After 56 years in advertising, Al Albania isn’t yet ready to hang up his entrepreneurial spurs; he loves the industry too much to retire.
The president of Acart Communications has instead come up with a succession plan to ensure the Ottawa-based full-service ad agency that he founded nearly half a century ago remains in the right hands as he continues to ensure the longevity of the company.
With vaccines now rolling out across the country and many businesses flirting with normalcy, the new leadership team at Acart decided this month was a good time to publicly announce that chief strategy officer Theresa Forman and chief innovation officer Andrew McWiggan have partnered with Albania to head the agency’s ongoing evolution. They have plans to expand the business into new markets while focusing on technology, innovation and strategic services.
“The fact that I brought on new partners betells a very obvious thing, and that is I love what I do and so I want to do it forever,” says Albania, who, at age 76, looks and acts marvellously young.
“Over the years, I’ve always been concerned about preserving the longevity of our business. A part of this journey was always to find the best partners that could evolve the legacy of Acart.
"When I met Andrew, I realized that he was the guy. So it was an easy decision that basically gave me a comfort level, a trust that I needed to have.
“Then I was introduced to Theresa,” continued Albania, who recognized in her the kind of qualities he most admires in a person. “She believes in integrity above everything else. I’ve been a strong evangelist of the notion that you’ve got to be trustworthy and honest in your business.
“I don’t know if I deserve to have them here, but they certainly deserve to be here,” says Albania during an interview with Forman and McWiggan in his spacious backyard, located in the leafy west-end suburb of Orchard Estates.
While Albania has lived in Canada for most his life, he was born in a small town in the northeastern Italian region of Friuli. At age 10, he travelled by ship across the Atlantic, followed by train, to Ottawa, where he and his mother and sister joined his father, who’d come ahead to get himself established. The year was 1955.
By 1976, Albania had founded Acart. It’s maintained a well-established presence, while other agencies in Ottawa have come and gone. Many professionals in the advertising industry got their start at Acart over the years. Its office is located downtown on Nepean Street.
Albania has guided his company through stormy economic seas, surfed the waves of the digital revolution and seen its moniker – change marketing – put to the test.
“I appreciate change and new technology,” said Albania. “I sort of get a charge out of talking with young people and seeing how they’re doing things.”
The agency has swelled at times to as many as 79 employees and trimmed down to its current “nimble, efficient and laser-focused” size of roughly 30 staff.
Acart has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic storm better than most while assisting struggling clients and even some of its competitors. A rising tide lifts all boats, as the saying goes.
New tech platforms
Technology and innovation have played a prominent role in Acart’s evolution over the last 10 to 15 years. A marketing ad that in the old days would have taken weeks to complete can now be created in a single afternoon. There are tools and technologies that Acart now has at its disposal to immediately measure the success of its clients’ campaigns.
One of Acart’s top priorities is IP. It’s developing concepts outside the lines of traditional advertising, such as new tech platforms, that it’s looking to monetize. This is part of the agency’s push to extend beyond standard services and add unique value to the marketplace.
"Clients don’t just want a creative agency anymore; they want a business partner who happens to be creative."
Acart has also been disrupting the standard agency model in other ways.
“Clients don’t just want a creative agency anymore; they want a business partner who happens to be creative,” said Forman. “They want to work with people who’ve taken the time to deeply understand their business. We’ve won a few projects previously managed by larger agencies because their teams were just production experts, versus really getting in there and helping them try and solve the problem.”
Forman, a native of Montreal, moved to the capital 21 years ago to become director of strategic marketing for Corel. More recently, she was with marketing agency McMillan, specializing in business strategy roles before becoming its president. She joined Acart in the fall of 2020.
“I like doing cool work with cool people,” said Forman, who described the industry as dynamic and creative. “You’re not selling the same pencil every day.
“I like the breadth and depth and the diversity,” added the mother of three, who credits her sense of curiosity and love of learning to her schoolteacher parents.
Melbourne born-and-raised McWiggan came to Canada in 2011 to study on a volleyball scholarship. He chose the University of Saskatchewan because he liked the idea of becoming its first Australian athlete and paving the way for others. The young entrepreneur moved to Ottawa in 2019 after Albania, who was by then his friend and mentor, asked him to join Acart with the goal of becoming a partner.
“What I find most exciting about what we get to do every day is, for the most part, we help businesses grow,” said McWiggan, 29, whose experience in digital trends, strategy and e-commerce are helping to expand Acart’s services.
“Businesses experience different types of problems, and the beauty of being able to work with so many different industries is that we can use pattern recognition to help our clients overcome their challenges or proactively prevent them altogether.
“You’re working on so many different and complex problems, but, largely, all of it involves evolution and growth. Everyone you’re working with, they’re wanting to grow somehow, in some way, and for me there are very few industries that get to touch so much of that.
“In our business, we’re talking to people from all different layers, including founders, CEOs, CMOs, COOs, heads of finance, heads of sales, marketing managers and communications directors. You learn so much about how their business flows and works together by being able to engage with all those different people.”
Hybrid work model
During the pandemic, Acart has adopted a remote work strategy, with plans to eventually switch to a hybrid model.
“We have some exceptional, exceptional people who have been very resilient through this,” said McWiggan.
“Our business responded to the pandemic and supported many of our clients through pro bono work, through donations, through providing free consultancy services.
“We all came together as a group and really wanted to figure out how we could support business trying to get through this,” he said, adding that Acart also referred business to other agencies.
The pandemic has been especially tough on extroverts like Albania.
“Honestly, I love the people, I love the energy that I get from other people. This pandemic has proved to me how much I really miss people.”
As much as the entrepreneur enjoys golf and gardening, he wants to continue working for as long as he can.
“It’s been a fun ride, and I don’t want to get off this merry-go-round yet.”