Let's Meet at the Station

October 29, 2015


With a strong creative team and a focus on positive office culture, new Toronto agency Central Station is on the fast-track to success


Creative director Brad Monk has what he calls a “change of space” mentality.


“It’s easy to come in every day and sit in the same place. But in a job that demands you solve different problems and see things in different ways every day — you can’t do that if you sit and stare at the same computer monitor on your desk,” he says. “You have to keep a fresh perspective. A creative job is not a routine.”


It’s perhaps that attitude that guided Monk and his business partner David Williams when they merged their marketing agency, MonkWilliams, with Zebra Studios, a design-driven marketing firm owned by John Boniface, Joe Angellotti and Paul Perkins, last month. Together, the five have created Central Station, Toronto’s newest agency and a self-described “hub” that sits at the intersection of design, advertising and marketing.


Central Station is also at a literal crossroads — close to Summerhill Station, the agency sits at an accessible point between downtown’s glass towers and the city’s northern neighbourhoods.


It’s there, in a grey building that looks like a quasi-residence, that I meet Monk and agency president John Boniface. Central Station’s new space is completely purpose-built — a glass-walled meeting room with floor-to-ceiling whiteboard, a wall of smoothly polished live-edge wood slats, murals of historic train images and maps, open workstations with adjustable heights, the agency’s signature orange colour on the walls. And, following that aforementioned “change of space” philosophy, whether you’re in the ground-level creative department (which includes 80 per cent of the staff), the second-floor digital or the third-floor accounts spaces, there are several lounges and collaborative areas where staff can escape their desks.


“Culture is about being happy,” explains Monk. “An agency that promotes people doing what they need to do and coming to work happy and excited to be there — that’s what Central Station is.”


The agency sits in an area of the city that was historically called Central Station, unbeknownst to the partners as they set out in search of their identity. (“That was good luck and good fortune,” notes Boniface.) It wasn’t until the name had been selected that someone pointed out it had a geographical accuracy as well as its intended metaphoric meaning.


“Beside the fact that all agency names have been done, it’s hard to find something that you want to live by. You want a name that you like to say and that you feel good about,” says Monk. “The main reason we gravitated to the name is that it represents the creative journey we have with clients. Like in a central station, we meet at this point, and we go to incredible places.”


Central Station’s tagline, Arrive Together, was developed before the name. It’s about the journey Monk mentioned, and the logo mark of spokes represents each bit of “track” the agency covers with its clients on that journey. “I joke that our big presentations will be a letdown, because clients are going to know half of what they’re going to see. Because they’ve been there as we went through,” says Monk.


It’s hardly a joke, though. In their collective 20 years as owners of independent agencies, Monk, Boniface and co. have gotten this thing down to an art. MonkWilliams started in 2014 as a brand strategy agency when the two co-founders left their positions at DraftFCB (now FCB Canada). Zebra Studios launched in 1997 as a design-driven marketing firm that specialized in retail, fabrication and digital. The two companies had recently worked together on projects such as Mad Jack Premium Apple Lager for Molson Coors and the retail design for promotion of the Nike Women’s 15K Run. On September 30, Central Station opened with 30 employees, and the partners are already looking to expand their staff numbers as they work on the launch of another national brand for Molson and a rebrand for a Canadian company.


Joining forces to provide an expanded offering was a no-brainer as far as the clients were concerned, says Monk. The level of client-to-creative interaction at their mid-size agency remains the same, and the extra resources are appealing. “It’s like making Kool-Aid with a lot of water,” he says. “The talent is the Kool-Aid, and it gets diluted in the big agencies. It’s like, ‘wow, this doesn’t taste like it had anyone senior involved.’ When you get into mid-size […] the answers are in the room.”


Of the two smaller, successful companies, Boniface, who worked with both Monk and Williams at DraftFCB before joining Zebra in 2014, says, “We were all growing, and we had complementary skill sets. But the real ‘let’s seal the deal’ came from the chemistry we had working together before, and from knowing our talents and convictions aligned.”


One of those principles is the way in which they treat their clients. While the team at Central Station recognizes the value their marketing know-how brings to their roster, they aren’t afraid to let the client be a part of the process.


“Clients today have never been smarter,” says Monk. “Now, there’s a shared expertise. It’s a good idea to open the doors and let everyone who is a decision maker play along in what you’re building.”


Respect is a big sticking point too, says Boniface. “This idea of walking away for three weeks after talking to the client, with virtually no contact, then doing a big ta-da, hoping that your work is going to make the client feel ‘uncomfortable’ — well, I don’t think they want to feel uncomfortable. I think they want to feel confident, they want to feel excited, they want to feel vested in what we’re doing.”


Nike installation for Foot Locker


Monk and Boniface, who were able to retain the client lists from their respective agencies during the merger without any competition, say they are focusing on their existing base before fielding new opportunities. “The clients wanted this — they know we are capable, but now we have different weapons to bring to the table and more talent to inject into their business,” Boniface says.


That extra talent was a win for Molson’s new apple-flavoured lager, Mad Jack, which launched a couple years ago but received a massive rollout this year. Zebra and MonkWilliams collectively worked on the campaign, and it only reiterated their decision to unite.


The Mad Jack takeover on the subway platforms at Toronto’s Yonge-Bloor Station was the biggest ever in Canada, with more than 100 unique pieces of creative involved. One of the more successful pieces was a series of “fake” generic ads running on television screens that would change to Mad Jack posters with related taglines as the train rolled by and “shook” them.


This kind of creativity is part of what makes Central Station distinctive in the market, says Monk. It’s truly a multidisciplinary studio with the ability to work advertising into the design from the get-go. In Mad Jack’s case, the packaging was developed with the advertising campaign in mind, so that everything related to each other. The apple slice, used in place of a lime on the packaging, became the “hero” image and rolled out through all of the campaign materials.


“The opportunity in design is so much larger than people realize,” Monk explains. “When you take designers with true advertising thinking behind them — not only are you going to get a great design, but embedded in that design will be an idea that you can then leverage.”


“We get the creative idea on the table early. We give a much more complete package. Designers here don’t work in isolation. They work with the writers and brand teams to plan the launch of a campaign package. That’s something unique you’ll see out of Central Station going forward.”


We’re on board.


See below for the series of fake ads Central Station created for Mad Jack Premium Apple Lager. The first ad would appear on a television screen, only to be shaken into the real Mad Jack ad below once the train passed by.










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