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Kim Tarlo on Why the World Is Taking Note of Toronto
Production Company
Toronto, Canada
Mint’s ECD and Partner, Kim Tarlo, speaks to LBB’s Ben Conway about Canadians being “the most progressive people in the world”, Toronto’s newfound creative confidence and gen z’s hatred for traditional advertising

"Great creative has no boundaries. The best work can come from anywhere. Meet some of Canada’s best creative thinkers. The work is world class and consistent."

Canadian production company FRANK Content is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Canadian market. As part of that relationship, LBB is sitting down for a chat with the brightest and best minds from across Canada's advertising industry. Today, LBB’s Ben Conway has the pleasure of talking with Kim Tarlo, executive creative director and partner at Mint

Kim has worked for agencies in Canada, the UK and the US including Sid Lee, McCann, and Sunshine, amongst others. She is a writer by craft, entrepreneurial in spirit and film director for fun. Over the last near-15 years, she has endeavoured to build brands that thrive in, or sometimes even form, culture. She has worked on a mix of global and local work, massive brand transformations, and small nimble projects. Her work has been recognised by Cannes, Effies, Clios, Strategy, Communication Arts, amongst others. Her rebrand of A&E received the Fast Company’s Innovation by Design award and she was named in Marketing Magazine’s ‘Top 30 Under 30’, as well as being one of Youtube’s ‘Creative Women to Watch’.

Talking to LBB’s Ben Conway, she speaks about making work that “feels different”, why Toronto forever has its claws in her, and teaching the “hungry” and “multi-talented” next generation of Canadian talent in her portfolio class at Miami Ad School.

LBB> How did you get your start in the industry?

Kim> Quite unintentionally. I started in music. Music had always been a big part of my life and when I first saw Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, I was bewitched. I wanted to be a music writer. My first internship was at Universal Music interviewing artists, writing blogs, releases, scripts for college radio - that sort of thing. I drove a Honda Civic at the time and my trunk was full of free CDs. Yep, CDs. This is when Kanye’s Graduation came out. It was a good time, but there wasn’t much opportunity as a music writer in the early 2000s. So I widened my aperture and discovered creative agencies - and haven’t looked back since. I am very grateful to have had nearly my entire career (save from that one internship) in the bosom of creative departments.

LBB> When did you start at Mint and what was your motivation for doing so? Could you sum up the ride with Mint so far?

Kim> Before joining Mint I was creative director at Sid Lee. My last day was on March 11th, 2020. I remember because that was the same day the NBA suspended its season and really triggered North Americans to take notice of this covid thing. The day after my sendoff drinks, I called Jordan (CEO) to make sure I still had a job to go to. Luckily for me, I did.  

The ride has been more than I could have hoped for. The team is one of the kindest and most open-minded groups I have ever worked with. And there’s just something about being independent that intrinsically allows creativity to flourish. I have been at Mint for just over two years and am so proud to be a part of this exceptionally talented team building an agency that makes work that just feels different.

LBB> You’ve worked at agencies in the US, Canada and the UK. What key differences and similarities have you observed? What attracted you to the Canadian market after leaving Sunshine in New York, for example?

Kim> It’s Toronto that has always had its claws in me. New York, London… arguably the best cities in the world, I miss them and hope to go back to work one day. But Toronto is my home. More than that though, Toronto is just a hardcore creative place. And honestly, I feel like I’ve come up at a time when this city has come into its own and that’s been energising. That was always the biggest difference for me. In New York and London there’s confidence. Confidence in talent, creativity, innovation, intelligence. In the early part of my career, I didn’t always see that confidence in Toronto. But it’s here now, and the world’s taking note. It’s why we’re now a destination for film, tech, innovation and so much more. My hope is that brands progress at the speed of people in this country to be able to represent and inspire them properly.

LBB> Mint says that its philosophy is “building brands to make a positive impact on culture and the future” - can you elaborate on this concept? How does this impact the work that Mint does?

Kim> The culture piece is central to all our work. It’s where we start, craft and finish. Meaning we look to culture for insight, inspiration and collaboration. What we seek to achieve is work that naturally lives amongst it, not takes away from it. This is why our work tends to feel different. And when it comes to the piece about the future this is quite simple and human. We, the owners of Mint, all have children now and so we are acutely aware of our impact on the world they’ll grow up in. So we work hard to be progressive in everything we do and partner with our clients to not just think about now, but how to contribute to a better future too. This sometimes comes out in big strategic platforms, but sometimes it comes out in seemingly smaller ways like how we craft a piece of work when thinking about casting, say.   

LBB> When it comes to hiring new talent, are there a lot of people from abroad looking to come to the market right now?

Kim> We don’t get a lot of international applicants looking to come to Canada. However, we do have Mintees who come from different countries and bring a unique perspective with them. 

LBB> Could you talk to us about your instructor work at the Miami Ad School in Toronto? What do you teach and how is the Canadian youth of the advertising industry shaping up?

Kim> I was invited to teach the portfolio class at Miami Ad School. I was actually the follow-up instructor after the formidable creative director Kyle Lamb, so I had big shoes to fill. I found it one of the most refreshing things I did during covid. Seeing the industry through the student’s eyes was incredible. I mean these young people know a hell of a lot more than I did when I started. They’re so hungry, they all want to change the world, and they’re all multi-talented. They think more like inventors than in ad units, which I got a huge kick out of. 

One thing I did note, and was bummed about (especially with my bias), is there didn’t seem to be as many young people getting into copy. It’s always been tougher to protect the craft of copy, mostly because anyone can open a Google Doc and string a sentence together and call it copywriting. You don’t see that as often in design, maybe Canva is changing that. But not seeing as many young people enrolled in the craft is worrisome.

LBB> How will Mint harness and develop these young talents?

Kim> We are going to do the same thing my best creative directors did - get out of the way and let them make magic.

LBB> Is there a piece of work that Mint created in the last year that you’re especially proud of? Feel free to give us a couple of examples and explain why you chose them.

Kim> Launching Youtube Shorts in Canada was a fascinating challenge. YouTube is iconic and the OG of viral videos and the remix. But in recent years, driven by gen z, short-form video has dominated. Now gen z hates traditional advertising. Not brands, they actually love brands, but not traditional methods. So we built this mega campaign as the definitive celebration of ‘remix culture’ by collaborating with creators at every step; from our campaign anthem (a remix of The Royal Teen’s Short Shorts produced by Wondagurl) to hundreds of pieces of original content. Everything was made not for creators but with them. It was a huge feat, a ton of fun, and the outcome was powerful. Big shout out to Anna and Sean. 

‘Pairs Well With You’ was another one we did for Sterling Wine where we explored identity - both who we are and what we project to the world. This is a big conversation in culture right now, and frankly, a core topic humans have explored for centuries. The craft of this campaign was impeccable. We worked with Jasmin Mozaffari, who I had been a fangirl of ever since watching her brilliant film, ‘Firecracker’. Jasmin’s visual language and knack for storytelling is inspiring. Working with Jasmin, Alex and Madison built this beautiful world inspired by identity projections. I love this one because it is artful and free-thinking, but also ties well to the product - a versatile wine that pairs well with you.

That all said, when I watch our reel from the last year on our website, I get butterflies for so many of the projects the whole team has worked on. It’s really been a great year. 

LBB> Mint’s list of capabilities is long - from advertising and branding, to experiential, B2B events and PR - how is the agency set up to operate in all of these fields? And, as your website says, how do you put “creative first” in all of these disciplines?

Kim> Creativity is the whole point. And so when we say we’re “creative first” we are describing the state of mind everyone at Mint lives in and works by. We all want to make work we are proud of and to do that we let creative thought flow and protect it. We value craft deeply and believe we all play a part in it. I often default to analogies about restaurants because I grew up in them with restaurateur parents. But we see the creative as the food. Without exceptional food, a restaurant is nothing. What is an agency without exceptional creativity?

LBB> We recently spoke with a director who said that the concept of what it means to be Canadian is undergoing a lot of change and updating. Have you noticed this? Has this changed how Canadians are advertised to and how Canada is represented in Mint’s creative work?

Kim> Canadians are some of the most progressive people in the world but they’re often represented or spoken to by brands in a conservative or dated way. We work hard alongside our client partners to combat this.

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