Stephen Brown and Garo Keresteci have owned and run FUSE Create (formerly Fuse Marketing Group) in Toronto for 19 years. The pair previously worked together at a multinational business called Mosaic Group, but in the early 2000s it hit some financial difficulties. Despite the hiccups elsewhere, the Toronto outpost of the business was performing well and had a bunch of loyal clients. Stephen and Garo saw an opportunity, and on the day that Mosaic closed its down, in mid-January 2003, they and 15 others gathered in a rented space with no name. Fuse was born.
Historically, Fuse Marketing Group was known as a strategic, “suit-led” agency but a full scale rebrand in May 2020 saw a name change to FUSE Create, the appointment of a creative department and the implementation of a fully integrated offering. Since then, FUSE Create has been named #3 Small Agency in Canada by local industry publication Strategy.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Stephen and Garo to find out more about the shift in business strategy, making such a big change in the earliest days of covid, and how a potentially tricky office lease issue led to them owning their dream office.
LBB> You completely rebranded from Fuse to FUSE Create in May 2020, not long after the pandemic started. Tell me about that!
Stephen> We'd been planning it before that, but we were going to launch it and then the pandemic hit so we decided to hold out for a bit. Then three or four weeks into the pandemic we realised that covid wasn’t going anywhere so we let it out. It was the perfect thing to do for keeping people engaged.
We never took our foot off of the strategy. We relaunched the brand of Fuse Marketing Group as FUSE Create with a huge cultural and business transformation. We just kept going with it and won two large pieces of business. We never took our foot off that pedal. We kept the momentum going.
Garo> We were probably more known as a strategy, suit-led lead agency that gave the client what they wanted in a timely manner and at a good value. We took that — great client relationships and being well-known in the marketplace — and then we added a very strong creative component. We hired a new ECD and CD. We turned over our creative department and it's paying dividends. We’re out talking to people as FUSE Create that didn't know us as a creative agency and we're having really great success. We were just awarded number three small agency in Canada.
We've stuck to keeping our current clients very happy and pushing them creatively. We didn't lose one client through covid. Some of our clients paused, like Las Vegas tourism, but all of them are back and we’ve grown from there. It's back to what I said - culture is our superpower. The teams worked extra hard. There's so much trust. I was on a pitch recently to a big hospital foundation. I did the intro, then sat back. At the end, after 45 minutes, I said, "I have the best job in the world. I get to watch our people talk about our company with the passion I did." And I'm one of the owners. We know the type of clients that we are well designed for, so when we get into a pitch situation, which we go after cautiously because pitches can be an incredible time sucker, we do pretty well.
LBB> With the repositioning in mind, how would you define FUSE Create today and how it sits within the Canadian market?
Stephen> We're a significant independent. Having 80 employees makes us a good, mid-large independent. FUSE Create itself has 50 or so people but we also have a healthcare group. Our past was more on the data, digital, experiential, retail side of things. Over the last few years, we've become more integrated. This shift from a creative and strategic perspective to being the creative-led agency has made us much more of an integrated player. We don't shy away from experiential or CRM — we do really well in that space, we love it — but we needed to be much more known in the Canadian market as a creative entity. With all the digital stuff we were doing, we were doing so much stuff that was above the line. That's the way the market is going - if you do a TV spot, it's also a massive content creation opportunity for all.
Garo> Because our background in the early days was CRM, direct and promo, we have a real appreciation for the lower funnel. Even though now we're doing a lot of upper funnel work, you can't take the ‘Win! Free! Save! promo-guy’ out of me! I want to make that sale as well. In fact, we won two awards this year from the Canadian Marketing Association, and both of them were in the business impact category, which we're quite proud of. They're beautiful campaigns and they delivered for the client.
Stephen> A lot of CPG brands love the fact that we can do TV but we can also navigate the complexity of social, digital and experiential for them. And we don't try to be the one stop for everything, but the fact that we can handle the bulk of their budgets is appealing. In the last two years, we've added a tonne into our creative capabilities, but we also brought in media. Media is booming because this concept of "work with this big media company and then work with this creative agency and try to get the two of them to communicate" isn't great. But we're coming back to a lot of our clients with full, solid integrated ideas that can be executed.
LBB> You've been independent the whole time that you’ve operated - is that a conscious decision? What does that add to you as a business?
Garo> We produce ideas and execute them with excellence, and ideas come from people. We've always believed that culture is the superpower of an independent agency. That's the biggest difference between us and the multinationals we compete with down the road. That's not just what we say, that's what our clients say. Canada is an interesting sized market where we have a big presence by multinationals, but there's also some really good independent agencies that are on the world stage. So, we play in a very vibrant, independent market. Because we're so close to the US border, there are a lot of brands that fly the Canadian flag. And what we're saying to them is, "You know what? You can't fly the Canadian flag and outsource your marketing partnership to an agency that reports into London, Tokyo or New York.” That resonates.
Stephen> As hard as the pandemic was to manage, the ability to chart our own course through the pandemic with our special sauce and blend made a huge difference. We could play with profit levels and all that type of stuff. The long view is, and this is a significant road bump that we're managing, but if you stay healthy through it, we will come out of there. We're coming out of it now. Keep the foundation of your business strong and your culture strong and you're ready. 2022 is going fast. But we have this amazing team we kept and we added new people. It's short-term profit versus long term growth.
LBB> Tell us about a recent piece of work that really represents what FUSE Create does well and what you’ve just been telling me about?
Stephen> In the past year we've been doing work for Maple Leaf Foods who do processed meats. They've asked us to work on some of their more snackable brands, and that's an example where we're able to navigate for them everything from the insight that leads to a great creative idea to the execution. For the execution, we were the first to get them onto TikTok and a lot of these other platforms. It's just navigating through all the wealth of social media, but also managing all the media behind it too. That's probably one of the most exciting ones.
Garo> With Ricola [a Swiss-owned cough drops brand], the interesting thing that happened in their business was nobody got sick anymore. There was covid, but nobody was getting coughs or colds because we're wearing masks and washing our hands. So, they had to really shift their business from the cough and cold to everyday usage, and we led that out of Canada. It was really successful. We won a couple of awards for them in the last few years. We did the idea of protecting your everyday voice as opposed to just coughing, which was really powerful.
LBB> You recently moved into a new space in Toronto. Tell me about that.
Garo> We bought a building. We took a third of the space we had before, but we bought a building in a very cool part of Toronto. There are lots of restaurants and bars nearby and it's going to become almost like a clubhouse. It'll be a co-creation and collaboration space for our staff. And that's just going to fuel this cultural piece for us. We're really excited about that and we're literally days away from moving into that space.
LBB> The fact that it’s smaller than the previous office is interesting but does make a lot of sense these days.
Stephen> We had 14,000 square feet for years. We were in the same spot pretty much from inception, I think we were there by month eight. And it was good - a brick and beam classic warehouse-type space, right in the central zone of Toronto for a lot of advertising and tech. But our lease was up in November of 2021 and they were renovating the building, so we knew we had to leave. The landlord was trying to find us a new spot but the pandemic hit and we realised, "well, this concept of everyone needing a desk is now virtually gone." We could rethink space massively. I will say flat out - and I have no problem admitting this - the landlords in Canada did shit all to help loyal tenants during the pandemic. Everyone stepped up to help during the pandemic except for the landlords. Any form of loyalty towards them died. That actually spurred the idea of us becoming our own landlords - and that's when we realised that we don't need as much space. Buying 40,000 square feet of space is a whole different story. But buying 4500 to 5000 was manageable. That's one part of this equation.
The second part was our creative and strategy group who are instrumental and are a massive benefit to our business. They said to us early in the search, "We'd love not to be in a typical office. We'd much rather be in a unique type of space.” When we searched, we found this space on Ossington with high ceilings, lots of light, three stories and a storefront which meant we could do pop-ups for clients. And if you've ever looked for an apartment or a house yourself, you often walk in and know pretty quickly that you don’t like it. But sometimes, you walk in and go, "woah." That was the reaction we had, especially when we brought the creatives and the leads of the business in. They all said, "this is it."
LBB> With this in mind, how do you see long-term working practices at FUSE Create?
Stephen> The structure will remain completely flexible for now. Coming in is kind of at your discretion. We're not going to impose mandates until we decide if we need them at some point, but the whole concept is designed for about 50-60% of the company coming in on any given day, and we know that it's probably going to be busier on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday versus Monday and Friday. That's the model and that directed a lot of the way we designed it. We've built three closed-in boardrooms and there'll be a fourth when we finish. We have a desk room where you can rent a desk. The rest of the space is all sorts of communal working zones, so you can come in and sit at a big table and just plug away all day, or you can book closed off rooms if you need a war room or if you need quiet space. We also have soundproofed telephone booths so you can go have a freak out with your partner or plan your night without your neighbour knowing. And then there's a monstrous beautiful rooftop terrace overlooking downtown and the skyline that has been redone. And we’re building two or three working cabanas, so you can also sit outside and get shade and work there. There's also the kitchen, all that type of stuff with lots of bench seating and lots of lounge seating. It's kind of like taking the Starbucks working approach and merging it with the good parts of an office.
Garo> We've also got a charity who we're going to announce a partnership with, which is involved in supporting indigenous reconciliation, which is a big, big issue in Canada. They get to use a boardroom in some space and that's one of the ways we're supporting them. I think the pop ups will be great too. We can finish a pitch and you say "oh, by the way, we'll sample out of this storefront for the month of June”, and it's all branded with our client. That kind of flexibility is really, really fitting nicely with what our plans are.
LBB> What does the rest of the year hold for FUSE Create?
Garo> Our 2022 plan is to be up about 18%, so very aggressive. Things like active conversations have never been more robust. The interesting thing I'm seeing is a lot of start-ups. Unfortunately, we're a bit too large for many start-ups, though we will take an equity piece. We just made a six figure investment in a start-up from the Bay Area that we think is fantastic. We're seeing lots of activity; a lot of new business and a lot of smaller things because there's a lot of free-flowing money on the start-up side. We play that role as well - as an independent, we can say, "we love this idea, we'll put some skin in the game." But we're pretty bullish on the year. We're still trying to differentiate ourselves from the big multinationals for those really large clients. Big Canadian brands are saying, "we love the independent, but we need a big agency." Well, the biggest agency in Canada is LG2 out of Montreal and they're independent with 385 people. Rethink in Toronto and Vancouver has a couple hundred. Come on, it's a bullshit argument. I think we're still trying to break through. We're doing really well in the mid-market, but we need to break through at the top.