The Creative Frontier
by Kristina Urquhart
April 19, 2017
We’re going on a road trip! (Figuratively speaking, at least.) It’s Canada’s sesquicentennial year, so we’re hopscotching around the country in search of the best regional creative work
Are we there yet? We’d like to think so. In 2017, Canada’s creative economy is more powerful than ever. Last year, UK innovation charity Nesta published its report “Creative Economy Employment in the US, Canada and the UK,” which determined that of those three countries, Canada has the greatest creative employment as a percentage of the workforce, at 12.9 per cent. It has the largest share of workers not only in creative jobs, but also of creative people working in non-creative industries.
With freedom of movement, telecommunications and increasing public demand for creative services, professionals in Canada can choose what type of environment they want to work in (studio? freelance? in-house?) and, more importantly, where. There’s no doubt that a large urban centre can provide endless inspiration for a creative person. For many aspiring pros, “living the dream” in the “big city” is part and parcel of being an artist. But the same can be said about smaller population centres—they may offer a different pace of life, a tight-knit arts community, or the opportunity to corner a market.
Greg Spencer, a research associate at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, co-authored the Nesta report. In a 2016 interview with U of T News, Spencer notes that his previous research points to Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto as housing half of the country’s creative economy.
This also means that half the creative economy exists outside those three cities. Canadians are producing creative work everywhere—in regions large and small, in bedroom communities and remote hamlets, in large studios and at kitchen tables. We checked in with four creatives around the country to see what’s happening in their corner of Canada.
Saint John, NB
Canada’s East Coast bears its share of stereotypes, but at least one of them rings true. The region’s famous affable attitude is fundamental not only to living there, but working there, too.
“Here, it’s not about the sell. It’s about becoming part of the client’s company and marketing team,” explains Lise Hansen, creative director and partner at creative agency Bonfire. She points to her firm’s mentorship role in the community, guiding start-ups and entrepreneurs as they prepare for launch. “It’s a small place. There’s one degree of separation. So once your name is attached to ‘this person does that really well,’ it doesn’t take much to get work.”
Hansen and business partner Allan Gates have watched the work steadily roll in since they opened their full-service communications company four years ago in Saint John, a city of 70,000, as an alternative to the region’s established agency outposts where they’d collectively worked for the past two decades.
“The challenge of a small market like New Brunswick or even Atlantic Canada is there’s not a ton of jobs in this field. So we wanted to create our own,” says Gates. “We wanted to get rid of some of the negatives of agency life, hold on to positives like the creativity and flexibility, and really build around that while staying here in New Brunswick.”
The pared-down structure of Bonfire led the studio to collaborations with other artists, like interior designer Judith Mackin, who they’ve worked with on several projects. “Saint John has a small but robust creative community,” notes Gates. “It tends to be a lot more collegial and not competitive. We’re not all trying to steal business from one another; we often work together. It’s along the lines of what you probably think the Maritimes are like.”
Bonfire’s own strengths include advertising, content marketing, branding and media strategies developed for restaurants, local B2B and tech companies, and provincial organizations. Much of its client list exports products throughout Canada, the US and beyond.
For Canadian molasses stalwart Crosby’s, Bonfire recently put together a new visual system and marketing direction to highlight the company’s 138-year history. A partnership with The Amazing Race Canada followed, bringing more attention to the historic brand.
It’s a great example of how Bonfire makes connecting with consumers a client’s top priority, using inbound marketing techniques to cut through the clutter and draw engagement. “The way you frame that story matters so much to how it’s received on the other end,” says Gates. “To me, marketers are ruining the idea of storytelling with marketing jargon. Storytelling is the fundamental way people communicate. That’s how they absorb information.”
Bonfire’s first story was its own. The visual identity Hansen created for the agency garnered her team a gold ICE Award, which recognizes outstanding creative work in Atlantic Canada. The logotype echoes the semicircle people form around a campfire, and a visual system of wilderness and camping symbols applies to all collateral as a brand unifier. “People noted it; and it was kind of different for the region,” says Gates. “We have a thing where we try to be authentically Maritime, but not hokey Maritime, so we have a rule—no lighthouses or things like that!”
Another stereotype Gates wishes to shatter? “We get people on the outside looking in, and their default view is that the Maritimes are economically depressed, that our forestry industry is in decline, and all that,” he says. “But we see interesting things happening here. We see more entrepreneurial spirit than there used to be. There’s more boldness that wasn’t here before. People are taking a bigger view of the world.”
“So we want to reflect that a little bit in the work that we do. Our competition isn’t the agency down the street. It’s everything else in the world,” he says. “It needs to be that good. It can’t be just ‘good enough for New Brunswick’ or ‘good enough for the Maritimes’ anymore. It has to be good enough to compete with anything from anyone.”
“My wife calls it ‘The Portland of the Prairies,’” says designer Giles Woodward of his adopted city of Saskatoon. “There’s a maker community here. And it’s still early days, which is good because it means there is opportunity.”
Woodward is no stranger to opportunity, having spontaneously left his UK-based design shop in 1998 to apply for teaching jobs in Ireland, New Zealand and a place he’d never heard of called Medicine Hat, Alberta. “I looked in an atlas and saw it was in Canada, right in the middle of the country. I thought, ‘that’s crazy, let’s apply for that!’” he says. “I imagined tumbleweeds blowing across the street. That was the only image I had before I came here.”
Woodward taught design and typography at Medicine Hat College for 15 years and, on the side, launched a Calgary-based design studio called FISHNET, which, like his UK endeavour, produced creative for arts and cultural institutions including exhibition catalogues and promotional materials. It was the kind of work he wanted to get back to after moving to Saskatoon four years ago and spending two as a creative director at a local ad agency Kinetic. “The advertising agency world is pretty demanding, and left me feeling as if I was very tired creatively,” says Woodward. “My heart lies in community, even though I can throw my expertise at any sector.”
Studio Woodward/Two Six Creative
He stepped out on his own to form Studio Woodward, a one-man creative shop, where he’s done work for the local chapter of the Heart & Stroke Foundation and created a 3D poster for Saskatoon’s third annual Nuit Blanche arts festival. “I believe that work has to engage people and make them smile,” he says of his paper-plate concept for the 2016 festival. “The arts deserve that attitude from artists.”
It wasn’t long before Woodward’s freelance work too became a side project, as he joined TWO SIX Creative full time last year. The newly minted studio is the former in-house marketing department for the Riverbend Group of Companies (RGOC), a trio of construction supply businesses. “The CEO of RGOC wanted to rebrand TWO SIX and give it an identity of its own, so we could continue doing work for the internal businesses, but then also take on external clients,” Woodward says. He notes Saskatoon’s creative scene consists of many in-house designers and freelancers with not much in between. “There are no design studios, which is bizarre to me,” he says. “We want to bring that craft of design back, to have the opportunity to work with clients who are similarly minded, and who don’t want to pay an advertising agency for design work.”
Studio Woodward/Two Six Creative
The challenge at the local market level lies in encouraging clients to understand and appreciate the difference design can make for their business. “Clients play safe; they’re scared of standing out. There’s comfort in blending in,” Woodward says. “When I first came [to the Prairies], there was a bit of that Wild West attitude, like they want to do it themselves. But there’s still a huge opportunity for clients to see the value design has beyond a hired pair of hands. Yes, I’m that, but you also want me for my head and my perspective and my attitude.”
He cites his recent work for RGOC’s Penner Doors & Hardware as an example. What started out as a logo revamp ended up as a full-blown branding exercise. “That’s where the education comes back in—when you have to say to the CEO, we need a visual identity, not just a logo. How you are seen and perceived is through your visual system. It can’t just a rubber stamp of the logo hitting every single deliverable,” he says. “Any designer in this day and age should be a good educator.”
A bit of that Wild West attitude doesn’t hurt, either.
Studio Woodward/Two Six Creative
Studio Woodward/Two Six Creative
For editorial photographer Darren Hull, staying connected online is what allows him to continue his award-winning career in the Okanagan Valley, five hours’ drive away from where he cut his teeth in Vancouver.
“It was pretty tough to break in at first, but I had a lot going for me. When I came into the Kelowna market 16 years ago, there were only three other players in this town,” he says. “I cornered online. Nobody was doing Google or trying to get keyword placement. So I came in with a vengeance on that and then stuck there.”
Now he’s turned to social channels like Instagram to continue sharing his professional and personal work, which has expanded his following and spawned more opportunities—like his personal project 140 Portraits, a behind-the-scenes look at a day in the life of a person or brand told through 140 images that led to partnerships with dot-com giants Medium and Yelp.
“In a smaller market, you’re chirping a little bit more to stay relevant because of the distance you have from some of those larger clients,” says Hull. “And it’s cool when I’m shooting a tech company in Kelowna that they know my work with the Bay Area companies. It instantly sets me apart.”
Staying connected to external markets not only provides Hull with inspiration for his work, but for his home life, too. “As soon as I leave those markets and come back to Kelowna—man, do I love this community even more,” he says. “You think there’s always something better going on in, say, New York. But if you get the chance to go out and shoot there and squash it, you’ll be content with the market you live in. On a lifestyle level, Kelowna hits me 100 per cent. It does take a little bit more work to live here, but that’s the trade off.”
Some of that effort is spent establishing a fair-pay structure for fair work. Like any image-maker in any market, Hull struggles with pricing his services, despite his years of experience and deep client list. “We photographers all run our businesses differently,” he says. “There’s no set standard; there’s no set costing. Whatever situation this photographer is in is going to affect prices. Do you have a spouse who has a great job and you’re doing this part time? Is this your only job and are you fighting for it?”
Where pricing gets more complicated is when he’s dealing with local clients. Hull tends to provide quotes with a flat rate to avoid misunderstandings about usage and copyright, whereas for clients in larger markets, he provides a breakdown of creative, licensing and distribution fees.
“You’re trying to get local clients out of their comfort zone to invest more in photography, so it’s better if I can talk more about that benefit versus ‘what do you mean I don’t really own these photos?’” he says. “The market here is mature enough to understand that you have to pay for something to get a better product. And I think everyone here appreciates quality work—but if you can get stuff done for cheaper, of course you’re going to try.”
But adaptability and awareness remain key differentiating points for Hull. Style guides vary, and so do consumer preferences, so getting stuck in one style of shooting won’t do photographers in local markets any favours, he says. “If you just stay contained within your bubble here, you’re not going to get that progression. And if I can’t get that progression, I may as well be done with what I’m doing. I need to know what’s going on in other markets because that reflects on the market that I’m in, whether now or a year down the road.”
This attitude has led to consistent work for a variety of clients, from local fitness studios, lifestyle companies and magazines to contracts with the City of Kelowna, Lululemon and Air Canada. “I think the editorial facet of my work, even when I was doing weddings, has been an important selling feature for me,” Hull says. “I’m a little bit of an oddball. It’s been a real benefit to be in a small place and stand out like a sore thumb.”
Outcrop Communications started the way most companies do—a niche needed filling. But in June 1975 in the Northwest Territories, that niche didn’t even exist yet. When it opened its doors in Yellowknife, Outcrop became the only creative services firm in Canada’s North, and eventually added satellite offices in the Yukon and Nunavut.
Today, it remains the only northern-based creative company with a foothold in all three territories. “Before we opened the Yellowknife office, if you wanted anything done, you had to go to Edmonton,” says Marion Lavigne, president and CEO. “It was always very difficult—you had to talk to the designers on the phone, then they’d have to send you artwork via plane so you could decide whether you liked it or not, or you had to go down to Edmonton. It was a very slow process and you couldn’t communicate back and forth the way we do today.”
“So we decided that it was time to do something.”
Outcrop was a full-service agency from the beginning—except in its case, “full service” didn’t just mean advertising, design and branding on the menu. It also meant typesetting and image editing—things that a studio in a larger market would have outsourced at the time. Now-adays, it means going beyond the traditional advertising offering to media buying on multiple channels.
“We have to be able to do it all because clients expect that if they come to us we’re going to be able to look after everything,” Lavigne says. “Right now, for example, we’re planning decals for a GO train in Toronto for the Spectacular Northwest Territories campaign this winter.”
Because of Outcrop’s role in establishing the creative industry in the North, the contracts were never in short supply. The agency handles government work as well as creative for the tourism, mining and energy industries, and one of its specialties is First Nations–related work. “A lot of the work we do is for the southern markets, but when we’re in the North, one of the things that differentiates us is we work in many indigenous languages,” says Lavigne. In Nunavut, that means work is in the territory’s four official languages (English, French, Inuktitut and Inuinnaqtun), which all require Inuit font sets containing the correct symbols. In the Northwest Territories, work may feature any number of the 11 official languages. “We have to work at how we can make something look beautiful while communicating the right message in another language,” notes Lavigne. “In some cases we don’t have anyone working on it who understands the language, so we work with a translator.”
The varied work is what makes the day-to-day at Outcrop both singular and stimulating. Across all three offices, the 30-plus staff works on print, digital and interpretive planning, as well as video and experiential. A 16-foot high aurora borealis light installation that Outcrop constructed for Spectacular Northwest Territories in Ottawa two years ago was met with such positive response that it eventually travelled to other cities across Canada and into the US. Then there’s the ever-evolving client base. “Here, we could be dealing with an engineer who wants something done, who may not understand marketing and communications,” Lavigne says. “And since [the North] is a fairly political place, political correctness is something we consider all the time.”
But for all its diverse opportunities, the North remains enigmatic to those unfamiliar with the region. Lavigne and Outcrop’s creative director Steve Freake constantly contends with recruitment. “There are no design programs in the North right now, so we’re trying to attract creatives from anywhere in Canada and even internationally,” Freake says. “Some of our projects have us travel to different parts of the North, so you can see a part of Canada you wouldn’t otherwise get to see.”
Lavigne says another benefit is that workers can explore a range of roles across all channels. “Here, you get an opportunity to try everything if you show any initiative at all. You’re not stuck in one little corner to do this or that.”
Freedom. That’s the North—and Canada—in a nutshell.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Applied Arts.
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