2019 Small AOY Silver: 123w pitches its best players

How a top-heavy creative director structure has helped the Vancouver agency hit major runs with clients big and small.

One Twenty Three West Group Photo
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of
 strategy.

Scot Keith is clearly fond of sports analogies. The founder and president/CEO at Vancouver’s 123w is a big believer of his creative director-heavy approach to team-building, and he’s comfortable pitting his “starting 5” (or even 10 – the bench is that deep, he says) against any other shop in the country: “We never pitch with an all-star team and then staff with juniors,” the agency’s website proclaims.

Keith tells strategy that 123w’s business model is predicated on a “low overhead, high talent” ethos, one which was cultivated back in 2013 when this year’s Silver-winning Small Agency of the Year launched in co-founder Jeff Harrison’s garage and had only one client, Muskoka Brewery. Fast-forward to 2019 and 123W has picked up work for big name brands like Lululemon, Save-On-Foods and the Vancouver Airport Authority.

The “high talent” part of the “low overhead” equation means the agency is staffed by more senior members than a typical shop: 123w currently has 12 creative directors, almost a third of its team. That means these CDs wear many hats in the creative process.

What makes 123w’s approach unique is that the CDs are involved in all aspects of the business, from developing the strategy to working directly with clients to doing the actual work. “We have a roll-up-your-sleeves culture,” Keith says, adding that letting creatives tap into their impulses is a driver for the agency’s success.

Because it’s a small agency, Keith says 123w taps experience outside its walls, citing the redesign of Tim Hortons’ eco-friendly coffee lids (which was one of its winning AOY cases, see sidbar) as a recent example of its collaborative problem-solving approach.

Many people dislike the iconic, but poorly designed coffee cup lids. The challenge – two years in the making – was to design a lid that does not leak or injure customers’ lip. And since Tims sells more than two billion cups of coffee per year, the task of reimagining its lid was seen by 123w as a way to get the QSR back in the good books of Canucks after several public spats with franchisees and new foreign ownership.

The lids re-launched in May 2019, one of the agency’s first forays into product design. Partner Jeff Harrison came up with several designs, and the team sought help from an industrial designer in Hong Kong. He says this example highlights the fact that the agency did not need a full-time expert, but that it could create enough of the design elements in-house to bring the project to fruition.

“It’s probably the most famous thing I’ve been part of, and it’s a coffee lid,” says Keith, joking that while there ‘s no “Liddies” award, he’s proud of the team’s work.

The agency has hit a major run when it comes to attracting talent over the last couple of years. The latest additions to 123w’s CD team include John Larigakis and Pierre Chan, both of whom created Cannes Lions-winning campaigns while working at agencies DDB and Cossette. Mia Thomsett and Addie Gillespie, formerly of Dare and Camp Pacific, also joined the agency’s CD ranks within the last two years.

Part of being good is having equal representation when it comes to the talent behind the work. “We’re acutely aware that four white guys started this agency,” Keith says of he and his co-founders Bryan Collins, Rob Sweetman (both formerly of Dare) and Jeff Harrison (formerly of Rethink). “And we’re proud to have five female creative directors.”

“I have a ton of respect for agencies that have been good for a really long time,” Keith says, adding that it’s hard to continue momentum regardless of an organization’s size. Having 27 years in the biz, he believes it’s possible to have spurts of success, but that true longevity comes from how an agency uses its talent.

Key new business
Banff Lake Louise Tourism, BCLC, Centra Windows, Destination BC, Director’s Guild of Canada, E-Comm 911, Lululemon, Michelin, Richmond Hospital Foundation, Save-On-Foods, Splash, St. George’s University, Vancouver Airport Authority, Vancouver Public Library, Vitasave, Wealthbar, YWCA

Key hires
John Larigakis, Pierre Chan, CDs; Przemek Kotowski, account director

Staff
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Small AOY cases

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In the wake of pot legalization, 123w tackled “don’t drive high” outreach for the BCAA. Research revealed that a high percentage of millennials had become designated drivers for their cannabis-partaking parents. To positively reinforce this responsible behaviour, the shop created a humourous campaign that flipped the script on the traditional parent-child relationship. Videos featured millennials in the driver’s seat schooling their parents and making sure they get home safely after getting high.

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123w created a movement to inspire pride and give Canadian content the respect it deserves. For the Canada Media Fund, the agency launched Made/Nous, a brand that represents Canadian content, with a website designed to showcase the Canadian contributions that have been made to productions.

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To help Tim Hortons reduce its waste footprint and improve its coffee cup toppers, the agency designed leak guards that eliminated spills. The lids are also made of recyclable polypropylene so that less plastic goes into landfills.