Round puts own spin on freelance agency model

Founders Mike Davidson and Paul Riss will form ongoing collaborations with talent to solve problems for clients.

Round agency

Managing director Mike Davidson and creative director Paul Riss, founding partners at Round. 

Two agency vets have come together to launch Round, a new Toronto-based two-person shop that will work with a multidisciplinary network of freelancers to solve business problems for clients across marketing, advertising, design, production and other disciplines.

Mike Davidson, founder partner and managing director, and Paul Riss, founding partner and creative director, launched Round earlier this month after collaborating on project-based work for the last year and a half.

The duo describe their venture as a “creative and strategic partnership” or as more of a model than an actual agency. They will work with clients on a project or retainer basis, bringing on talent as needed to complete assignments.

Round will work with freelance writers, art directors, media planners, illustrators, designers, strategists, web developers, producers and directors from both Canada and the U.S. To help attract and keep top talent, Riss says the shop will pay freelancers by the project (as opposed to day rates) and will invite freelancers to see their work through to completion by having them present and sell their idea directly to clients – something he says is rare in the freelance world.

The pair will refer to their most frequent freelancers as “Friends of Round,” a designation intended to demonstrate their commitment to collaborate closely on an ongoing basis, says Davidson. Keeping freelancers engaged “from start to finish” benefits both parties and ultimately serves clients’ interests, he says.

“This isn’t something we could have done five years ago, because most of the top talent was working at agencies,” says Davidson. “Now a lot of top talent are not working at agencies.”

The launch of Round falls within a broader industry trend that has seen more shops pop up, promising to serve clients on an adhoc basis through teams of freelance or contract workers, keeping operations lean.

While some clients may be wary of such a model, hoping instead to consistently work with the same creative teams on a long-term basis, Davidson argues that “talent kind of comes and goes at any agency.”

“I don’t think any agency can guarantee that you’re going to have this creative team on the work for six years,” he says. “But I can guarantee that Paul and I will be on it.”

Riss says the model also allows for clients that require long-term or year-round support to book teams well in advance, which gives freelancers the benefit of managing their workflows more efficiently.

Davidson began his career at Unilever and Kraft, eventually moving to Arnold Worldwide to serve as VP of marketing and business development. Later, during ten years at DDB, he oversaw new business and client-service groups. He eventually ventured off on his own as a consultant, working primarily in strategy.

Riss has been freelancing for the last six years, prior to which he spent 15 years as a designer, art director and CD at agencies including DDB, Cundari and Publicis. While freelancing, Davidson would often call on Riss to help with creative projects. The pair had met at DDB, where they worked on the Subaru, AutoTrader and Cialis accounts.

They began working together on Round about six months prior to this month’s official launch. To date, their clients have included a financial institution, an automotive brand and an independent U.S. brewery, although they weren’t at liberty to share their names. Round is also helping with the launch of a cannabis incubator-accelerator. The pair say they have also been called on to support in-house creative departments and traditional agencies in need of additional resources on a project.