2019 AOY Bronze: John St. is an Agency of the Year

The agency "brand thinker" is also collaborating with clients in a new rapid-fire creative process.

john st Group Photo

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of strategy.

The onslaught began at 4:58pm on Sept. 22, 2019. It was a Sunday. No Name’s internal creative team signed into the Loblaw brand’s Twitter account and proclaimed, “I will now live-tweet the emmys.”

At 5:01pm: “turning on the TV now.”

At 5:08pm: “nothing is happening yet.”

Finally, at 5:33pm: “a director just won an award.”

Later at 7:43pm: “more presenters are presenting.”

The curtain was drawn at 8:02pm: “my live-tweeting has concluded.”

No Name’s three-hour tweetathon got a social media ovation from thousands of Canadians that evening. The brand’s Twitter handlers have carte blanche to post what they please beyond that Emmys play-by-play. And those sardonic and sarcastic tweets of theirs, about anything from No Name canned peas to canned milk, have given life to the brand that was – since its genesis in 1978 – purposely advertised as not having a voice.

“It was always the anti-brand,” says Stephanie Hurst, president at John St., the agency that codified the new No Name brand tone to ensure consistency across all channels and communications. Because that’s what John St. does. It takes brands – some of which are going through an identity crisis – and makes them “unignorable” by finding what’s in their DNA and translating that into purpose, says Megan Towers, the agency’s CSO. That purpose is then built into comprehensive and cohesive visual design systems, adds CCO Angus Tucker.

It did that for Home Hardware with “Here’s How”; No Frills with “Haulers”; President’s Choice with “Eat Together”; and now, it’s looking to unearth a communications ecosystem for new client KFC Canada. When the QSR gave the agency the $7 million business in July, CMO Samantha Redman told strategy it was sold by John St.’s track record “in transforming big retail brands from top to bottom.”

“Five years ago, we would have just looked at how brands creatively express themselves [in a campaign],” says Hurst. “Whereas now we’re working on the foundational elements of a brand. So for PC Optimum, for instance, we were able to design the entire brand identity, look and feel, tone of voice and the work.”

CCO Angus Tucker likes to credit Mooren (Mo) Bofill for pulling the curtain from John St.’s eyes back in 2015 when the executive director of design first arrived at the Toronto shop. Tucker says she “instantly and dramatically changed the way we thought of ourselves internally… She saw very quickly how design thinking could be applied across everything. And we started to look at brands from a much broader and holistic perspective. That’s when a lot of brands came out of the woodwork and said, “OK, what you did for that brand – can you do that for us?”

Many of those clients (retail especially) are facing market pressures to act fast and furious, says Towers. This has led the agency to “disrupt our processes to be able to get to a brand’s foundations quickly but without compromising the thinking and rigor [that’s required],” she says.

Hurst explains that it recently began testing a “minimal viable brand” or “MVB” process – lifted from the tech world’s “minimal viable product” – in which decision-making is accelerated by having clients commit to a much higher degree of involvement. For instance, the VP of marketing must dedicate every Friday to John St., while the strategist who usually presents already-developed thinking becomes a workshop facilitator so that everyone, from client to creative, contributes. It’s not for everyone, says Hurst, but so far a cannabis brand, a tech startup, and Loblaw have worked with the agency this way (the latter for the launch of its PC Optimum and PC Express products).

While these quick-fire collabs may be necessary for John St. to deliver work on a dime, Tucker says that won’t lead the agency to fall into the short-termism trap. “We, [creative agencies], are exceptionally good at making corporations more human,” he says, imploring advertisers to stop thinking of themselves as “content creators.”

“We are brand thinkers who create content underneath overall thought. I think we need to do better, as an industry, in saying that, protecting that, promoting that than we have over the last 20 years.”

Key new business
Loblaws, Campari, Aphria, e-Sight, QHR Technologies, Tory’s LLP, George Weston, Dairy Farmers of Canada

Key hires
Cam Boyd, CD; Oliver Brooks, Mike Richardson, Natalie Mathers, ACDs; Justin Close, associate design director, digital; Jenni Cowdy, team leader; Lorri MacDonald, client service director

AOY cases

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To support the President’s Choice “Eat Together” campaign – which showed the power of food in bringing people together – John St. created the Eat Together Day, where the brand gathered friends and families, along with Loblaw banner employees, to dine at 2,500 stores nationwide. That same day, it launched the third #EatTogether film.

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For Shoppers Drug Mart, the agency got tampons to women living on the street by putting them on the street. Across Toronto, it discretely placed hygiene products inside “The Monthly” newspaper boxes.

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John St. created a No Frills “Haul or Nothing” spot and a retro video game that let customers compete to be crowned the ultimate “Hauler” and win PC Optimum points.

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To compete against online holiday shopping for TJX, the shop introduced a game-changing retail innovation: “Offline Shopping.” Creative dramatized features like human search engines, multi sensory feedback and instant add-to-cart technology.

To get people to enjoy Boston Pizza pizza at home, John St. used the little pizza saver (which looks like a tiny table) and added 3D-printed chairs to bring the idea of pizza and patios together.