Case Study: Edgy 'inner child' poster campaign from McMillan helps Ottawa International Animation Festival reach new audiences

Case Study by Michael Zavacky RGD, Art Director at McMillan

Every year, the Ottawa International Animation Festival works with McMillan to create an advertising campaign for this annual event. The campaign includes a series of posters, a transit bus ad, online banner ads and a few short videos, the posters being the primary marketing collateral. 


Length of Project: 5 months



The Ottawa International Animation Festival (OIAF) is the largest event of its kind in North America, an annual major film event that attracts attendees from around the world. The OIAF presents the world’s most cutting-edge, quirky and important animation and transforms Ottawa into the centre of the animation universe.


Business Need

The type of content featured at the OIAF is not necessarily your mainstream animation (i.e., Disney, Pixar), but more of an alternative genre, more adult-oriented. That said, the style range of the films shown varies greatly. The calibre of work presented is always world-class, and the special guests who appear are true leaders of the industry. Workshops, book signings and other events are part of the Festival as well, along with an opportunity to connect and mingle with like-minded people in the industry.


The business need for this project is twofold: sell tickets and put people in the seats, as the gate revenue helps to run the event and enables the OIAF to operate throughout the year.




While the OIAF is well known to its core group of animation enthusiasts, the general public is relatively unaware of what is involved. Based on information provided by the client, it is clear that while people in Ottawa may have heard of the OIAF, they tend to have little knowledge of the kind of work being shown. This year, OIAF needed to step up its marketing efforts to make those people aware of what the Festival is really all about.


We always look forward to the opportunity this project provides us: to do creative, award-winning work that satisfies the needs of our client.



We had a very limited budget for this OIAF campaign, which forced us to be extra creative with our strategy and concepts. Knowing from the start that the ideas we came up with would need to be executed on a shoestring budget kept us thinking realistically throughout the process. 


Another challenge was addressing our client's concern that the work might offend some viewers. Even though the Festival includes content that could be considered X-rated, like Fritz the Cat, the client preferred to play it safe with the creative. When we initially presented our approach and strategy the client's response was extremely positive, but the feeling was that it might be 'too edgy' and potentially offensive. 





We reached out to the client for details on the demographic / audience for the Festival to get an idea of who we were talking to with this project. Based on the information provided, we determined that most people who attend the Ottawa International Animation Festival are urban dwellers who live within the city core of Ottawa. The people who attend from other cities typically commit months in advance — and there appears to be a solid base of devotees who make the annual trek to Ottawa for OIAF.


OIAF wanted to attract more attendees from Ottawa’s urban area — the walk-up attendee, people looking for something different to do on a weeknight and who might already have a general interest in animation.


We determined that this target market fell within the 18–40 age group and tended to live closer to the city centre, as opposed to suburban areas. When we met with the client, the main message that came through was the fact they wanted to connect with this intended audience in a simple, striking and direct way; not with complicated, wordy messages, but with something clean, visually attractive and humorous. We needed something that reflected the content shown at the festival, incorporating a bit of an edge, and something distinctive enough to stand out among the plethora of posters in the city. 





Our process started with information from the client. We asked them to tell us what experience people expect from the brand, the points of differentiation that help make their offering memorable, how people would ideally describe their brand if it were a person, and how they fit into the market landscape. 


Based on the client's responses, we decided to take a fun approach to capture the spirit of the film festival, playing with the notion that animation “appeals to the inner child in all of us”. Animation is something that most of us likely loved as children and, in many ways, continue to love as adults; hence, the “inner child” concept.


We knew that the simple promise of connecting with your inner child wouldn’t fully communicate the experience of the festival and its unique, edgy and entertaining programming, so we decided to push it further. Part of this involved addressing our client's reservations about how far it could be pushed without becoming offensive. We strongly advised against playing it too safe, knowing that the point of the campaign was to convey what the film festival is really all about.


The campaign was designed to deliver the message: At this festival, you’ll be able to get in touch with your inner child — but also get the chance to do things that you were never allowed to do as a child.


To balance out the darker tone of the message and allay our client’s fears about the potentially offensive proposed direction, we chose to create cute, cuddly monsters to interact with each ‘inner child’, and illustrate the entire campaign in a colourful, fun style. Our creative team Ian Driscoll (writer), Jared Barter (designer) and Michael Zavacky RGD (illustrator) sat down for days to brainstorm a number of things that your inner child probably shouldn't be doing...but would like to do anyway.




Edgy ideas such as “talking to strangers”, “seeing where babies come from”, “playing in traffic” and “getting scarred for life” — rose to the fore. We ended the brainstorming session with one that hit a more positive and uplifting note: “renewing a sense of wonder”.


We designed a basic look to the entire poster campaign — a black background, with copy and info always located in the same place. Then we thought of clever, funny situations that each inner child could be involved in with the monster.Targeting an audience of animation lovers, we knew that our illustration approach was likely to make a favourable impression.




In our design layout, we made sure the visual was large and striking enough to grab the viewer's attention. Using the same phrase to begin each headline helped emphasize consistency across the materials, but the surprise ending of each sentence gave readers an unexpected and humorous message to take away. 


We created artwork that would look innocent and child-like, but would also serve as a nice contrast to the somewhat unnerving headlines (“Talk to Strangers,” etc.) — the notion that it is your inner child connecting with these large monsters makes the approach somewhat abstract, yet still humorous. We decided to use a dark, charcoal-coloured background to make the other colours pop up off the page — ensuring they would be noticed out in the busy urban landscape.


We also designed a McMillan promo ad for the OIAF magazine which played off the “show it where babies come from” poster. 





Animator Eric Rochon created a variety of video stingers that were shown online and at the event theatres.




The best measurement and evaluation of our OIAF campaign’s performance was the fact that local ticket sales increased by 143%! That is exactly the result we were hoping for — in fact, it even exceeded our expectations. Needless to say, the client was thrilled and it was nice to see that her trust in us was rewarded with great results at the box office.


After five years of working with OIAF, I would say that each year has invovled pushing the client a little further out of their comfort zone toward something a bit darker and edgier - I think the success of this year's campaign shows how much this has paid off. After four years of working with OIAF, each year has involved pushing the client a little further out of their comfort zone toward something a bit darker and edgier, and the success of this campaign shows the results of these efforts.


The campaign also won Best of Show in the Davey Awards poster competition and was selected as a winner in the Applied Arts Illustration and Design Annuals, as well as the HOW Magazine International Design Competition.


Designer Takeaways

Always be bold and push forward with the one solid idea that you know will work for the client. Take a strong position in the trusted advisor role, and never water down a concept in order to placate a questioning client. Retain creative control — that’s why they hired you in the first place!


Client Takeaways

Trust your creative team, and don’t be afraid to take chances and break outside of your comfort zone. If you really want to connect with your audience, you need to create bold and sometimes unconventional work — work that draws attention in the cluttered mass of marketing that’s out there today.





Jared Barter – designer

Ian Driscoll – writer

Michael Zavacky – illustrator

Eric Rochon – animator

Leah Goodman – project manager


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