waiting tables.

Imagine you are a up-and-coming young professional and you read that Pro Bowl NFL cornerback, Nnamdi Asomugha, arrived to practice and games during his career driving the same car he drove to his prom, a ‘97 Nissan Maxima. He had a moment of clarity and realized that his football career would only be one small part of his life, so he decided to live for the future and not be swayed by a temporary lifestyle of excess.

Each story is familiar and relatable, whether it’s about Anthony Bourdain not having a chequing account until he was 40 years old or how Elijah Wood still has anxiety over making any purchase over $1,000. If this isn’t us, then we all know someone who this resembles.

Why is it working? There isn’t just one thing Wealthsimple is doing particularly well with their Money Diaries series; instead, they’re doing a combination of things really, really well.

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1-Variety of spokespeople

Spike Lee (filmmaker), Maria Bamford (comedian), Kevin Bacon (actor), Amy Hereford (nun), Mario Batali (chef), Kylie Jenner (…entrepreneur?) and the list goes on. Wealthsimple has brought together a broad spectrum of pop-culture heroes, celebrities and non-celebrities from all different social and cultural backgrounds. Why is this important? Because the diversity of spokespeople appeals to multiple audiences. Collectively though, it shows that all of the spokespeople share similar financial situations, history, and shortcomings. These stories illustrate that these heroes are human and have the same problems we do.

Celebrity spokespeople have always been relied upon to promote strength, success, and exclusivity—it’s the predictable zig that’s been used forever. They’ve always dominated the consumer-provider power balance. Not this time, though. 

2-Honesty

Providing honest accounts of their lives shifts the consumer-provider power balance. It shows that they are not all-powerful, when in fact, they are often weak. And that’s a feeling that most of us can relate to. Suddenly, we are empathetic to their stories. We begin to trust them. Not because they are telling us to, but because we are asking ourselves to. Now we have the power.

The truth is always engaging when the right person is telling the story. Whether it’s talking about your first job, growing up in a rough neighbourhood or how a generous tip made you feel love for all humanity.

Asking a celebrity to talk about their wedding isn’t an event most people can relate to, but Woody Harrelson made it work. His wedding cost $500. He traded in the ceremonial route for a simpler option—close friends, limited family, and low overhead. There’s real wisdom in his decision to bypass the excess trimmings and ceremonial lustre of a celebrity wedding. He seems more relatable. And by association, his story makes Wealthsimple more trustworthy.

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3-Language and tone

Each story is conversational. Each storyteller is speaking up to the audience, instead of down to them. What does this do? It creates a non-confrontational bond between the storyteller and the reader. This type of relationship inspires familiarity and opens the audience up to being more perceptive to the storyteller’s ideas.

The language used in the Money Diaries series reads like a newspaper, but the tone reads like the transcript of a conversation between two friends. The situational familiarity of each story is the key to achieving the reader’s acceptance.

Simplicity of language and industry terms plays a huge role in the success of each story as well. A financial company like Wealthsimple could have written about things like 401k’s, ETF’s or GIC’s, but they chose not to.

After dropping out of film school, Boyhood Director, Richard Linklater, worked on an off-shore oil rig for two and half years to save up enough money to finance his first film.

When sword-swallower, Brent Loudermilk, was a 20 year old street performer in Los Angeles, he was only able to fill up his Ford Taurus with gas $5-$10 at a time.

Each story steers clear of professional financial services and jargon because that would have been boring and predictable. Instead, each storyteller writes candidly about their real wages and salaries, first jobs, financial struggles and self-discovery over the course of their careers. Some stories are longer and more detailed than others. Kylie Jenner’s story clocks out at 525 words, whereas Anthony Bourdain’s story clocks out at 2,500 words. Both stories, though very different, have an excellent economy of words and are entirely digestible with room for dessert.

4-Visual execution

Wealthsimple understands that the concept of money is a cold one, and is often viewed as intimidating and a taboo topic of conversation. Choosing to use illustrated portraits of the storytellers instead of photographed portraits makes a huge difference. Not only because it creates a unified look and feel, and reinforces the overall tone, but also because the loosely drawn style of illustration softens the subject matter and makes it more approachable. Behind the pastel colour palette and loosely-drawn portrait of beauty entrepreneur, Bobbi Brown, Wealthsimple approached the familiar, yet intimidating financial topic of credit card debt. Not only is there a human face representing the problem, there’s an accompanying story about how it happened and what steps were taken to solve the problem.

5-Wealthsimple is asking you for nothing, but giving you hope

The Money Diaries series is an extra-value component that Wealthsimple uses to strengthen its brand awareness. There are no sales points or promotional calls to action—just stories. The only thing that Wealthsimple requests of the reader is their time. It’s an incredible ask considering how much content is being thrown at people every day. But with the right people telling the story, advertorials can be an incredibly powerful communication and learning tool.

Finally, every story in the Money Diaries series ends with a concluding message of hope. No matter how deep a hole the storyteller found themselves in, they worked step-by-step towards finding a solution.

“For all the care you put into artistry, visual polish frequently doesn’t matter if you are not getting the story right.” — Ed Catmull

Storytelling is deeply seeded in human history. We all enjoy stories, but I believe most of us just don’t have the time to commit to them. So how does this affect the future of the advertorial? Will it survive and evolve in the digital era or will it become competed out of the media marketplace?

Thailand

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I was an existential insomniac. My life sucked. 

I felt rudderless—floating on a cloud of familiarity, predictability, and numb routine. Everything was on autopilot. Every day was a sustained state like I was sleeping on a flight—just existing, moving forward, but not ever being in a place of substance. The quality of my consciousness was boring my existence. I was doing too many things at once, but nothing felt important. Everything was in a foggy haze. I needed a victory to shake things up. Time for a change.

“Far better is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure…than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a grey twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I was waiting on inspiration like most people wait for a bus. My first idea was, “I should take a vacation”, but realized that a concierge or bartender wouldn’t solve any of my problems. Taking a vacation is like taking recreational drugs, it’s just an enjoyably brief escape from reality. Beach chairs, buffets, and fruity cocktails are the path of least resistance en route to tranquility. It would’ve been too easy. I needed more. Travel as opposed to vacationing on the other hand, is meant to challenge you.

I decided to backpack through Thailand. Why Thailand? It looked like a fun place to go. Why backpacking? The liberating thought of traveling to a distant land with all my possessions carried on my back made my toes curl. Trimming the fat, travelling light, and moving freely was the best way to separate my mind from distractions. My overarching goal was to focus on experiencing simplicity instead of complexity.

I made a mental list of things I wanted to achieve. It wasn’t so much about the things I wanted to see or do. More so, I had an idea of things in my own psyche that I wanted to confront. I went in with the attitude that I’m going to experience things that I will never experience again. So, it was important to be in the moment and not in front of a camera phone. And experience life through a lens of mortality and not novelty.

“Journey’s are the midwives of thought.” ~ Alain De Botton

DAYS 1-4: BANGKOK

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It was a long 25 hours of travel. I made it to the opposite side of the globe in one piece thanks to a steady cocktail of gravol, muscle relaxers, and white wine. I made it off the plane just in time for my sedation to morph into impatience. I strapped on my 70L pack, picked up a SIM card, and headed straight for the heart of Bangkok.

Within an hour of landing, I cabbed into the city, dropped my bag at my guesthouse, and hit the streets. I was starving and looking for anything other than congee or instant noodles. My street was narrow and dark. A canopy of trees covered the street with interspersed lamp posts running towards a 7-Eleven glowing in the distance. I walked down the dark street determined to eat something at the first vendor I found.

Not too far away I stopped at a vendor that set up shop outside of a massage parlour. The mobile food cart was busy with people waiting to order and sitting down nearby at a handful of plastic patio tables and chairs. The cook was a slim, grey-haired woman wearing a yellow apron. She worked fastidiously between chopping ingredients, stirring pots and tidying her mis en place. I waited in line for a minute or two, eagerly anticipating my first meal. All I heard was the crackling of hot oil, the chopping of vegetables, and the subtle hum from the street lights hanging overhead.

I’m up.

She had no menu. I didn’t know most of the ingredients she was cooking with, so I pointed to the people sitting down at the plastic patio tables next to us and said, “I’ll have what they’re having.” She nodded in agreement, opened a cooler on the ground beside her, gave me a big frosty bottle of Chang, and gestured for me to go sit down. Then she went to work.

Noodles with fried cabbage and chicken. Served in a white styrofoam take-out container. One of the locals eating beside me grabbed my beer, opened it with his keys, smiled, then handed it back to me. These were my kind of people.

As I ate, I realized how happy I felt. It was past midnight. I was alone in a strange country thousands of miles away from home. The only possessions I had were my flip-flops, a t-shirt, shorts, and a pocketful of Baht. It was me, the cook, and 5-10 strangers. We drank beer, ate delicious food, and spoke different languages. That moment encapsulated everything I’ve come to love about travelling.

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The first thing I noticed as I walked outside the next morning was a massive looping bird nest of electrical wires hanging twenty feet above the street. It was so disorderly and massive in size that it made me feel anxious. If my uncle who was an electrician saw it, he would have had an aneurysm and keeled over and died. It didn’t look…safe.

The sunshine made my narrow street tell a very different story during the daytime. The lady and her food cart were gone. The 7-Eleven no longer glowed in the distance. The street was lined with hostels and brothels as far as I could see. All I could hear were moped engines and cooing pigeons. All I could smell was burning incense and the hot garbage water that was running alongside the curb.

I walked all day. After visiting temples, markets, and food carts, I came to the realization that Bangkok is everything. It’s a place where you can get anything at any time of the day. The entire city constantly pulsates with life.

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The next three days were a sweaty blur of 100% humidity, city buses, horking, tuktuks, temples, pad thai #1, Koh San Road, red curry, roasted duck, pad thai #2, 7-Eleven air conditioning, soft-shell crab, rooftop patios, mango smoothies, pad thai #3, sky train rides, Tom Yum Kung, Chang and watching ladyboys do their thing in the Nana District. My iPhone told me that I walked over 50 miles in three days.

After four days in Bangkok, every piece of clothing I owned was soaking wet. Time to move on. After a breakfast of deep-fried pork, rice, and lettuce with a Thai-style coffee on the side, I took the train to the airport and bought a $44 plane ticket to Chiang Mai.

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DAYS 5-8: CHIANG MAI

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Chiang Mai is the name of both a northern Thai province and its capital city. It’s kind of like New York, New York—Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai. It was a very different type of city than Bangkok. There was more sky and less traffic. Sidewalks were smaller and interactions felt more intimate.

In Chiang Mai, life happened when the sun went down. Nocturnal vendors lined the streets to sell food, clothing, jewelry, and cheesy tourist trinkets. White people from around the world flooded the streets. The Night Market was an all-you-can-eat sensory buffet. Colours were brighter, sweet smells lingered longer, eyes grew tastebuds, and hands grazed everything like fingertips skipping across a chainlink fence.

Beer was cheap. Rice and noodles were cheaper. All of a sudden, decision making became really, really easy. There was absolutely no need to plan anything. It was the perfect time to just be. Example, I found a very good fried rice place off of the main strip. While I was sitting down on the roadside enjoying my fried rice, I tried Nam Pla Prik for the first time. It was so incredibly delicious that I seriously contemplated whether it was the best meal of my life. 

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As I was walking through the night market amidst all the other white people, I noticed some excited locals walking fast and peeling down side streets and alleyways. I was curious, so I followed them. Their excitement was contagious. I felt like I needed to brace myself for some unknown entity and at times I caught myself holding my breathe. We walked through more alleys and down smaller streets until the white people disappeared. We merged into a crowd of locals standing outside of an old building that looked like an airplane hangar. The locals were holding beers in one hand and a handful of loose white tickets in the other. I approached the hangar and was struck by a darting spotlight and then heard music that sounded like, for a lack of better terms, snake charming music. As locals moved out of my way I noticed the posters lining the streets—this was a Muay Thai arena. Without a second thought, I bought a ticket, grabbed some beers and sat down in a rickety white lawn chair three rows back from the ring.

Industrial spotlights hung over the ring and baked the canvas with yellow light. The ring was surrounded by six rows of the type of white plastic patio chairs that everybody’s parents once owned. Everything became louder when the first fight began. The music, the shouting gamblers, the audience, and the clinking of beer bottles all accumulated into a final roar pitch when the first fighters were announced and the bell rang to start the fight. 

The ceremonial aspect of Muay Thai is beautiful. I loved all of it—the dancing, the costumes, the music, the ritual—all incredible. It was hypnotizing to watch. I remember forgetting that I was holding a beer until the bottles sweaty perspiration began to run over my hand like wax down a candle.

There were ten fights in total on the card. Both men and women. Both equally violent. I’ll never forget the sound of the first leg kick—a whipping bone colliding with a THWACK! against the other fighter’s gut. My muscles tensed up with every exchange. Every body-strike echoed in my own chest cavity. I held my breath and half crouched over my seat as each fighter launched their attacks.


The excitement of each fight was accentuated by the the collective oohs and ahhs shouted by the audience after each blow. As the fight card went on, the sound of bone on bone combat became less shocking to me. After time, the hot lights above the ring started to bake the fresh sweat and blood beading off of each fighter. The hangar began to smell like cigarette smoke and hot sex. There was nothing sexy about the fights. However, the entire Muah Thai experience felt incredibly primal.

After the fights I joined some expats, Elliott and Alin, for a drink at an English pub near by called the Red Lion. We traded stories and talked about the craziness we all just witnessed. Elliott was a ship builder from Liverpool. He came to Thailand to pursue the his final testing to become a certified scuba dive instructor. He was a tall, gangly guy with curly blond hair, glasses, and wore Birkenstock sandals on his feet and an SLR camera around his neck. Alin was noticeably younger than Elliott. She was a skinny Indian law student from Montreal who just graduated, so she treated herself to a post-post-secondary trip to Southeast Asia, which included Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. They both arrived solo, but found companionship (and dare I say romance) with each other.

We drank English Ale all night until the bartender told us to leave. It was hard to fall asleep that night. The room was spinning and my heart felt like it was beating on the outside of my ribcage.

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The next day I went to see elephants in the wild. I knew how important elephants were to Thai culture and felt obligated to experience them without exploiting them.

It took a 1.5 hour ride in the bed of an old pickup truck to reach Elephant Jungle Santuary. It was a dangerous road to travel. During the entire ride we maneuvering over dusty drought-ridden potholed roads. At times we would be scaling mountain paths no bigger than the width of our truck. Looking into the pastoral fields and rice paddies hundreds of feet below was beautiful, but we were always one loose stone away from plummeting to our deaths. I was freaking out and gripped the roll bars of the truck bed with a terror grip. The ride north to the sanctuary alone could have easily been its own paid excursion.

After we unloaded from the truck, our group of fifteen hiked down a mountain and though a dry forest canopy of tall trees. We exited the cool shade of the forest when we arrived at a small village in a valley of rice paddies. We were given psychedelic neon coloured elephant-tourist tunics to wear and given multiple bushels of bananas. With bananas in hand, we walked into the jungle to meet our new friends.

The first time I saw an elephant in the wild was like the first time Dr. Grant saw dinosaurs at Jurassic Park. All my rational thinking was replaced by childlike happiness and wonder. It was like meeting your friends new puppy for the first time and turning into an excited three-year old that barely knows English.

There were four elephants; one adult female, one adult male, one juvenile female, and one baby female. Everyone loved the baby. I was off with one of the older adults, feeding her bananas and petting her thick, bristly skin. We were in our own little world. I couldn’t stop touching her trunk because it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before—so agile, yet powerful. She was exploring the possibility of eating my GoPro when I ran out of bananas to feed her.

Then the craziest thing happened.

Seconds after the Mahout (elephant keeper) handed me more bananas to feed the lady elephant, my entire body was smashed from behind without any warning. “What the fuck!” I launched forward ten feet before I had any chance of catching myself. I turned around and realized the massive force that struck me was the baby elephant. She tried to jack me for my bananas! I thought, “how can something so big and powerful be so quiet?” It didn’t make any sense. I looked over at the Mahout that gave me the bananas and he just shrugged his shoulders and gave me a look that said, “what did you expect?”

Elephants are a tricky force of nature. They embody a combination of both gentle grace and unearthly power. I compare the experience to my first time surfing. Looking out into the ocean as huge waves crashed to the shore looked glorious and pristine. But once I successfully climbed on top of my first wave, then lost my balance and tumbled head first into the wake, I felt the crushing force of the ocean pinning me to the sea floor as my body helplessly cartwheeled under the water.

I had a moment with one of the older elephants while we were swimming in the river after they took a mud bath. As I was climbing out of the river, I dropped my water bowl. Without hesitation, he reached into the water with his trunk, picked up the bowl, and handed it back to me. I was at a loss for words. I remember feeling so overcome with emotion that the only dumb-struck words that came out of my dabbling mouth was, “awww, thank you!”

They are without question the smartest animals I have ever encountered.


I assumed they would be clunky or unaware of their size—like a puppy. Not true. They are incredibly aware of everything. And freakiest of all…they’re quiet. You would think that an animal the size of an ambulance would make a little bit more noise. Nope. I found that out the hard way.

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DAYS 9-10: KRABI

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Krabi is a quiet place. It doesn’t share the scale, sprawl or density of people like Bangkok or Chiang Mai. It’s a coastal town that is home to a large fishing community, and ferries taking people to and from the southern-most tropical islands. Krabi was my jump-off point to Koh Lanta.

A boardwalk separated Krabi Town from the rising and falling ocean tides. When the tide was low I could see crabs and mudskippers moving from pond to pond. Clams and oysters were spitting water out of holes in the mud, unknowingly letting a duo of elderly clam digger women know where to dig with their hand rakes. Stray dogs followed cawing swarms of sea birds along the beach to scavenge anything new that washed up with the tide.

Aside from the long boats ferrying tourists island to island, Krabi had a very blue collar vibe. Fishing boats of all shapes and sizes were docked on piers in every direction. Palm tree plantations dominated the landscape moving inland from the ocean. And nestled in between the fishing villages and plantations were chalky white mountain peaks shooting out of the jungle terrain.

The buildings along the waterfront were painted with murals of whale sharks, starfish, and manta rays. Every building was painted in cheery pastel colours that reminded me of seaside communities in the Caribbean and Atlantic Canada. Even the piers and fishing boats were painted sunshine yellow, rosy pink, and periwinkle blue.

There was a darkness to Krabi Town that underscored their colourful community. Buildings that were once five stories tall were now only three stories tall. Entire cinderblock walls were crumbled down to rubble, and recently painting murals looked like they’d been aged for years. The skeletal remains of wooden fishing boats appeared and disappeared as the tide came in and out. It was a devastating reminder how punishing the monsoon season can be to Thailand.

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I had a day to kill in Krabi before my ferry to Koh Lanta, so I put on my ‘tourist hat’ and paid a long boat driver to ferry me to Railay Beach. The boat ride was slow and introspective. Any conversation was drowned out by the sound of the outboard motor, waves crashing against the haul, and loose bailing buckets tumbling around the leaky floor. There was nothing to do but watch the scenery. The fishing villages slowly changed into mangrove swamps, then the swamps changed into chalky white mountains rising and falling into the jungle landscape. The hum of the boat motor created a metronomic effect that in combination with the smell of hot wood and boat gas, put me into the mellowest state of consciousness. Every now and then a splash of seawater would hit my lips and the taste of salt would break my concentration.

Our boat was part of a convoy moving down a watery highway towards Railay Beach. As we got closer to port, there were hundreds of long boats docked at the piers and along the beach. The scale and vibrancy of the natural landscape was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It reminded me of the floating mountains from Avatar. My bubble of bliss was soon popped as I wandered inland to find that Railay Beach, although beautiful, is the Times Square of beaches. It was tourist central, commercialized, and full of Coca-Cola drinking, Under Armour-wearing, tattoo covered, and very loud…Americans.

The beauty of Railay Beach bordered on the sublime. I had a moment when I waded into the milky green waters of the bay and collapsed backwards into a dead-man’s float. My ears went underwater and I lost all sound. I could see the chalky mountain peaks and feel the sun penetrating my eyelids and cooking my chest. After floating a while with my eyes closed, I braced myself to stand up. I leaned my neck forward and expected a ‘back to reality’ moment with the sounds of party music, boat motors, and shouting tourists to fill the void. I stood up, water dripped down my face, and I heard nothing. I floated so far away from the beach that all I could hear was the waves hitting my back. I barely made out the figures on the beach. All I saw were the two giant mountains flanking each side of the beach. The entire landscape looked amplified. Everything that was happening felt so simple—I was swimming in chest-high water, while looking at a mountainous beachfront on a sunny day. All I could do was look and just be. I felt lonely, but it also felt very zen.

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DAYS 11-14: KOH LANTA

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It was Easter Sunday when I arrived to Koh Lanta. I ate a breakfast of spicy noodles, fried chicken, and pickled vegetables in Krabi before taking a long ride atop the deck of the ferry. I was one of a hundred backpackers catching a ride that day. I remember the top deck being a massive heap of 50-100L backpacks stacked on top of each other. The luckiest amongst us stayed on the top deck to tan in the sun and watch tropical islands rise and fall out of the ocean mist as we slowly passed by.

My hotel was not far away from the pier where we landed. I chose a hotel instead of a hostel or guesthouse because I wanted to wind down and relax on the tail end of my travels. I didn’t stay at the Ritz Carlton; but my hotel was quiet, had air conditioned rooms, and an infinite pool overlooking the ocean.

Every morning I would go to the 7-Eleven at the bottom of the hill and get a canned iced coffee, yogurt drink, custard roll, and ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast. During the day I would scooter to different parts of the island, take off my flip-flops and walk random beaches. When it got too hot, I would roll all my things into my t-shirt, place them on the beach, and go swimming in the ocean. In the afternoon I would visit local markets to pick up fruit or do laundry. One day I spent some time at an animal shelter and walked two dogs named Wayne and Tammy.

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The evenings were the best time. After the sun went down, I would go swimming in the infinite pool. I usually had the pool area to myself during that time, though I wasn’t always completely alone. If things got really quiet and I didn’t make too many movements, then a troop of monkeys would come down from the trees and joined me on the pool deck. They would tightrope walk the ledges of the hotel and one-by-one come down to drink from the pool. Any subtle movement I made spooked the monkeys and sent them screaming and running up into the trees.

As the sun fell closer to the ocean, I found myself hanging over the edge of the pool and staring into the horizon. Bats appeared flying overhead. As I floated, hundreds of them would swoop down and skim across the surface of the water to drink from the pool. After the sunset, I dried myself off and walked the neighbourhood beside the ocean, hopping from food stall to food stall, snacking on mangos and sticky rice, and looking for the best curry I could find. 

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Koh Lanta is one of the larger islands in the Andaman Sea. I chose this island because it was not as busy as Phuket or the the Phi Phi Islands. My favourite thing to do during the day was drive my scooter around the dusty two-lane highway that hugged the perimeter of the island. I wasn’t looking for anywhere to go in particular. It just felt good to have the wind on my face and the sun at my back. When I got low on fuel I would pick up an old rum bottle filled with gas from a food cart on the side of the highway. When I got deep into the jungle I stopped at a mountaintop restaurant that overlooked the ocean. I ordered mango and green tea ice cream and listened to the birds and monkeys making noise overhead.

No matter where I am in the world, driving a small engine vehicle will always make me happy.

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After two weeks in Thailand, I spent my last night on the beach drinking beers and watching the sunset. Very cliche I know, but it needed to happen. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from traveling around Thailand, it’s that simplicity brings me the most joy. Whether I’m riding a scooter beside the ocean or eating a bowl of rice at the market—simplicity agrees with me.

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I flew home the next day. After 30 hours of travel I was back on the other side of the world where I’d started. I remember feeling inspired when I came home. My energy level was higher than normal and my new experiences crafted a new perspective in me that I felt could be held in my hands. 

Soon after I returned home, I quit my job and moved to the east coast. It was a big move to make, but I was confident in my assessment that I needed to change my situation. The move caused a purge of all sorts. Physically, I got rid of a lot of overhead that I didn’t really need. Mentally, I cleared my mind and opened myself up to encounter new things. Emotionally, I took an audit of who and what really meant something to me. Spiritually, I closed a chapter on my life that could have continued, and entered a new chapter feeling humble and vulnerable, yet liberated. It was the same feeling I felt the moment I stepped out of the Bangkok airport for the first time.

I’m still a bit of an existential insomniac. I don’t think this will ever change. Now I try to live with less complexity and take on less mental weight. That’s what my experience in Thailand has taught me—keep things simple.

Wanderlust often creeps into my life and I think about Thailand, and also where I’ll go next. Peru? Belgium? Sri Lanka? When I reach a period of comfort and complacency, I’ll leave again to go charge the batteries and reset the operating system in a new place far away from what I know.

Travel changed the way I look at things. The act of accepting challenge, risk, and vulnerability brought new clarity to my life. My experience carrying a sweaty 70L backpack around Thailand for two weeks in the hot sun made me realize:

“A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” ~ John A. Shedd

6. What’s it for?

I’ve been questioning the creative activities in my life as of late. Does everything I create need to have a purpose? Am I focussing on the right creative objectives? Will I look back when I’m older and regret the potential opportunities I could have had to make my work more meaningful than just a self-motivated personal project?

I have a lot of different creative outlets. As I grow, I’m starting to break them down to determine what kind of value they bring me. I started thinking this way approximately a year ago. During that time, I remember feeling frustrated because I wasn’t able to dedicate my whole being to certain projects and my work suffered for it. My poor decision making made my life feel static, like I was living in a bubble and unable to create any type of force to break through.

I felt that the collective responsibilities of being an adult obscured my ability to fully express myself creatively. And I convinced myself that it made me less of an interesting person. The people that I looked up to who I felt were genuine people with very interesting outlooks on the world and whom expressed themselves with so much energy and passion, had very little holding them back (in my opinion). Maybe that’s why I consider them genuine? Of course I could be wrong. I don’t know them more than I know their Twitter feed. In all honesty though, those heros of mine just have a better grip on their ability to express themselves to the fullest without compromising their lifestyle. That’s why they’re heroes. Because they do things I can’t.

I decided to start looking at my work with more urgency. With a kind of all-encompassing gusto as if I found out the exact day that I was going to die. Morbid—yes, but I was slowly on my way to maximizing my creative outcomes.

The situation I was in made me feel that my personal projects were a giant waste of time, and everything that I should have been doing, should have led to something tangible that contributed to my career. I was at the point where I could have done one of two things; I could have continued doing what I was doing and ignore my intervening inner self or try something different. I had a much-needed internal dialogue with myself and came up with a simple strategy to help my decision making process. I promised myself that every time I do any sort of work on a project, I would ask myself ‘what’s it for?’

If I intermittently ask myself ‘what’s it for?’, then I have an opportunity to either move forward on the project or quit and work towards something more meaningful. It’s a way of checking myself when nobody else is around. Kind of like the reliance of auto-save. This trick helps me polarize what’s important versus what’s not.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve saved in mindless creative meandering by the addition of ‘what’s it for?’ to my creative process.

Three simple words have become one of my most efficient pieces of technology and one of the most commonly used tools in my mental toolbox. It’s strange to think of words as technology. It doesn’t sit very well at first. The mental image of ‘technology’ is a dazzling allure, but not accurate. It’s much more than nuts and bolts.

A common misconception that most people share (including myself) is the idea that technology is a physical entity that you can view with your eyes, touch with your body or interact with in space. Abstract ideas and concepts in thought-form tend to be neglected as technologies because they do not share the physical form of familiar tools. It’s really weird because technology is defined as a collection of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods and services or in the accomplishment of objectives. When did the concept of  ‘technology’ become so heavily imprinted on us that it can only be a physical object? A hammer is not a technique, a MacBook Pro is not a skill, and a KitchenAid® Mixer is not a method.

In contrast—a sarcastic remark is technology; a nickname is technology; an acronym is technology. But I’m sure some, if not most, would argue this point.

In my personal experience, you don’t hear too many people talking about their ability to sharpen their mental tools. That’s why I love ‘what’s it for?’ so much! Because it’s shapeless, weightless, formless, and lives in my mind. There’s no baggage. It’s portable, accessible and incredibly versatile.

As a clock measures time, ‘what’s it for?’ measures the quality of my time being spent. In a way, it re-quantifies time.

An example—when I was in art school in the mid 2000’s, I had a roommate who was very good at rationalizing the complexities of life (not hard because I was a dummy). She did it in an honest and almost self-deprecating way without the use of corny metaphors or analogies. We parted ways after graduation. She went into the workforce and I went to design school. The first time we spoke since we separated, we talked about how different our lives had become—especially hers. She so elegantly told me, “when you’re young and in school, you have all the time in the world, but no money. But when you get a job and start working full-time, you start having money, but have no time to do anything.” She gave me a pretty accurate sketch of the professional landscape. As life goes on and responsibilities shift, time becomes a premium commodity. Time may actually be the most valuable commodity on the planet. To squander it comes at an unforgivable cost.

Wasted time carries a heavy price because time is man’s greatest nonrenewable resource. It cannot be reproduced. It’s finite. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

All the more reason to be aware, agile, and constantly be adding new tech to your mental toolbox. 

2017 ICE Awards: Social Media Marketing

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Nowhere else in Canada are four provinces so closely tied together with their culture and economy. The Atlantic Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland & Labrador share a connection that creates an invaluable thread that binds the fabric of Canada together. There is no East coast of Canada without the informal unification of these four provinces.

And in the creative advertising industry, Atlantic Canada is exclusively represented by the ICE Awards. The ICE Awards recognize the most creative marketing born in Atlantic Canada. ICE is organized by volunteers in the Atlantic marketing industry and submissions are judged by an out-of-region jury.

Cossette was given the task by the organizing committee to create digital marketing material for social media that advertise the value and opportunities provided by the 2017 ICE Awards. After a two-year hiatus, the ICE Awards went through a period of rediscovery, and returned with a theme fit for a professional celebration where creativity meets sophistication. The theme was ‘Back in Black’—an homage to the two-year hiatus and reinvestment in the ICE Awards as a premium marquee event in Atlantic Canada.

Back in black was a strong metaphorical theme, so our creative content mirrored the simplicity and sophistication needed to communicate the 2017 ICE Awards emphasis on class and grace.

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Our solution was to use the iconic ‘ice bucket’, the award received by the winners for exceptional work, but with a subtle twist. Instead of the familiar transparent crystal, the ice bucket was painted black, and placed against a black backdrop. A series of photos were taken using the black ice bucket, plus specific items speaking to the happenings and goings-on of the 2017 ICE Awards. A champaign bottle was used to signify celebration, weights were used to represent the MC duo of Body Break’s Hal Johnson and Joanne McCleod, and fish were used to remind the audience that the ICE Awards are Atlantic Canada’s ONLY creative advertising awards event.

These images were posted on social media leading up to the event, creating hype, encouraging ticket sales, and informing participants of event information.

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It was a blast to be given the opportunity to create marketing content for the 2017 ICE Awards. It was even more special to be part of the Cossette team who won three ICE Awards. Strategy Magazine posted a nice article featuring the winners, which also gave a shout out to our award-winning Pay it Forward ad. Very cool.

CREDITS:
Agency: Cossette
Account Director: Maude Drouin-Halou
Art Director: Greg Dubeau
Design Intern/Photographer: Taylor Guarda

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McDonald’s: #AllDayBreakfast

11:00 am has always been a contentious time for McDonald’s breakfast lovers. If you’re not the early bird type, then getting that classic Egg McMuffin hot off the grill is a struggle. For years, loyal McDonald’s customers have lobbied for an all day breakfast addition to the menu, but were always met with dismay. Our American neighbours adopted this dream, but nobody could understand why Canada could not follow suit. Well, times have changed and 11:00 am just got a whole lot less stressful.

Rejoice! As of February 21, 2017, McDonald’s Canada appeased the masses with their much anticipated release of their all day breakfast menu.

What a time to be alive. Let’s celebrate!

In anticipation for this monumental occasion, the Cossette Halifax office was asked by McDonald’s Canada to build off of the national #AllDayBreakfast campaign, ‘time is getting confusing,‘ by incorporating a strategy to target Atlantic Canadians.

Our objective was to introduce #AllDayBreakfast to the Atlantic Canadian market, with our overall goal being to hold a mass celebration to reward loyal McDonald’s customers for their patience, passion, and enthusiasm.

We collaborated with the Cossette Montreal office to establish what type of celebratory event would be held. To emphasize the ‘all day’ aspect of #AllDayBreakfast, we decided to throw two midnight breakfast parties within 24 hours, in two different markets during the weekend of March 3–4. In Quebec, midnight breakfast parties were held in Montreal and Quebec City, while in Atlantic Canada, parties were held in Halifax and St. John’s. Between the Montreal and Halifax office, we were able to share resources to create a consistent product that could be experienced and shared online by the event attendees, social media influencers, and media outlets.

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Soft Launch
In the weeks leading up the midnight breakfast party events, we used two strategies to push our message into the Atlantic Canadian ethos.

  1. Team up with local social media hubs, influencers and food bloggers to push our message and promote the midnight breakfast events.
  2. Maximize our messaging to the night owl/student/youth population by using out of home advertising opportunities on regional post-secondary campuses.

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Hard Launch
In the days leading up to the midnight breakfast parties, we advertised in restaurant, as well as on the radio. We built a strong mutual connection with Alex MacLean of East Coast Lifestyle, and collaborated on a limited edition co-branded onesie set of pyjamas that would be given out for free to the first 100 guests to each midnight breakfast party.

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Pyjama clad night owls and our youth target market arrived in great droves at each location to slip on and zip up their onesies, enjoy a free McDonald’s breakfast meal, and partake in some of the festivities including a bedtime selfie wall, alarm clock piñata, glow in the dark sunglasses, and an opportunity to partake in a digital video being shot to document the fun and memorable experience shared by Atlantic Canadians.

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All of the activities and interactions with the McDonald’s brand during the event were designed to be shared over social media. Friends could celebrate the silliness of wearing their onesies while eating breakfast after midnight, or they could take a selfie with Alex MacLean who played DJ for each of the Atlantic events. On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, we encouraged the use of #AllDayBreakfast, and on SnapChat, we created a geo-targeted filter unique to the event.

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Both events in Halifax and St. John’s were a great success. At the stroke before midnight, there were lineups of excited pyjama wearing customers wrapped around the restaurant. Every attendee was given their fill of free McDonald’s breakfast, with a total of 600+ Egg McMuffins being served, with a side of hash browns and McCafe premium roast brewed coffee.

The free co-branded onesies were a huge success. They perfectly exemplified the playful energy and quirky nature of the midnight breakfast parties. They were such a success that we ran out of stock before the first hour of each event. To reward to loyal attendees unable to receive a onesie, Alex MacLean provided some extra East Coast Lifestyle swag for their patience and dedication. What a champ.

The events received national media coverage and was featured on Atlantic Canadian media outlets such as Narcity, Halifax Noise, Global TV, as well as popular branding-focused website, Brand Channel.

For an ephemeral behind the scenes look at the production of the #AllDayBreakfast video and how the Halifax and St. John’s events went down, click the photo below.

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CREDITS:
Agency: Cossette
Creative Director: Vicky Morin
Art Director/Designer: Greg Dubeau
Account Director: Maude Drouin-Halou
Account Coordinator: Sarah Densmore
Video Production: Buoy Marketing + Production
Producer: Don Veinish
Producer/Director: Ben Bennett
Director of Photography: Kevin Fraser
Special Event Planning: PRIME Marketing
Apparel Design: East Coast Lifestyle

Killam Apartment REIT: Small Victories Campaign

Killam Apartment REIT (Killam) owns, manages and develops residential properties in Atlantic Canada, Ontario, and Alberta. Since its first acquisition in 2002, Killam’s real estate portfolio has grown to $1.8 billion, and includes 13,655 apartment units and 5,165 manufactured home community sites.

As the largest landlord in Atlantic Canada, Killam challenged Cossette to craft a digital B2C campaign to explicitly target first-year post-secondary students (ages 18–25) who had lived either in residence or with multiple roommates and were looking for their first apartment.

During the promotional period of November 2016 to April 2017, our primary objective was to spark social media engagement with the audience. Our overarching goal was to encourage the target audience to visit killamstudents.com and book an apartment viewing.

What did we already know? The off-campus student living market is very competitive. As an example—in the downtown Halifax core from September to April, there is an influx of 20,000 to 30,000 students. With a continuously overturning student base, Killam must continuously evolve their marketing strategies to effectively target this fluctuating demographic.

So how do we do this? How can we speak to a continuously evolving market with very particular needs and wants?

Instead of marketing the economic and social value of the Killam lifestyle, we used psychographics to speak to the unique experience of renting your first apartment. Finding your first apartment is an emotional process and we wanted to highlight the habits, behaviours, and values that drive students to leave residence or similar communal living situations.

Our inspiration: it’s not easy being a student in residence.

The combination of tuition, books, and unsupervised hormonal hooligans does not leave much money or patience left over to enjoy life to the extent that we all wish for. The majority of post-secondary students tend not to have very many things because of this fact. For most, it’s a life of penny pinching, second-hand everything, and low standards of living. It’s a time in their often young lives when ‘small victories’ get them through their day. Simple things like getting the last slice of pizza, finding a $5 bill in your winter coat or having your coffee cream last past its expiry date, make student life that much more tolerable. Especially if you don’t have to share it with people you don’t enjoy.

These are the type of moments we wanted to share with our audience. If you rent with Killam, then you’ll be able to savour the small victories without having them be soured by 30 shitty roommates who are not your friends. Residence sucks; therefore, #KillamBeatsRes

Our video idea: you’ve finally made it.

This direction celebrates the benefits of a Killam apartment in an intentionally over-the-top way. Of course, moving from residence into your own place at Killam is a victory—but in these videos we act as if it’s the single most important victory in the history of humankind. The fun is in the contrast. Visually, we simply watch a twenty-something student go about their everyday life. There is absolutely nothing special about it. The voiceover, however, speaks to what we’re seeing as if it’s a playoff win.

 

We knew during the academic year there are two periods when students are ending their semesters and venturing out to look for new living accommodations. We divided the ‘Small Victories’ campaign into two promotional phases that coincided with these two periods. Each phase used three short video ads that were featured on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. The campaign’s benchmark of each phase one and phase two videos was set at 150,000 views.

To drive awareness of the campaign’s message on social media, we incentivized the campaign’s call to action into a contest.

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Clicking through each video led to a provisional landing page on killamstudents.com that encouraged the audience to enter a contest for a chance to win $500 and a month of free rent with Killam. Each entry produced an interstitial social media post containing a link to the video, and also provided an opportunity to tag a friend to encourage them to enter the contest as well. The contest finished with 323 entrants, which resulted in 48 apartment viewings booked.

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Killam’s Small Victories campaign overachieved in every measurable digital outcome. The benchmark goal of 150,000 views was smashed by receiving 573,380 views; 350,698 on YouTube and 222,682 on Facebook. The series of three videos made 3,025,060 impressions with a view rate of 28.95%.

We were able to not only meet our goal, but over deliver with an above average click through rate of 2.44% and 14,100 visits to the website, with 85.6% being new visitors.

I guess we weren’t the only ones that thought that living in residence is a special type of hell.

CREDITS:
Agency: Cossette
Art Director: Greg Dubeau
Copywriter: Brad Dykema
Account Director: Maude Drouin-Halou
Account Executive: Jena McCulloch
Video Production: Buoy Marketing + Production
Producer: Don Veinish
Producer/Director: Ben Bennett
Director of Photography: Kevin Fraser

Atlantic Business Magazine: Pay it Forward Contest

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In August 2016, Atlantic Business Magazine challenged agencies within Atlantic Canada to team up with a charity to create a marketing campaign that raises awareness and gives back to the community. The prize, worth a minimum of $30,000, consists of six full pages in the print edition.

Cossette and I teamed up with the Greater Moncton Homelessness Steering Committee (GMHSC), an organization that provides leadership and resources to the homeless population and people and families at-risk of becoming homeless.

Our goal was to create a powerful message in the form of a print ad. The objective of the ad was to confront the reader and encourage them to be a positive force in the battle against homelessness.

Our strategy was to confront the reader with the prominent social issue of homelessness and encourage them to think differently about the subject. The execution and placement of the ad needed to challenge not only how the reader feels about the subject of homelessness in Atlantic Canada, but also about how they interact with print advertising.

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We pre-folded our ads page with a “bookmark” or “dog-ear” fold during the production phase. This is important for two reasons; first, it notifies the reader that this bookmarked page is important; and secondly, the folded page acts as a blanket that covers a small homeless man. Once the bookmarked page is folded flat to reveal a homeless man, the reader is confronted with the GMHSC logo and mandate—covering the uncovered.

Our hope is that the reader physically engages with our ad and keeps the page bookmarked to signify that, yes, this page is important to me, and also to believe that with the leadership of organizations such as the GMHSC, we can do more to care for and support our community’s homeless population, and those at risk of becoming homeless.

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CREDITS:
Agency: Cossette
Creative Director: Antoine Becotte
Art Director/Designer:
Greg Dubeau
Account Manager: Sam AbuDayyeh