As senior brand strategist for Revolve, Phil Otto helped usher in Halifax’s “be bold” branding. He was one of three author’s behind a recent full-page newspaper ad imploring Heritage Trust to stop obstructing the city’s new convention centre. Otto spoke over the phone with The Coast about being “bold.”
The Coast: You helped create the "Be bold" campaign for the city.
Phil Otto: I wouldn't necessarily call it a campaign. It's not a campaign. It's more about a brand platform. A brand strategy...
C: What's the difference?
O: Well, a campaign would be an advertising program to influence behaviour, and a campaign may come out of this. But I would say that we step back a little bit, and a strategy or platform is really about changing the way people think.
C: Why, in your opinion, should Halifax "be bold?"
O: We did really, really in-depth stakeholder consultation during the process of collecting and gathering insight on what Halifax means to people, and we received, you know, there's an undercurrent of negativity in the Halifax culture that's quite off-putting to a lot of people. What was bubbling, and we had some of that during our consultation, but what was bubbling up from below the surface was a real desire to put a stake in the ground and move forward. Not be a sleepy, seaside town, but actually stand for something and put our best foot forward. If you go back to the Ivany report and many other, the RP+5 regional plan, and a lot of other research and strategies that have been put together, it's just status quo is not an option.
C: I was almost hoping we could get through this without mentioning the Ivany report.
O: It didn't influence our thinking to a large degree. It was just one of many elements that helped inform what we need to do.
C: So why is there that negative undercurrent? I'd think some could argue there's good reason to be negative. There's a lot of problems in the city, with homelessness, health care, racism...
O: Yeah, I don't know that's it's just a Halifax culture, or if it's actually a Maritimes and Atlantic cultural element, but it's there. It's prevalent. It's discouraging. Halifax actually is a great city to live in for its population and the amount of services that we have. Halifax would stand out as one of the best places in Canada to live and raise your kids, but there's this voice of, this depressing voice of negativity that just finds its way in every time an opinion is sought, and people listen. "Be bold" is about trying to celebrate success, celebrate the people taking risk in the city and moving forward, not getting stuck in a paralysis of negativity.
C: At a certain point, I think you can argue "being bold" is about standing up to the majority. It's about asking tough questions and confronting problems and not ignoring them.
O: Yes, absolutely. I would absolutely agree with that. It's not about status quo. It's taking a tough stance and asking the tough questions; giving the tough answers at times as well. Just having a dialogue that is not meek or mediocre.
C: Wouldn't something like, to change topics a bit, the full-page Herald ad, which you were one of the architects of, that seemed to be saying don't ask questions.
O: No, no, that wasn't about don't ask questions at all. In fact, I feel bad if that came across as anti-Heritage Trust or pro-convention centre, because it was never about that. The issue around that ad was, Joe Ramia, and again, I'm not pro-convention centre or anti, and I barely know Joe. We weren't trying to promote what he was doing. The issue was that development has gone through hoops. It's gone through all the approval processes, and then Heritage Trust, who is a pretty, you know they've got some money and power behind them. There's a feeling that they're misusing that somewhat when they get into arguments around sight lines. There is no old building to protect on that site, so you ask the question. This wasn't, it's gone through all the public debate. All the questions, the opportunities were there for the questions to be asked. Why rehash it again and cost somebody who's investing a tremendous amount of money, millions more in holdups for frivolous reasons? It's not about not asking questions. It's knowing when to stop asking questions and just let stuff happen.
C: Though the process Heritage Trust has asked for, that doesn't stop construction on the Nova Centre. Is that really holding that project up?
O: No, but it has others. So, it could delay some parts of that project as well. There's another element. We had 14,000 construction workers in Nova Scotia, of whom many more every year are having to travel to other cities to work. So what happens after they travel back-and-forth for a period of time? They just, it's easier to move their family there. And Alberta, the oilsands is a big player in that, as we all know. One of the largest, single-largest air flights into Alberta is from Halifax. There's a direct flight now, because there's so many out-migration of workers. So, in my opinion, as a consumer and a resident of Halifax, what "be bold" means to me is to think different so that we're setting the stage and an economy for success down the road. I have four children. I want them to bring their own families up here. If they want to go off to university somewhere and come back, I will certainly promote that, but I want them to grow up in their home town. Right now, there's a feeling of loss around the prospect for good employment. That's gotta turn around or we're gonna continue to have out-migration. The amount of university, the small amount of university students that come to Halifax that actually stick to the city is quite depressing. It should be way higher. A lot of them are leaving because of attitude, and attitude is what creates prosperity and jobs. And "be bold" is about attitude.
C: You think it's the attitude, that negativity that's making people leave?
O: I think it's helping it, for sure. There are developers in this city who simply are stopping investing here because of the attitude of people. Every time they try to do something, they get shut down. Something as simple, this negativity is ridiculous, the new graphics for Metro Transit were launched a couple of weeks ago, and the uninformed, I'll go so far as to say stupid comments that were online, was both insulting and embarrassing.
C: Like what?
O: People suggesting that they were spending a ridiculous amount of money to just re-graphical the entire fleet of buses. Or that it was the need for Metro Transit buses to be re-painted that drove the new logo to be done. Anybody who listens to the news will understand that there is no new money being spent on rolling out that Halifax brand, or the "be bold." It's money being spent on maintenance as it goes along. It just happens that there was a lineup of buses that needed to be painted and the timing was perfect for it to be done. People saying, “look how much money we'd save if we just had white buses.” Well, that's not very bold.
C: There's a lot of, to borrow a phrase, assholes on the Internet, but there's legitimate critiques that come up. Maybe not about those buses. When you have something like those 300 business leaders and people who sign that ad, if you're drawing that line in the sand, do you then end up ignoring the critiques and actual complaints?
O: No, having good informed dialogue is healthy for a community. Uninformed, unintelligent, abusive dialogue, gets you nowhere.
C: There have been some very legitimate questions about the Nova Centre project, from everyone from the auditor general to media. You have other lawsuits, aside from Heritage Trust, happening.
O: Absolutely, and again, this wasn't about pro-convention centre. I don't know the business case on the convention centre. It never was what it was about. It was about, they have, and there's a lot of really good people on the Heritage Trust group as well, but they are not about finding solutions. They're about finding problems.
C: Can you see how an ad signed off by some of the wealthiest, the more elite in the city, sort of whining about negativity could rub people the wrong way?
O: Yeah, absolutely. There were a lot of people who are just consumers in Halifax as well. There's some recognizable names; there's a lot of names on that ad I don't recognize. They're not elite. They're not business owners. That list came together in a day. If we took a week or actually had a campaign to get support around that, I think that would probably fill two newspaper pages. It wouldn't be just business owners either. It would be people who just want this to be a great place to live; where people celebrate our successes and be positive and not constantly negative.
C: Do you feel victimized by that perceived negative bullying some people offer?
O: No, I don't feel victimized. I find it embarrassing to the rest of Canada, when we're constantly fighting amongst ourselves and not understanding the bigger picture of the impact it has on our economy if tourists don't want to come here, or convention planners don't want to have meetings, or businesses don't want to move here because we are backwoods and negative and can't get out of our own way. That's the part that concerns me. As a business owner and a father, that's my single biggest worry.
C: Again, the ad wasn't, you're saying it's not specifically about the convention centre, but if you're saying the negative attitude is what's holding it back. We have a report this week that the vacancy rate for office rentals, Class A office rentals, has doubled and it's going to get worse. You have convention centres in many other cities, both larger and comparable to Halifax, that are failing to attract business and turning into money pits. Are we really holding the city back with negativity to question those projects and wonder if they're going to be of value to us?
O: Negativity, if a developer, the Nova Centre is different because there's government money in it. But, if a developer is building a new building downtown and chooses not to because the vacancy rate is high, the reason the vacancy rate is high is because we don't have enough workers in Halifax. It's not so much space being built in other areas in Halifax. We have an outmigration of workers.
C: Wouldn't it be better to maybe not build new offices, to maybe just try and fill what we have?
O: Possibly, yes. But the negativity isn't around just a new office building. It's just an attitude that every time somebody tries to do something different and think outside the box in Halifax, it gets shut down or there is an undercurrent of negativity that tries to shut it down. You see the online comments yourself. Like you say, there's a lot of assholes on the Internet. This is about the assholes on the Internet, not people who have legitimate opinions or dialogue.
C: I think a lot of those people who do have legitimate criticisms or want to be in that dialogue, feel that door is shut to them, that this language of "be bold" and let's not talk about it...
O: No, I think part of being bold is standing up and showing your view and your opinion. This isn't about shutting down anything about anti-growth, or anti-development or people who have an opinion. It's about stop being assholes.
C: If we were to fix the tangible things wrong in Halifax, wouldn't that naturally create a more positive attitude?
C: But doesn't this look like we're doing it the other way around? That we're just going to think the problems away?
O: No, my attitude around "be bold" isn't about just allowing development to happen, either. I'd say that the Harbour cleanup project was bold. City of Lakes business parks, whenever they were built, twenty years ago, was bold. Not allowing Skye Halifax to happen, wasn't very bold. The garden Blooms project happening in the north end, that's bold. That's not about development or money. It's about bold thinking. The bike lanes are bold.
C: So we've always been bold?
O: There's always been an element of bold. I think to have a real change in reputation in Halifax, we need to be bolder. We need to think bolder.