Former John St. directors start new agency

Niall Kelly and Jason Last have launched Conflict, aimed at helping clients embrace cultural tension.
Conflict Group Shot

Former John St. creative director Niall Kelly and strategic planning director Jason Last have launched a new agency.

Fittingly dubbed Conflict, the agency will focus on helping clients identify and solve the personal and cultural problems most relevant to their brand, with the goal being to make the brand more relevant to consumers.

“Conflict, tension and problems are things people tend to shy away from, but they are rooted in every successful innovation or creative product,” Last says. “Anything that really matters to people is resolving some kind of conflict in their life. Building everything around that is going to make a brand much more powerful and meaningful in a really cluttered marketplace. What you don’t want is a Pepsi moment where you’re trying to position a bottle of sugar as something that can end social division. What we’re going to do is keep brands honest and help brands find the right conflict to associate themselves with and resolve.”

Last had been with John St. since 2014, having re-joined the agency after a two-year stint at Leo Burnett as part of a wider management restructuring at the agency. Kelly joined a few months later, having previously worked at Taxi, Zig and Cossette. During their time together at John St., the pair worked on campaigns for brands including Tangerine, Mitsubishi, Canada Safe School Network, Maple Leaf Foods and WWF.

Kelly and Last are currently the only full-time employees at Conflict. For now, the idea is to stay lean and have the two founding partners personally lead every project and work directly with clients.

“One of the big things clients are looking for is easy access to senior creative and strategic leadership,” Kelly says. “A lot of clients pay for that leadership, but they aren’t necessarily getting it, they are just getting a small fraction of someone’s time. If we do bring someone on board, we want to make sure whoever has a seat at the table is bringing value with them. Jason and I have been in too many meetings where there’s 20 people at the table and only four of them are really speaking.”

In the meantime, they will be pulling from a network of freelancers they have developed during their time in the industry, based on the kinds of skill sets that are needed for various projects.

The agency will be open to having more dedicated, AOR-style relationships with clients when it makes sense, but the current focus is on project-based work.

“The kiss of death for an agency is when they take on everything, stretch themselves way too thin and say yes to being experts on everything,” Last says. “Our goal is to work on a more dedicated project way, where there’s a problem to be solved and we scope out that problem. Hopefully, for our business, that turns into more problems for our company to solve. But we’re not going to force people into long-term relationships if there’s one problem.”

Adds Kelly: “We like to think working on a project basis will keep us as honest and engaged as possible with each one that comes in, which is probably better value for clients in the long-run.”

The pair was not able to say which clients Conflict is currently working with, but did say the agency has some brand strategy work with local clients, as well as brand identity work for a Toronto-based startup.