Advertising with soul

Leo Burnett Canada Group Creative Director Anthony Chelvanathan wants to make ads that feel less like ads

The objective of advertising is to induce people to buy and consume. But, for Leo Burnett Canada Group Creative Director Anthony Chelvanathan, it’s much more than that. “It’s less about being an ad and more about touching the soul,” he says.

Early this year, a bronze statue of a young girl, hands on her hips, in a defiant pose appeared right in front of the iconic charging bull on Wall Street. The statue, which came to be known as the ‘fearless girl’, was commissioned for an investment firm to advertise for its index fund, which represents companies that have a high percentage of women among their senior leadership. The impact of the message reverberated from boardrooms to universities, and re-ignited the conversation on the pre-eminent glass ceiling for women in the corporate world. “The fearless girl was the most celebrated piece of communication this year,” says Chelvanathan. “It wasn’t just an ad, it was an act.”

Advertisements as mere vehicles of spoon-feeding information to audiences is long over. Today’s effective advertisements are hellbent on establishing a long-term emotional connection with the viewer. After all, people are more receptive to nuance, subtlety and depth of a message than the straight delivery of facts.

Chelvanathan is a proponent in eliciting these qualities constantly through his work. His campaigns for Raising the Roof, a Toronto-based nonprofit organization that helps provide shelter for homeless people, was regarded the most controversial anti-homelessness ad. The idea was to educate people that short-term homelessness fixes do not work, and more long-term thinking and actions are needed. To communicate this idea, the agency wanted to understand the public’s reaction when a new homeless shelter is announced in a safe, middle class suburban neighborhood. When callers complained, the agency used that recording as material for the advertisement to illustrate how homelessness affects everyone. “It has to organically connect with the audience,” says Chelvanathan.

A notable characteristic of Chelvanathan’s work is the involvement of public participation. Community engagement is a central tenant in all his campaigns. His “Cook this Page” campaign for IKEA was featured in industry magazine Adweek’s list of 25 brilliant ad campaigns. IKEA, the global furniture giant, commissioned a promotional campaign for its food business. Chelvanathan, taking into account the step-by-step system of assembling IKEA furniture, developed a recipe using parchment paper. The sheets include a test of instructions and a list of illustrated ingredients marked with food-safe ink, each of which matched the actual proportions required for the recipe. “It’s like a coloring book,” says Chelvanathan. “You fill that amount of pepper and spices. All you do is just fill in those spaces, take that paper, fold and wrap it up and throw it in the oven.” The ‘Cook this Page’ campaign drew attention to IKEA’s line of food and household kitchen products, where all 12,500 parchment paper recipes were snapped up in a few hours.

“Great ads don’t feel like ads,” says Chelvanathan.