Banking on a big-time 2017 bash: City’s ‘clear vision’ for Canada 150 celebrations convinced CIBC to jump on board

David Sali
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The most important number in the recently announced sponsorship deal between Ottawa 2017 and CIBC isn’t even in the financial bottom line.

Guy Laflamme is the head of 2017 celebrations for the city of Ottawa

It’s 1867.

After all, how many corporations that have the wherewithal to fund the biggest birthday bash in the nation’s history also happen to have been born in the same year as the country itself?

Probably only one, it’s safe to say. So when Ottawa 2017 executive director Guy Laflamme and his team began compiling a list of potential sponsors that would be celebrating key anniversaries in the year of Canada’s 150th, CIBC was, not surprisingly, right at the top.

“This was a perfect fit for us,” says Mr. Laflamme, who along with Mayor Jim Watson was the city’s driving force behind the multimillion-dollar agreement that was revealed in a glitzy ceremony at city hall last month.

CIBC’s arrangement with Ottawa 2017 which, according to Mr. Watson, is the largest event partnership in the city’s history means most events during the year-long celebration will be free to the public.

But the deal involves more than just millions of dollars in cash.

The country’s fifth-largest bank will provide marketing support, incorporating the Ottawa 2017 logo in its advertising and promoting the nation’s capital as a “destination of choice” for Canada’s 150th birthday, says Stephen Forbes, CIBC’s executive vice-president and chief commercial officer.

The financial institution will also play a key role in planning major events, such as a gala it will co-host with the city on July 1, 2017 at the Shaw Centre, along with helping to draft the Ottawa 2017 economic impact study.

“We really wanted to do something that would tie our 150th birthday to Canada’s in a significant way,” says Mr. Forbes. “We knew we had a common vision, a common passion. With any partnership, I always find that it comes down to a common vision and people who are like-minded and can see value together.”

Mr. Watson first approached CIBC about sponsoring Ottawa’s Canada 150 bash a couple of years ago, around the same time that eight to 10 other potential 2017 partners contacted the bank. But Mr. Forbes says Ottawa was the No. 1 contender right out of the gate.

“It’s a natural for us,” he says, adding the city’s status as the nation’s capital was an important factor but not the only one.

“It was also the depth of the plan they brought forth. No doubt in my mind, when I look across the country at other cities and other partners we talked to, Ottawa 2017 has always had a very clear vision. They were the first ones to the table with a clear plan. They were early, they were organized and they were quite visionary in what they were trying to achieve.”

Still, the partnership didn’t get off to the most auspicious start.

Fifteen minutes before Ottawa 2017 was scheduled to make its first presentation to CIBC’s sponsorship committee in downtown Toronto on Sept. 14, 2014, Mr. Laflamme got a phone call from the committee asking if he’d changed his mind.

He was told no one there had received a soft copy of Ottawa 2017’s presentation. Realizing there must have been a technical glitch, a frantic Mr. Laflamme e-mailed the package to the executives just in the nick of time.  

“It was a bit of a rough start,” he says, adding the committee’s reaction to that initial proposal was “positive, but not overly positive.”

The bank saw enough in the city’s plan to invite Mr. Laflamme and Mr. Watson back to make a more formal presentation at CIBC’s head office the following month.

Delivering his message to the bank’s top executives in “the most spectacular boardroom I have ever seen,” Mr. Laflamme says the pressure was on.

“The response was super, super positive,” he says. “I would say for us, that was the most significant and encouraging feedback we had received about our overall program. To get Stephen Forbes to say, ‘This is fantastic. This is exactly what Canada needs,’ that was a real shot in the arm of adrenaline and encouragement. I think it would be fair to call it a home run.”

Their work wasn’t finished, however. With help from local marketing agencies Banfield and Mediaplus, the Ottawa 2017 Bureau the not-for-profit organization responsible for planning the city’s Canada 150 celebrations continued to fine-tune its flashy audiovisual presentation.

More meetings followed, and in April Mr. Laflamme and his team were asked to make one final 20-minute pitch to a group that included Mr. Forbes and CIBC president and chief executive Victor Dodig.

“That was a pretty high-stress and high-pressure moment,” Mr. Laflamme says. “Once again, it was very well-received.”

In July, Ottawa 2017 officials attended the Pan Am Games in Toronto, for which CIBC was a lead sponsor. Soon after, the two sides had the framework of a deal in place.

The entire process involved at least eight face-to-face meetings, not to mention hundreds of e-mails and phone calls, Mr. Laflamme says. He credits his group’s corporate partnerships chief Kim Haliburton and communications chief Annie Desrosiers for their leadership in promoting Ottawa 2017 and its mission.

“It was definitely a team effort,” he says. “We have a perfect batting average. All the presentations I’ve made, people go, ‘Oh my God. We had no clue that the plan was so spectacular.’ That’s been coming from blue-chip corporations and major national organizations. We definitely seem to be heading on the right track.”

Count Mr. Forbes among the dazzled.

“From what I’ve seen, it’s a very, very exciting, very, very bold program for the year,” he says. “I think that it’s going to ignite pride like we haven’t seen in Canada for a very, very long time. And two, it’s going to create economic development and economic flow to the city of Ottawa.”

Securing a lead sponsor of CIBC’s magnitude makes landing additional “second-tier” sponsors much easier, Mr. Laflamme says.

“It opens up all kinds of additional possibilities,” he notes, adding Ottawa 2017 is in serious negotiations with four other “very prestigious” companies on deals it hopes to announce over the next few months. Those agreements will be worth millions of dollars, he says.

“Our plan was rather than going after tens of sponsors at a lower level, from the start we decided … to go with a smaller number of corporations at a higher price point.”

CIBC, which is predicting at least 11 million visitors will check out the city’s 2017 events, says the deal is about much more than money.

“If there’s a positive brand knock-on for us, that’s great, but this is us being part of Canada’s history,” Mr. Forbes says. “We see this (celebration) as being something that doesn’t come along very often, either for us as an organization or for the country.”

Organizations: CIBC, Shaw Centre, Pan Am

Geographic location: Ottawa, Canada, Toronto

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