Round picks up Harlequin business

The Toronto agency is among only a "handful" that fit the needs of the global publisher of romance fiction.

Harlequin Enterprises has hired a Toronto agency upstart to revisit its brand strategy and positioning as it looks to broaden its audience and expand its business model.

The Round Agency, which opened less than a year ago, has won the account following a closed review. The assignment includes evolving the book publisher’s brand communication strategy, helping deepen its relationship with new and existing customers and driving brand growth. Unable to share specifics, the agency said it expects the work will begin rolling out in February 2020.

“Our business is evolving quickly to address rapid changes in publishing and the entertainment industry as a whole,” said Farah Mullick, senior director of global series marketing at Harlequin, in a press release. “Harlequin has defined romance fiction for over 70 years and we’re poised to take advantage of a growing consumer appetite for romance in all formats.”

Mullick said in a follow-up email to strategy that “only a handful” of shops fit the agency profile it was looking for. She said it needed a “collaborative, strategic and creative partner – but also one that was not too large and had an ability to work fast and be nimble.”

BBDO Toronto, part of the Omnicom network, previously led some work for the publisher, including award-winning campaigns that addressed the “taboos” of reading romance fiction in public. Mullick did not respond to questions about HarperCollins’ previous agency relationships, saying only that it “sought out only new partners” as a result of “changing business requirements and desire for fresh eyes on our brand.”

In a release, Round notes that the assignment comes as Harlequin looks to “reinvigorate its core book business and establish itself as a fan-based entertainment company through expansion of its business model into movies and the exploration of new business opportunities.”

In June, the publisher announced the launch of Harlequin Studios in a bid to expand its content distribution, starting with more than 20 films on the CTV Drama Channel. The company expects this will help it “dramatically increase the production of Harlequin-branded movie content and is part of the company’s content expansion to new platforms and formats in North America and globally.”

Earlier this year, the company launched a Creator Fund aimed at attracting and supporting up-and-coming and established North American female writers of fiction, TV and movie scripts.

Round was founded by partners Paul Riss and Mike Davidson in October 2018 (after collaborating on project-based work for more than a year) with the goal of offering a more flexible, collaborative and cost-effective model. The pair view their shop as more of a model than an agency, hiring specialized freelancers across disciplines to complete the work, while keeping costs low.

On the Harlequin account, Davidson and Riss have been working with a brand strategist, digital strategist, channel planner, project manager and three creatives. Davidson, who serves as managing director, says he expects to continue working with that team, as well as a designer, media planning and buying team, producer and production company ahead of February 2020.

“We strongly believe that most client work consists of a series of projects,” Davidson says. “Most don’t require a large retainer-based agency.”

To date, Round has worked on projects for Subaru, RBC, Mackenzie Investments, Boston Beer Company (on the Sam Adams, Wildleaf and Tura brands), the Canadian Marketing Association and the U.S.-based Nickson Living, which designs and furnishes apartments for a monthly fee. It also recently started working with online auto marketplace GoAuto.

The Canadian-born Harlequin, a division of News Corp-owned HarperCollins (the world’s second-largest book publisher by revenue) publishes more than 110 titles per month in more than 150 international markets. According to a News Corp filing, HarperCollins is now “publishing a number of titles in digital formats before, or instead of, publishing a print edition.” For the year ended June 2018, audio book and e-book sales accounted for 19% of its revenues globally.