March 30, 2011
This week in Buzz Talk, we catch up with Lawrence Ayliffe, the founder and president of L.A. Inc, one of Toronto’s pre-eminent advertising firms. Though he has worked to brand and market various products over his career, Lawrence specializes in real estate.
Read on to learn about why Toronto is a ‘school-of-hard-knocks,’ how Mad Men gets it right (and wrong), and about the television commercial that started it all. . .
BBH: Tell us about L.A. Inc, if you wouldn’t mind. How, when and why did it come to be?
Lawrence Ayliffe: We founded L.A. Inc in September of 1985. Prior to that I was a partner in another company that also did a lot real estate work. At L.A. we started out doing general advertising stuff, including campaigns for Astro Yogourt and Holt Renfrew, while also doing some work for real estate folks.
The bottom line was that I decided I liked working with developers because they represent one of the purest forms of entrepreneurship and it’s cool to be dealing with people who are making the actual decisions as opposed to going through layers and layers of product managers.
I also find real estate to be really exciting because it allows one to work with a full product life-cycle. You brand it, you open the store, you sell it out and then you move on to the next one. Plus, we get to work on the whole package: the brochure, the store, and the brand, whereas, Coca-Cola, for example, just goes on forever.
That differentiation in product stimulates creativity. So, 25 plus years later, I’m still doing it… And still loving it.
BBH: Your work for a number of Toronto condo projects – FIVE Condos, DNA 3, and the Thompson Residences – won Gold Medals recently at the National Sales and Marketing Awards. What distinguishes work in your field, not only among a crowded marketplace like Toronto, but among all North American projects?
LA: Well I think that Toronto is probably the most competitive marketplace in North America – and we’ve worked in Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and Florida. It’s the school-of-hard-knocks in Toronto and it teaches you to do things differently. In a competitive environment the big thing is to get noticed, and to be relevant to the market that you’re in.
BBH: Is there anything specifically that gets work in your field noticed?
LA: I think creativity is what counts, and thinking of new ways to do things. We have an incredibly talented team here and tend to do every project differently; we don’t just use pretty girls in every campaign, we don’t just show the building – as much as developers love them. Ultimately, it’s a box-within-a-box that you’re trying to sell and so differentiating yourself is crucial.
There’s some great architecture and some great interior design that’s happening in the development industry, but you still have to get noticed because until people know you exist, no one sees the architecture, and until the sales office opens, no ones experiences the interior design. So our job is to develop a brand that makes people want to visit the site and see what it’s all about – and from there it’s up to the sales people.
BBH: Is there a difference between marketing for an investment market rather than for an end-user?
LA: Well the first thing to take into account is always the people that you’re trying to appeal to: Is it an investor? Is it an end-user? Who is it? In a lot of cases now it’s an investor market but an investor is a consumer too, so naturally they like to think they’re getting into a great, relevant kind of a thing that’s going to be easy to rent or to sell.
So I think a brand is as important to an investor as it is to an end-user. In other words, the branding is the same but the approach is different – we use a lot of web-based marketing for each sector, but increasingly for the investor market. In any case, though, you still have to be out there with something that’s going to be appealing to the audience.
BBH: What part of the GTA do you call home and what do you love most about your neighbourhood?
LA: Actually, I don’t live in the GTA. I live on a farm, in Caledon. I have horses and do all that sort of country stuff. But before that, I lived in Toronto. I love leaving the city every evening and also feel that coming back in each day gives you a different perspective than you would get otherwise. And I do still spend a lot of time here, we go to restaurants and the theatre and jazz clubs, but I call Caledon home because, as I said, you can also ride horses and fish and do all that kind of stuff. It’s a nice balance.
BBH: If possible, walk us through how the physical characteristics (like design, amenities and location) of, say, a condominium development, are translated into an advertising campaign.
LA: The whole idea is that it’s a team effort. You’re working constantly with the developers, the architects, and with the interior designers – you’re working with a whole group of people coming together to create something, and we’re just a part of that exercise. Our job is to try to translate the vision of the rest of the team so that it fits the specific marketplace. The rest is largely execution, which we just happen to be very good at.
BBH: We would imagine that there are times when you have to reassure the developer that a particular marketing strategy is the right way to go. Trust seems like an important factor in that relationship. . .
LA: I’ve had this business for 25 years during which time I’ve been involved in the successful marketing of more than 100,000 units – so trust comes with experience and a record of success both of which are obviously there. And obviously relationships are also built on trust – and, at the same time, reinforce that trust. Our team works hard at building this trust and relationship. I’m very fortunate to work with great people day in and day out. It’s another perk of having been around for a while: We’ve got some great relationships with people.
BBH: We’ve got to ask: Do you watch Mad Men? But more seriously, beyond the constant smoking and the three martini lunches, how different is today’s world of advertising from the portrayal of that same world circa the mid 1960s?
LA: I’ve watched a couple episodes. I got into advertising originally exactly because of the culture of the industry [laughs]. It was a cool industry! And a lot of what you see on the show is a dead-on representation of what it was like – there were a lot of martinis, a lot of cigarettes. . .
But I think that, to be frank, the industry has kind of screwed itself since then. In the old days big advertising firms were really partners with their clients, in the most important sense of the word. And I think, speaking of trust, that, among client and partners, trust has been eroded over the years.
The big ad agencies are often also sort of stuck in the past in other ways, too. It’s a new age out there, there are new opportunities with digital media and that sort of stuff, and I think clients are increasingly switching towards firms who can capitalize on those opportunities.
You know, I always tell people that I’m in the real estate business – not the advertising business. I think that advertising in the way of Mad Men is dead. It’s still about building a brand, but the delivery system is changing so quickly. It used to be that you’d run an ad in the real estate section of the Toronto Star, but I looked at the Star this weekend and there were maybe two ads in there, so, there’s an important change happening and I, quite frankly, think it’s terrific.
BBH: What’s your single favourite ad campaign ever (for any product)?
LA: There’s been so much great advertising over the years. . . I think Apple has consistently been the strongest since that ‘1984’ Super Bowl commercial that launched the Macintosh computer – it was a brilliant commercial and they’ve been great ever since.
BBH: L.A. Ads’ ultimate triumph was, of course, the branding of BuzzBuzzHome. What was the inspiration?
LA: [laughs] A client came to me with a weak name for a company and I thought, no we can’t use that, there’s got to be a better name!
But, actually, I first had the idea while hosting a dinner party at the farm. We were talking about how working farms are eligible for certain tax breaks, and I wondered out loud whether I would qualify as a legitimate farmer if I were to set up a few honey hives. Everyone around the table laughed at me and through the course of dinner they started calling me ‘Buzz’ – which didn’t last, thankfully – and from then on the name just kind of stuck in my mind.
. . . And the rest is history! Thanks to Lawrence for taking the time to chat with us!