Critical Mass winning business – and awards

It's been dubbed one of Canada's success stories - certainly one of the West's.
A little 'entrepreneurial spirit, good fortune, and tremendous talent' have gone a long way for Calgary's Critical Mass, according to president and COO Dianne Wilkins. Last year, this fiercely proud interactive shop put itself on the map with several high-profile awards - including Canada's first Grand Prix Cyber Lion at Cannes, Employer of the Year Canadian New Media Award, and more recently, overall Best Web Site Award in the Web Design category at the @D:Tech Awards, to name a few. And this year promises similar momentum, says Wilkins.

It’s been dubbed one of Canada’s success stories – certainly one of the West’s.

A little ‘entrepreneurial spirit, good fortune, and tremendous talent’ have gone a long way for Calgary’s Critical Mass, according to president and COO Dianne Wilkins. Last year, this fiercely proud interactive shop put itself on the map with several high-profile awards – including Canada’s first Grand Prix Cyber Lion at Cannes, Employer of the Year Canadian New Media Award, and more recently, overall Best Web Site Award in the Web Design category at the @D:Tech Awards, to name a few. And this year promises similar momentum, says Wilkins.

Despite 2001′s dot-com fallout, Critical Mass’s revenues totalled $46 million (compared to roughly $60 million in 2000) led by such clients as flagship Mercedes Benz USA, which has been with the company almost since its inception in 1995, Nike, Procter & Gamble, Hyatt Hotels and UnitedHealthcare.

‘We have a very select client list – recognizable brands, stable companies, large assignments: we’re not a big turn-around project shop, but rather an agency-of-record,’ says Wilkins. ‘Clients must also have a vision for the Internet. Our philosophy is that the Internet is more than an e-commerce tool, it’s a communications and relationship-building channel, and we look for clients that have a similar viewpoint.’

Wilkins says that many Critical Mass competitors, ‘to a certain extent, will go after any piece of new business that’s out there. If we went after everything, we’d lose a lot more because we’re not necessarily well-suited to everything that crosses our door. By being selective up front, we improve our chances when we do get into something.’

Being selective is just one of the many traits that sets Critical Mass apart from its competitors (which are mostly U.S.-based, since the shop focuses its efforts almost exclusively on the U.S. and international markets), says Wilkins.

It also boasts what it calls its ‘distributed production model,’ whereby account service people are placed close to clients, while the production is centralized in Calgary, with a small portion of the production now being done in its not yet two-year-old Toronto office.

There are just under 200 employees in Canada (another 100 worldwide in the agency’s Chicago, New York and Stockholm offices).

‘Our core belief here is that all of our development and all of our strategic thinking comes from collaboration across functional groups – we don’t send a bunch of designers off to a room and say, ‘Come up with a strategic concept.’ We have designers working with technical people, working with marketing people, working with project managers and content folk to come up with a best possible strategy for and with clients. It’s very much a relationship-type business,’ she says.

The shop’s ‘straightforward, say-it-like-it-is approach’ to clients has also earned it accolades and business, she says, citing its long-standing relationship with Mercedes.

Wilkins also attributes its award-winning ways to the shop’s ability to mass-customize and personalize Internet communication. For example, its Nike ID site, which allowed visitors to customize their own shoe, garnered a lot of attention and the Cannes honour.

‘Empowering users online is something we win a lot of awards for and frankly it’s the reason we get hired a lot. We understand that idea, which is very much an old direct marketing concept – but we’re able to bring it to life in different forms on the Web.’

As for what clients are looking for right now, it couldn’t be more varied, she says. Some are ready to redesign their whole Web sites, others simply want offsite programs to drive Web traffic, while still others are trying to deepen relationships through e-mail campaigns and registration programs.

But one thing is clear, she says, companies are getting pro-active – they are beginning to realize, at least in the states, that they may have seen the bottom of this recession and are on their way back up – and they are trying to match or beat their competitors to the Internet punch.

Canadians, she ventures, aren’t too far behind.

In fact, Canada is slowly starting to become a focus for Critical Mass, which has never established a presence here because it was too far behind when it came to Internet sophistication and penetration. The Toronto office, Wilkins says, will initially be responsible for drumming up Canadian business, although it is still not a major priority. For now, the U.S. is proving to be an excellent source of profitability.

‘We’re as good as anyone in the U.S. – this whole shake-up thing has proved that. So many of our competitors have gone out of business or suffered severe setbacks. And I think consolidation in our space will leave a third or half as many options with some expertise in this area in a year, and Critical Mass will be one of them.’