2019 PR AOY Gold: Narrative’s creative bravery

How the PR shop is getting brands and their marketers to adopt greater "creative bravery."

Narrative Group Photo (NEW as of Sept 16)With roots in media relations, Narrative’s role was once focused on helping leaders decide “when to speak, how to speak, when not to speak, when to turn an opportunity down,” says Sarah Spence, managing director of the Toronto-based PR firm. “Corporate bravery” was most often channeled through advertising, she says, while media relations played a different albeit complementary role.

Today, amid a drop in consumer trust and brands’ desire to play a more activist role in social causes – thanks to widening definitions of corporate purpose – she believes PR firms have a greater role to play in getting clients to express their “creative bravery.”

Narrative put this thinking on display in a number of recent campaigns, including those which earned the agency Gold in PR AOY after earning Silver last year.

Embracing creative bravery means knowing not everyone will react positively to a campaign – at least initially. When Narrative worked with sister agency Bensimon Byrne to launch “June’s Eatery” for Toronto’s Casey House in 2017, there was a risk that negative online comments could inadvertently reinforce the HIV stigma that the campaign was meant to help eliminate.

But, as the agencies predicted, the exposure also prompted other social media users to “pounce” on those comments and promptly correct them, noted Joseph Bonnici, partner, ECD at Bensimon Byrne, at the time.

Narrative knew a similar dynamic would likely play out following the launch of Healing House, the world’s first pop-up HIV-positive spa, last year. Right on cue, the online trolls came out, reinforcing the campaign’s argument that stigma still persists. However, the tactic also prompted many more positive responses and significant media coverage for Casey House.

“What I want is conversations,” Spence says, adding that negative comments aren’t always campaign killers – even for a firm tasked with protecting brand and corporate reputation. “Controversy in and of itself isn’t great, but controversy that sheds light on an important issue is a great thing.”

Another sign of a strong PR program, the managing director believes, is having “people come to raise their voice [and] be advocates without you asking them to.” Such was the case with “Boys Don’t Cry,” which was also recognized as the PR Campaign of the Year.

The work was creatively led by Bensimon, but as the agency’s PR partner, Narrative got a coalition of influencers to share the three-minute film confronting toxic masculinity on their channels, including members of the Toronto Maple Leafs and several Canadian mayors. Soon, others, including American actor and activist George Takei, voluntarily showed their support.

When hiring new staff, Narrative CD Debbie Chan says agency looks for “hybrid” employees with a combination of skills, because timelines are tight and they “almost have to be the idea person and the person who can execute perfectly.”

“We’re trying to build a team where every member has a different background and a different expertise, because of the different work that we do,” Chan says. “Sometimes it’s design, sometimes it’s advertising, sometimes it’s purely experiential.”

Today, Narrative’s eight-person creative department works closely alongside client services (referred to as the “brand team”) on developing creative strategies, says Cathy Mitchell, VP of clients, strategy and counsel – following a structure commonly found in creative agencies. Traditionally, the bulk of that work would have been handled by the accounts team.

Recruiting talent with diverse backgrounds and skill sets is helping Narrative meet the ever-increasing needs of its clients. “Design, advertising, PR, they’re all kind of [coming] together,” Spence says. “Those lines are all blurring, because they’re all just ways to tell stories.”

She points to a recent assignment for the Scotiabank Women Initiative, aimed at supporting female leaders in business. What began as a fairly straightforward communications strategy assignment soon turned into a design project focused on helping the bank launch the program with a new logo and visual identity.

These days, Spence says, Narrative is doing its most interesting work in “the space between what a corp comms team will do in-house, and what a traditional marketing or advertising team will do.”

Key new business
Starbucks, JW Marriott Edmonton

New hires
Andrea Lee and Kylee Berencsi, account directors; Matt Childerhose, AD; Lisa Riedel, event manager; Tony Koutoulas, account manager; Gigi Rabnett, event producer


PR AOY cases

For White Ribbon, Narrative helped spread awareness around the non-profit’s Anti-Bullying Day by building buzz for a powerful film that illustrates how the events in a boys life can lead to toxic masculinity. To maximize exposure for the video that calls out the many pivotal moments that shape the type of man a child becomes, a coalition of bully activists, sports teams and political figures shared this important message. The “Boys Don’t Cry” microsite provided tips for building healthy masculinity and encouraged people to take the White Ribbon anti-bullying pledge.


The PR firm built hype for Converse in a back-to-school push. A Queen St. West takeover saw Toronto bus shelters become installations and pairs of Chucks were hung and claimed by new owners so they could create stories of their own.


For Casey House, Narrative helped the brand tackle AIDS stigma with a spa staffed with HIV+ healers and therapists. An integrated PR and social campaign further drove the narrative around touch and debunked the fears around contraction.