What was shaping up to be another hot summer day in late June 2012 turned into a game changer for the agency. There was an hour left in the workweek before the long weekend break, and CEO and president Peter George had concluded that it would be July before the agency would receive news – one way or another – of who won one of local industry’s most coveted contracts.

Then Linda Whitfield, Travel Manitoba’s vice president of sales and marketing called. She told him that McKim had won the agency-of-record contract for the Crown corporation.

Peter gathered everyone together to announce the news. In the lead up to the pitch, the entire agency had been harnessed in some way to develop spec creative.

There were cheers and applause. And champagne.

Travel Manitoba CEO and president Colin Ferguson later said that the account “was very hotly contested.”

For an independent agency in Manitoba, “winning” such an account couldn’t be more apt. It immediately changes how you’re perceived.

“Travel Manitoba was a huge win, and I think it became part of a larger shift at the agency,” Peter says. “It changed how we think about ourselves. It helped us envision ourselves as a leading agency in this market; winning the business crystallized that for us.”

Turns out, Travel Manitoba was about to embark on important developments as well. The corporation had partnered with the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) and Environics to access new research that identifies traveller behaviours, beliefs and social values. The client was eager to join forces with its tourism industry partners, stakeholders and new advertising agency to consume, translate and eventually, apply the information with a major advertising campaign that will change people’s thinking about the province.

“The kinds of people most likely to seek what Manitoba has to offer are learners who seek immersive experiences in their travels,” says senior account director Tracy Francis. “They’re not passive observers; they’re passionate participants. Based on that, we had the keys to what our audiences want to hear and how to speak to them.”

McKim’s strategic team got to work on the brand platform and brand promise, which launched more discussions with client, stakeholders and industry partners.

“We started developing a number of thoughts about the direction that coalesced into ideas – but we were deliberate – no advertising ideas at this point,” says Audra Lesosky, VP accounts and strategic services.

“We immersed ourselves as deeply as the travellers we were speaking to,” says Audra, who developed the strategy and brand platform for the campaign, and steered many of the research sessions. “It was important to us that we undertook a kind of psychological journey along with the travellers – or whatever audience we were looking at – in order to get inside their heads.”

Audra and Peter spent five days on a tundra buggy, living the Churchill polar bear-viewing experience and interviewing travellers from around the world. Senior creative team VP Ron Sawchuk along with creative directors Carey Pradinuk and Brent Morrisseau took in various other experiences, including beluga whale watching, fly-in fishing, Riding Mountain National Park and the Hermetic Code Tour of the Manitoba Legislative Building.

McKim conceptualized, wrote and produced the first of a series “signature” TV spots for the campaign, polar bear viewing in Churchill, interacting with beluga whales on the Churchill River, fly-in fishing in the eastern boreal forest, and culture in Winnipeg.

“‘You are welcome here; we will take you there’ – that’s at the core of our brand story,” says Ron Sawchuk. “And when we were developing the creative executions, we took it one step further with ‘Manitoba: Canada’s Heart Beats,’ which also has many applications: your heart beats differently during a live artistic performance than it does when you’re face to face with a 700-pound wild polar bear.”

“We are confident that the research, strategy and campaign outcome positions Manitoba distinctly in the competitive tourism marketplace,” says Colin.

“Working on the Travel Manitoba account has been like McKim’s journey – our storybook,” says Ron. “We were with the client and industry stakeholders from the beginning, learning and unravelling the research insights together, and travelling around the province to experience what our visitors will. It’s the ideal way to start developing a large campaign.”

The campaign – Manitoba: Canada’s Heart Beats – is currently rolling out in front of key audiences in Manitoba, Alberta, northwestern Ontario and parts of the US. Media selections include print, in-flight video, transit, video, TV and digital.