The Indie List: Mackie Biernacki

Small size, big reach

MB_Team_PHOTOFrom left to right: Melissa Tobenstein, Steph Mackie and Mark Biernacki

Mark Biernacki and Steph Mackie hate the broken telephone game. They hate it so much that five years ago, the duo began their own advertising agency.

The pair spent the better part of their careers at multi-national agencies, from Ammirati Puris to TBWA to Lowe Roche. But there were some constant truths about agency life that annoyed the creatives, not least of which that they often didn’t have much face-to-face time with the clients. “Our best work was always when we sat down with the client usually off the record over lunch or coffee, and just talked about what was going on in their business,” says Mackie.

“At the bigger agencies, there were usually an assembly line of people who would sometimes hinder us getting to the business problem,” adds Biernacki. “It was getting lost in the broken telephone.”So the pair launched their own shop five years ago. They designed the agency to keep the costs super low, operating exclusively out of the Toronto membership club The Soho House. (“We don’t pay for rent, wifi, hydro or printers,” says Mackie. “That adds up to a fair amount.”)

Even with substantial business growth year over year, the team hasn’t grown by much either, with only seven full time staffers on board (including Mackie and Biernacki). Instead, they operate with a roster of freelancers and contractors, with the goal of putting as much of the costs of their services on the thinking and the doing – rather than the overhead costs of running an agency (contractors, for example, are billed for their time on projects).

And it’s working, with new brands like Boys and Girls Club of Canada, Haventree Bank, Toronto Biennial of Art, Greenfield Global and Mackenzie Heath, joining the shop in the past year alone.

The agency used humour to address the stigma of moldy homes, with ads likening the growth to unwanted houseguests mysteriously popping up in the oddest place

The result is not only a cost savings for the client, but also that the shop can stay nimble, picking and choosing the right talent for the specific project, rather than be beholden to people already on staff, adds managing director Melissa Tobenstein.

She points to a recent campaign for the cities of Windsor and Tecumseh, which are currently fighting a class-action legal battle. If the municipalities lose, they could become insolvent, and Mackie Biernacki was tasked with informing potential claimants and urging them to make a conscious decision to “opt out” or to stay in – the first time a government had used ads in that way in Canada.

The agency had only 30 days to create and put the campaign into market, and then had 120 days to run it. It put together a custom team of traditional/digital strategists, media planner, web developer, project manager and extra creatives to bring this initiative to life. The countdown campaign focused on the fact that residents only had a declining number of days to help their communities and they needed to physically opt out of the process. While we can’t talk about the results yet, the campaign surprised all parties and completely exceeded expectations.

The agency’s independent roots let it tackle potentially unorthodox campaigns, and also play around with billing models, adds Mackie. While many clients still prefer traditional monthly billing methods (which MB typically breaks into “The Thinking” and “The Doing”), the agency has also charged clients based on results – if the brand succeeds, the agency succeeds – and in some cases, has even opted for partial ownership of the company.

Mackie points to recent work with TFC soccer player Sebastian Giovinco, who tasked the agency with building his personal brand in the hopes of attracting a wider audience and more sponsorship deals. While Canadians (and Canadian brands) have an affinity towards all things hockey, soccer is becoming increasingly popular, and it’s an opportune time to be a soccer star, says Biernacki.

Building on the insecurities of Toronto sports fans over free agents (will they leave after one season? Can we really love this player that much?), the shop put the Italian native’s Canadian roots at the fore of the communications, highlighting his participation in the Toronto community through press and social media as much as possible. Small bursts of what Mackie calls “tests,” like a limited-edition hat featuring his personal logo, were seeded out throughout the year to help drive hype. Now that his popularity has grown by 68,000 followers (in five months, all done with zero media dollars attached), the agency is turning its attention to finding brand partnerships – and in this case, its financial success is linked to his.

The shop has since begun to attract more athlete clients, which are currently being reviewed to see if everyone works well together.

“We have a no sociopaths policy,” says Tobenstein. “We need to know we actually can collaborate together. That’s when our greatest successes happens.”


Melissa Tobenstein

Managing Director