MAY 25, 2023 BY DAVID BROWN
After 43 years as leader of Target, the St. John’s agency he founded in 1980, Noel O’Dea is stepping back to give Catherine Kelly the top leadership position of president.
The transition has been in the works for a while, said O’Dea. Kelly has been with Target for 25 years, but O’Dea knew as soon as she joined that she would eventually lead the agency. She is, he said, an overachiever and “one of the smartest and nicest people I know.” Kelly has acted as the agency’s de facto COO for the past five years, and handing her the reins was an inevitable next step.
“It was the right thing to do, and she’s got new ideas and energy,” he said. “And she certainly earned my trust, the trust of our existing clients, and the love and trust of our staff.”
While he is stepping back from management, O’Dea – who was inducted into Canada’s Marketing Hall of Legends earlier this month – will remain active as “advisor, visionary, and contributor” at Target, taking the title of founder and chief storyteller, focused on key clients, long-term growth, and what he calls the agency’s “passion projects,” such as the Atkinson Foundation and its pursuit of social and economic justice.
It’s not a retirement, he said, although he will spend less time at the office as Kelly takes over the day- to-day responsibilities.
In assuming the role, Kelly becomes a rare female Canadian agency president, while her management team includes two other women: director of finance and administration Allison O’Keefe, a role that includes much of the HR related duties, and Vivian Tulk, director of creative production. Creative director TJ Arch, director of communications and media planning Jeff Combdon, and head of agency production and content creation Matt Tucker round out the team.
Key clients at the 35-person agency include Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism, Inclusive Workplaces Canada, Loyalist College, Chorus, Whitecap International Seafoods, Big Brothers Big Sisters, HSA Retail, and St. Bonaventure’s College, and the agency has long worked with brands from across the country. (“We have the internets, and we have airplanes,” says O’Dea wryly.)
Taking over as president of the independent agency may represent a new chapter for Target, but the story remains much the same, said Kelly. “There are a lot of things that won’t change,” she said. “Our real goal is to make clients famous, and to make their cash registers ring. Those things won’t change.”
Neither will the philosophy that has driven O’Dea for 40 years, and is deeply embedded in the agency’s DNA. “We are a Newfoundland agency because it’s our competitive advantage,” said Kelly.
O’Dea wanted to build an agency that cared passionately about the work, but little about titles and hierarchy. And he did so in a city and province renowned for hospitality and geniality, a love of storytelling, music and the outdoors. It all contributes to a creative spirit that extends far beyond marketing, and across the province itself. In many ways it’s the opposite of Toronto – “which we refer to as adland,” said Kelly.
“We can’t help but look at things differently when there’s a marketing problem or a creative problem or a branding problem,” said O’Dea “That helps us have a very different and fresh look at solving the problem.”
There’s a misconception that East Coast ad agencies are more traditional than those in other parts of the country, said Kelly. In fact, they are just as excited by new media and technology as any part of the country. “But it needs to be infused with strategy and creativity,” she said. And the creativity tends to be rich with storytelling and universal themes of humanity. “The cultural ethos of this place helps shape how we think creatively.”
More than just advertising sell-lines, Kelly and O’Dea believe those distinctions are both real and tangible. Being half a country away – and an hour and a half ahead – from the advertising hive mind of central Canada is not a disadvantage.
“That’s our secret ingredient,” says O’Dea. “That’s our superpower.”