Specialty shop: Focus works for small agency

Marketing Magazine | By Eve Lazarus

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Chilliwack. It’s a small city about an hour-and-a-half drive from Vancouver in BC’s Fraser Valley that many locals have yet to visit. It’s also the home of an ad agency which—depending on whether a client is part of the financial services industry or in the tourism business—calls itself Currency: The Credit Union Marketing Agency or Passport: The Destination Marketing Agency.

Currency Passport has 11 people headed up by creative director and principal Tim McAlpine. McAlpine, 35, started a small graphic design studio 15 years ago. He gradually expanded into other areas as clients demanded more services, changes the name from the McAlpine Group and decided to focus on two business streams.

McAlpine has an impressive list of clients that includes Envision Financial, the fourth largest credit union in Canada, and almost a dozen other credit unions in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, as well as Harrison Hot Springs Resort & Spa. But the agency’s biggest coup, and proof that specialization works, was its wrestling away Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, and its multimillion-dollar marketing budget, from incumbent TBWA Vancouver.

Michele de Rappard, director of marketing for Rocky Mountaineer Vacations in Vancouver, says it was the agency’s “alternative style and creative” that attracted them initially.

"It’s the creativity, their thought process, the attention they give and the planning process,” she says. Passport handles direct mail, magazine ads, product brochures and has just finished rebranding the company from Rocky Mountaineer Railtours to Rocky Mountaineer Vacations.

De Rappard says that while Passport is strictly creative and strategy, she was impressed with its ability to bring different partners in when necessary. For instance, it brought in Vancouver media shop Genesis Shepansky to work on RM’s media buy, and de Rappard says they liked the idea of working with this kind of "hub agency."

Specialization, says McAlpine, has allowed his agency to notch up and impressive client list and, at the same time, to venture outside the B.C. market. “When we were in the new business situations,” says McAlpine, "the first comment that would come up was ‘we have 40 firms we can choose from that are just down the street and you are in Chilliwack, why would we possibly go with you?’." McAlpine says since making the decision to specialize that question is rarely asked.

Certainly, Cathy Mombourquette, senior manager marketing at the seven-branch Woodslee Credit Union in Essex County, Ontario, didn’t care when she was shopping for an agency earlier this year.

"They marketed themselves as a credit union marketing agency and listed all the benefits of why I should use them," says Mombourquette. "I don’t have to educate them on credit unions, they know all that stuff."

Specialization to McAlpine is a "no brainer," but he reckons it’s still pretty scary to most agencies that think it will limit their potential. "What it does is it just opens everything right up, it allows you to be small and nimble but get beyond your geographic constraints."