From high-tech to hockey and from the arts to outer space, there’s not much that Al Albania has not turned his hand to.
Now, the Ottawa advertising maven is retiring from Acart Communications, the full-service ad agency he founded nearly a half-century ago.
Acart will continue under the leadership of Theresa Forman and Andrew McWiggan following an ownership transition that began in 2019. Forman served as president of McMillan and McWiggan is a former partner in Lewis Media. The pair acquired full ownership of Acart in August 2022.
February is Heart Month and the University of Ottawa Health Institute Foundation is back with its annual campaign. Get ready to #LightTheTownRed
“I’ve gone through a lot of changes, many, many changes,” says Albania. “Four years ago when I brought on my partners that I ultimately sold to, that was my interest; to get their mind working towards what the future would bring.”
That future includes prioritizing IP as well as monetizing new tech platforms, as OBJ reported in June.
Albania launched Acart in 1976 after finally putting aside portrait painting ambitions. “You can’t make money as a portrait artist,” he admits.
Albania credits his wife, Linda, for coming up with the name Acart during a scramble over what to put on his first invoice. “She said, ‘Well, your initials are ACA. If you just add the RT to the end: Acart. It’s an odd name, but it has art at the end.’ I said, ‘That is the worst name I’ve ever, ever heard,” Albania laughs. “But I said, okay, it’s the 11th hour.”
In the beginning, the company was called Acart Graphic Services but Albania quickly realized he was being asked to do things outside of graphic design and brought on the media talent he would need to deliver what clients wanted. He pins Acart’s success on a string of client-focused pivots.
“We changed a dozen times, adjusted ourselves every time, listened to our clients, understood our clients and tried to deliver the best possible solutions that would help the clients,” he says.
When asked to create Canada Post’s first website in 1991, Albania says his response was, “What’s a website?” He laughs, “But we took it on.”
Acart pivoted again in the late ‘90s, acquiring multi-media-savvy firm Kinetic Imagery to get a leg up on the burgeoning digital competition, although Albania notes that the bulk of work was for television, even up to 2012.
Over the years, Acart has had a hand in shaping numerous Ottawa institutions, including the Ottawa Senators, Nortel Networks Corporation, OC Transpo, the National Arts Centre and the National Gallery of Canada. But the company’s reach extends well beyond Canada’s capital. Albania admits that some milestones, like the campaign that would name the Canadarm, are things he would have done for the sheer pleasure of it.
“It’s never really been about the money. It’s always been about doing the right thing and moving the client’s interest or objective back to conclusion. I always felt that way. I always did it that way. And so the money came out of that,” he says.
Acart Communications has earned many accolades for campaigns over the years, but the most telling may have been a 2012 Globe and Mail investigation that found Acart won big when the federal government brought in tough, merit-based advertising rules in the wake of the sponsorship scandal. The Globe reported that the “tiny ad agency” won 26 per cent of federal advertising dollars over a 2.5-year period, beating out several large international firms with no whiff of political favouritism.
“Some of the work that we were doing was national in scope and outstanding in results for the client and provided the kind of revenue that most other agencies would give their eye teeth for,” Albania notes.
Albania will remain Acart’s biggest advocate in retirement. “I may not be involved in the company now,” he says, “but when I talk to people that ask me about advertising, I say, well, you should have an agency like Acart doing it.”
The 77-year-old also doesn’t plan to slow down. He says his real estate holdings, among other things, will keep him busy in retirement and hints property development may be in his future. His first investments, however, will be in some personal time. He plans to make much better use of his golf club membership and to travel with his wife and family.
“I’ve been working 46 years with this agency; I’ve never taken any more than a two-week vacation. I took three weeks on my honeymoon in 1970 and that was it. From my point of view, a little travel is going to be a benefit, not just to me, but to my family,” he admits.
Among the first order of business will be a Mediterranean cruise and an eight-day trip to the small town in northern Italy where he spent the first 10 years of his life.