Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Advertising History

It must have been five years ago, on a nice sunny day like this, that I took a walk on the waterfront below Parliament Hill and wound up in the Bytown Museum.

I always knew the museum was there, and had visited a number of times. But that day, I walked in with the idea that I'd write ads for them. I've loved history my whole life, but I had rarely gotten the chance to bring my passion for artifacts and legends to my professional world. I had pitched the Museum of Nature and the Museum of Civilization, both unsuccessfully. I had done some work for Parks Canada and VIA Rail that had a historical component. But not since my early days writing tourism advertorials in Kingston had I really been able to help a client in my favourite area of museology. That was about to change.

I started as a pro-bono consultant, helping former Museum Director Christina Tessier get the messaging sorted out. Christina and her team had a vision to modernize the museum's exhibits and brand, so I got there at a good time. We defined target audiences, and developed a messaging platform around the simple fact that the museum is "Where Ottawa Begins" — geographically (in the city's oldest stone building at the entrance to the Rideau Canal) and historically (telling the story of the city's earliest days).

The museum's logo, created by another volunteer, was already nearly complete, but we started work on a creative platform that celebrated the old-time roughness of Victorian Ottawa — known as the toughest town in British North America.

The new approach matched the museum's push for greater cultural relevance with modern audiences, showing the sordid underbelly of a town where lumberjacks engaged in street-fighting in the muddy streets of the Market, even as grand Canadian history was being lived across the Canal and up the Hill.

After we developed a few small poster campaigns together, and I sat on the advisory board for the Bytown Museum renewal project, the institution finally secured funding for a proper campaign to launch the museum's redesigned exhibits.

Launched in 2007, our campaign focussed on street-level media such as posters, bike racks, cinema slides and coasters distributed to pubs in the immediate neighbourhood.

The objective was to get young urban families who spend a lot of weekends downtown to check out the museum to see what's new in old Ottawa. Working hand-in-hand with the publicity surrounding the museum's relaunch, it resulted in a 28% increase in total admissions in the 2007 season.

Our 2007 campaign is still running (I took the bike rack pic today), but now the Bytown Museum has a new Director, Mike Steinhauer, who sat on the renewal committee with me. Building on what's been done, Mike is focussing on showing the historical continuity in Ottawa's living communities, as well as building an online community for the museum using social media.

So, if you happen to be taking a walk by Parliament on a sunny day, pop into the Bytown Museum. You never know where history might take you.

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