Sister Merci aims to navigate cannabis regulations

Former Weber Shandwick and Cossette staff form a consultancy, using knowledge of marketing rules to find creative opportunities.

Sister Merci has launched in Toronto, a new full-service firm that aims to help cannabis companies develop their brands and navigate marketing regulations.

Positioning itself as a cannabis brand consultancy, Sister Merci is focused on strategic planning, design, advertising and ecommerce, as well as marketing through PR, influencers, social and one-to-one channels. The agency is led by its three founding partners: Katie Waterman on operations; Paul Lawton on strategy; and Amanda Wood on creative.

Waterman and Wood were both most recently at Weber Shandwick, where Waterman was director of planning, insights and integrated media, and Wood was an ACD. Lawton previously worked with the pair at Weber Shandwick before leaving last year for Cossette, where he was a VP of strategy and worked with cannabis producer Canopy Growth in the lead-up to legalization. Lawton says that experience showed the need for an agency partner that could help cannabis brands navigate the marketing restrictions in the Cannabis Act.

“I was at Canada’s biggest agency, working on an account where it was really challenging to actually do the type of stuff Cossette is known for,” he says. “As a strategist, that ended up being very fruitful for me, because it required the team to dive into the legislation, see the side doors and think of new approaches and different communications.”

Sister Merci is being supported by a $1.5 million seed investment from BlackShire Capital, an investment and asset management firm focused on private cannabis companies. BlackShire is also supporting Sister Merci through its executive in residence program, which provides active management through the placement of a seasoned leader. For Sister Merci, that leader is Stephen J. Headford, a Canadian executive, investor and board member, who will serve as Sister Merci’s chair. Headford also happens to be the uncle of Waterman’s husband, and is the one who made the connection with BlackShire, as he is a former business partner of chair and CEO Kevin Reed.

In the early days of the cannabis industry, Canada’s banks were reluctant to back investments for cannabis companies, leading many of the brands to go public in order to raise funds. Following legalization, many banks have changed their policies, making investments from companies like BlackShire into private cannabis companies and startups more realistic. Lawton says the fact that BlackShire is investing in companies at a very early stage is beneficial for Sister Merci: beyond just making the connection to new clients easier, it also gives the consultancy access to them at a time when they are beginning to figure out their go-to-market approach.

Sister Merci is already working on BlackShire’s own marketing and communications, as well as with Mihi, a company pursuing opportunities in cannabis retail that also has an investment from BlackShire.

Part of the reason Sister Merci is referring to itself as a “consultancy” is, according to Lawton, to reflect the nimble approach that’s required when navigating new regulations.