LBB’s Addison Capper speaks with Ryan Timms (president), Josh Stein (chief creative officer), and Amanda Jones (chief strategy officer) about how being the longest standing agency in the country informs their work in 2021
Here’s a fact that we’ll admit we didn’t know until recently: McCann is the longest standing creative agency in Canada, having first opened its doors in 1915. At the helm today is a leadership team of three: Ryan Timms (president), Josh Stein (chief creative officer), and Amanda Jones (chief strategy officer).
The trio have each been with the agency for varying degrees of time. Ryan is part of McCann Canada furniture - 16 years ago he started as an account supervisor with McCann Toronto and became McCann Canada president midway through 2019. Josh joined McCann as Toronto's executive creative director from Tribal/DDB in 2016 and became country CCO at the end of 2019. Meanwhile, Amanda joined in December of 2020, but is more than familiar with the McCann network - she joined from McCann Bucharest and previously worked at McCann Manchester.
LBB's Addison Capper had the opportunity to chat with Ryan, Josh and Amanda about the agency's legacy status in Canada, helping Chevrolet to Canadian brand of the year, and looking at Canada through both a global and local lens.
LBB> One thing I’ll admit to not knowing prior to researching for this interview is that McCann is the oldest agency in Canada. Does that legacy guide your approach to running the agency at all?
Ryan> I think we would argue that it does quite a bit. When you have this sort of legacy, you feel a certain sense of duty to help protect it and help it flourish. We often assert that because we're Canada's longest standing creative agency, that forms a certain obligation to better understand Canadians and their expectations of brands today, more so than any other agency, otherwise what's the point of having been around for so long if that doesn't create a certain competitive advantage over time? It definitely permeates the way we behave and then the things that we try to achieve.
LBB> We’re lucky enough to have the whole leadership team here, so I wanted to ask, how do you all work together as a team?
Josh> You opened this conversation by saying it was nice to have all three of us here [I did indeed do this] and I think that's reflective of how we've been approaching everything. Now that Amanda has joined Ryan and I, we do feel complete. This pandemic has allowed us to take a step back and reflect on the agency - we have what we need, we have everything going for us that any agency would want. The three of us working together, we have very specific goals for the agency and we also have a very similar style in how each of the disciplines, regardless of what their job titles might be, have a clear understanding of where we're trying to take the agency, and what we're trying to do. Whether it's the three of us on a call, or if you get two of us, one of us, there's a common thread and a common theme, and it's like you're talking to all three of us.
LBB> With that in mind, where are you trying to take the agency? What is the vision?
Ryan> We're all ambitious people who will set high standards for what we do. We want to be consistently the top performing creative agency in the country, both for the quality of the work we do in its degree of creativity and, of course, the extent to which it can positively impact our clients' business, those two things. What makes us a bit unique in our ambition is that we want to achieve that with digital first thinking within the agency, we want to do that with a design first approach within the agency. Across every way by which creative agencies can be recognised as being top of their game, we want to be not just in one of those, but in all of those. And I think that's a testament to the sort of diversity of talent and breadth of offering that we've always been set up to provide clients - we can't just be good at one thing; we want to be good at all things.
LBB> Amanda, you’ve worked at McCann Manchester and Bucharest prior to joining Canada in December. I know you haven’t had a great deal of time to embed yourself into North America yet, but how are you finding the experience?
Amanda> Obviously, it's McCann, it's still within the same network, and so to some extent the DNA is the same. But there's definitely an energy and a sense of momentum that comes with McCann Canada, for me at least. To the point that Ryan was just making about having a clear ambition and knowing that creativity is at the heart of what we do, but as well as that I think there's a human side of McCann Canada and a natural empathy that comes with it. We talk about wanting to be a great place to work as well as being a place that does great work. Those are a couple of things that have stood out to me as a newcomer to the market.
LBB> How are you going about making it a great place to work when in the midst of the pandemic?
Amanda> Well, I've never met my team in person. I've never met these guys in person [referring to Ryan and Josh]. But it doesn't really feel like that if I'm completely honest. I know that's kind of a cliche. There are challenges when working remotely, of course - Josh, and I have talked about how everything seems a bit more formal when you do things via Teams, and so on and so forth. But there are advantages to it. It's a great privilege that we get to be inside our teams' houses every day, we get to meet their kids, we get to meet their goldfish, we get to see a different side of people. We are leading people, we don't just lead our colleagues, so to see that more holistic side of them gives us a bit of an advantage, if I'm honest, in terms of how we lead people having the clarity of vision, as well as remembering that we're all people and we're all going through similar experiences at the moment. We're experiencing the same bigger picture, even if our lives are very different, and in some cases in different places.
Josh> In 2016 we were the 34th ranked agency in Canada creatively and in 2020 we cracked the top 10. A lot of that is down to culture, the vibe of the place. And to Amanda's point about formality - how do you capture the vibe and the spirit of an agency that was doing all the right things when everyone is at home and hitting the Covid wall at different times? This whole thing has been an exercise in resilience, and that's what we're asking our people to do and having to do ourselves, while trying to continue on our journey of where we're trying to get to. I think that is thanks to a great leadership team, but also a great bunch of people who are open and willing to just try different things, like ways to recreate just having work up on the walls in this very formal Teams scenario. It's important to acknowledge that working from home implies that you have a job and have a home, and I use that as a reminder that in the foreseeable future we are going to be bought together, and it is going to be such an incredible moment in time where we are learning, we are growing, and we are getting closer to one another in a lot of ways.
LBB> You just mentioned that in 2016 you were ranked 34th creatively and you cracked the top 10 in 2020. Are there any moments in that four year period that really stand out as being particularly important steps up the ladder?
Josh> We did some work for Chevrolet and made them brand of the year in Canada. For me, that was a big moment. We won Petro-Canada and launched a new creative platform for them - that was also a special moment. And then starting work with, at the time Prostate Cancer Canada, but now the Canadian Cancer Society, we started to win at Cannes and that has become a kind of consistent thing. If you add all that stuff up, there were signs that everything was working, and we're on our way, and I think now the feeling is that while the pandemic has caused a moment of pause, we're pausing at the right spot, we don't have a whole mountain to continue to climb.
Ryan> The success of McCann globally has been well documented, led predominantly by New York and London, Tel Aviv and other markets. So, for us it wasn't just about being successful within the Canadian context, it was about setting our sights globally and wanting to be mentioned in the same paragraphs as McCann New York or McCann London. We became more ambitious and we did a lot to make sure that sense of focus and ambition was shared across disciplines and up and down ranks. It wasn't just a leadership thing. I bet Josh would agree that over the last four years, the frequency of conversation focus with account teams, with production, with strategists, and of course with creative has been about putting the right thinking back at the centre for how we show up every single day with our clients and pushing them. We are very fortunate because we have such long standing and trusting relationships with our clients. Sometimes it's easy to rest on your laurels within those types of relationships. Instead, over the last few years we've been really leveraging that to be able to help push our clients to do things that are outside of their comfort zones that have ultimately resulted in better work. Last year in the One Show, McCann Canada had the third most number of shortlists of any McCann office in the world behind New York and London. When you're part of the most celebrated creative agency network in the world your benchmark between who you're competing with changes a little bit, you want to be the best amongst that because in some ways that's even more impressive than just being the best within a certain geographic area.
LBB> Speaking of Chevrolet, I wanted to ask you about your work for them. To me, they feel like such a distinctly American brand. What are your thoughts on that from a Canadian perspective, considering your work to make them brand of the year?
Ryan> One of the things about being the longest standing creative agency in Canada is also having some of the longest standing client partnerships of any agency in Canada. Chevrolet's been a client of McCann's in Canada for over 100 years. They're certainly well-established but what's also amazing is that 1) you can have a client that long and then 2) even 100 years later help it regain a stature and a relevancy that it had struggled to maintain in previous years. They're well established but, for various reasons, people stopped thinking and caring about them. We were able to inject some really deep insight into our understanding of the Canadian public, and help them tap into something that no other brand had really been able to do. In some ways it was maybe even more powerful because they're a US based brand that was embracing Canadian values and a Canadian sensibility that they believed in, and that had the result of reconnecting with Canadians in a really meaningful manner.
Josh> It's less about being seen as an American brand, although that is an issue, and more about reminding Canadians that this brand, which has been in Canada for over 100 years and has roots firmly planted in communities all across the country, has the same set of values as most Canadians because it's Canadians that are making the cars and selling the cars.
LBB> In 2016 you ran a study called Truth About Canadians. What is the Truth About Canadians right now? And Amanda, what have you learned about Canadians since you started to work in the market?
Amanda> From a purely selfish point of view, the study gave me quite a good ground to get to know what Canadians are all about. In McCann we talk about truth a lot - The Truth Well Told - and we also have a central research agency, Truth Central. Being able to build on the work that they do and being able to tailor stuff to specific markets in the way that Truth About Canadians does has such power and gives you confidence that you can slice and dice it for different clients in different ways. The breadth of clients that we have in Canada is pretty impressive but having this kind of bible is a great thing. Also, over the past 12 months or so there has been so much turmoil that it’s great that we can go back to actually self-check ourselves about what is changing, what's changing quickly, and what's changing more slowly.
Josh> Something amazing about that study and something that we've really latched on to is that, while the outcome is that Canada is one of the most diverse countries in the world, there are these things that seem to draw a common thread through the population, such as individual success, but not the not at the detriment of others. It's given us a way to help clients see their audiences in ways that they hadn't historically, and not to get caught up in some of the demographic differences, but really find ways to tap into new audiences through those shared values. The Chevrolet story is probably one of the best testaments to the effectiveness of that because that was one of our first clients to really benefit from that study and it did wonders. To Amanda's point, we're fortunate because we can keep going back to that and see how things are evolving now. It's not just a one and done, being able to look at how those values and those expectations are going to evolve and how that impacts brands is a really valuable tool for us to be able to apply.
LBB> One thing I’ve seen you say as an agency is that you can look at Canada through both a local and global lens. This ties in with our previous question but could you speak a bit more to what you mean by that and how it’s beneficial?
Amanda> Canada is such a diverse place - and in every sort of dimension of what you could mean by diversity. For us to understand the intersections of those two things, their connections with the rest of the world and the lives that they live locally gives us a real advantage in terms of understanding the roles that our brands can therefore play in their lives. We talk about moving at the speed of culture - well, you can't really do that unless you understand that on both of those altitudes, the bigger picture and the local one, to see how those things compare, how those macro forces are influencing Canada, or not in some instances. Maybe it's just a part of my background, but cultures are so much less defined by geographical borders now than they ever were previously. So it makes sense that we as an agency would focus on both of those things and not get so consumed by the local that we lose sight of the bigger picture, but equally not get so consumed by the bigger picture to not understand how different people's lives are within our own country. It's an important theme everywhere, but it does strike me as being particularly important in a market like Canada.
LBB> Is there a piece of work from the past year that sticks out as being particularly important for you as an agency?
Josh> This past year has been a tough one, I'm just happy that we're getting through it. But McCann's whole reason for being is to help brands play a meaningful role in people's lives, and there were two campaigns in particular this past year that really did that, not to overlook all the important work that we're doing for everyone. One was called 'Grown with Love' and was a social campaign that we did with Wendy's a couple months into the pandemic. At the time we identified the social insight that we could all use a little bit of love, especially in social media. We also found out that lettuce plants in general respond better when they are read to or spoken to, or have positive things read aloud to him. We got a bunch of people to send in tweets that we would read aloud to our lettuce in the greenhouse. It did actually help the lettuce grow, which was good! But it was just a fun little social campaign that we're really proud of.
The other one is an event we did for a brand called NYX Cosmetics, which is underneath the L'Oreal brand house, that was called Safe Space Sessions. We did it leading up to National Coming Out Day because NYX is a long-standing, proud ally of the LGBTQ+ community and all NYX locations are certified safe spaces, where people can go and be themselves with no judgement, all their staff have training to be able to have relevant conversations. Anyway, the lockdown was hard on all of us but for a lot of LGBTQ+ youth, they were confined to houses where they weren't even allowed to be their true selves. So we did an event leading up to National Coming Out Day that allowed people to come and be their authentic selves in a digital event. We had some surprise guests, such as LGBTQ+ influencers, to start a conversation with their community and to seek out people who needed to talk. It had an immediate, meaningful impact to a lot of people from all over the world and was a really special moment for us, especially because of that real time understanding and being able to see how important this was for a lot of young people.
LBB> What are your thoughts on the Canadian ad industry in general at the moment?
Ryan> From my perspective, there's more great work coming out of Canada now than there has been for a long time. Not that it just happened overnight, it's been ramping up that way, but I think we're seeing a lot of great work coming out of our organisation, our sister agencies like Momentum and McCann Health, and our peers in the market. We're seeing a lot of great creative thinking, but now also a sense of deepening partnerships with clients as to 'what next?’ Things are at a rate of change we've never really experienced before - how to stay one step ahead and help drive the right thinking that is really going to positively impact our clients' businesses. I think that's how things will evolve within the Canadian landscape. I think Canadian agencies and the industry in Canada is well poised to do quite well in that, there's a certain agility and and inventiveness that I think will help Canadian agencies, including us, really guide our clients in this kind of next chapter, or second or third chapter, depending on what the rest of this year and next looks like.
LBB> Personally, I consistently love a lot of the work that comes out of Canada. As you say, there’s a real inventiveness to it and it just often entertains me. And it manages it with smaller budgets than, say, the US.
Ryan> Canadian agencies have to be incredibly resourceful. It's absolutely true. The budgets tend to be smaller yet you have this fairly mature media landscape, a very diverse audience - not nearly to the scale of the US and certain other markets, but all the complexities are there - but with much less resource to apply. So it really puts an emphasis on the talent and finding those corners of opportunity to make things really special and stand out on behalf of a brand.
Josh> And also a really great, closely tight-knit, awesome community of creativity. We have amazing partners in the post production world, and we do great things with what we have. We've seen work over the past few months real great stuff for real big brands, and it wasn't big budget but it was so impactful and meaningful. We're fans of the work that gets done up here. I think if you talked to people in the music industry, TV or film in Canada, you're probably talking to a group of people who have to be resourceful and find ways to make the best version of the work. And most of the time the work doesn't suffer.
LBB> A tough question at the moment but what do the coming months hold in store for you all and the agency?
Ryan> The biggest thing that everybody's reeling with is that we're not out of the woods yet, right? Due to the fatigue and frustration that people are dealing with I think our focus is on how we can continue to find ways to help people cope as best as possible. We have to constantly be asking ourselves how we can help. We're also having some great conversations about not just helping our people, but our clients.
Amanda> Yeah. We talked before about resilience of the market and resourcefulness but we shouldn't underestimate the role of creativity in helping us all survive what we have been living through on every level, whether it be personally, culturally, our brands, the businesses. I think pivot was probably the most used word of last year apart from Covid, and the creativity that's at the heart of some of our businesses and making sure that we don't lose sight of the power of creativity in a crisis. As Ryan said, we're not out of the woods yet. I guess that's predominantly meant from a health crisis perspective, but there are so many other elements of it as well globally, whether it be politically, economically, socio-culturally. All of those elements are still to come in many senses, so making sure that we look after our people, but also that we keep our ear close to the ground and continue to understand culture in a way that allows us to do the best creative. The two pieces that Josh spoke about are both culturally very relevant. They're totally different but they're both deeply, culturally relevant. And I think that's what the future holds.