2020 PR AOY Gold: As the world changes, so too does The Colony Project

By being nimble and scrappy, the Vision7 agency adapted to the shifting tides of 2020.

The Colony Project - Group Photo

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of strategy.

Katie Muir started at The Colony Project at an interesting time, to say the least.

Hired as an SVP in late 2019 to partner with founder Amanda Shuchat on leading the agency, Muir’s first task was to settle into the interim managing director role as Shuchat prepared to go on maternity leave.

“Running an agency amid the biggest global health crisis we’ve ever had was not part of those plans, no,” Muir says.

The Colony Project, founded in 2016, was meant to be a smaller, scrappier and nimbler offshoot of Vision7’s more established Citizen Relations, which had grown into an international PR player. Muir says its origin, above all else, is what helped the shop fare well amid the shifting tides of 2020. Despite the challenges, the agency is still projecting roughly 11% year-over-year growth, adding four new staff and a Gold PR Agency of the Year title for the second time since it was founded.

“We were designed to flip things really quickly,” she says. “We don’t have as much hierarchy as some of the bigger agencies, so we’re able to turn plans out on a dime to react to culturally relevant topics. That positioned us well for the situation we’ve found ourselves in.”

While The Colony Project does have some clients in hard-hit sectors like tourism and automotive, others are in categories that are insulated or thriving, including Kraft Heinz, Sephora, Alcatel and L’Oreal.

Muir says that, in some ways, everything has changed for the agency – learning to work, collaborate and execute programs from home. But while the agency has been forced to pause, cancel or vastly reimagine some of its programs, the basic principles haven’t changed.

“Our job as PR people is to make news, to tell client stories in a way that makes headlines,” Muir says. “And from March until May, there was only one story. You had to pivot every single client and every single plan to shift to that story. But while the stories we’re telling have completely changed, probably on every client we have, the actual tenets of our job as storytellers, and how we do that, hasn’t.”

For example, The Colony Project was on the agency roster for Philadelphia’s search for a new “Philly Angel” spokesperson, launched weeks before lockdown measures began in Canada. While the winner announcement needed to pause, the fact that Kraft Heinz had recently revived the “angel” imagery opened the door to recognizing “local angels” like frontline workers and community volunteers, and building a CSR hook into the program by making food bank donations for every nomination that was shared.

With Canadians looking for reassurance and trusted information, Muir believes there has never been a stronger place for PR. But instead of promoting a buzzy product launch or stunt, the focus moved to providing clarity around clients’ store closures, product availability and safety practices to put consumers’ minds at ease.

Instead of using influencers to push out playful or aspirational content when many Canadians are dealing with anxieties around safety and finances, they’ve been retasked to champion programs that support frontline workers or communities in need. And instead of trying to stand out in social, the shop is looking more to traditional media, which has become an increasingly trusted source of information.

“Our clients come to us to help speak to people who were scared and looking for transparency, authenticity and even vulnerability from brands they shop,” Muir says. “That’s where PR really shines, and an approach we were really comfortable jumping to.”

Growth is still part of the strategy for The Colony Project, but it’s also pivoted that plan. Prior to March, Muir says the agency was looking to build out its experiential offering, plans that obviously changed in favour of stepping up its investment in digital capabilities.

“When you look at expanding, maybe things you were originally looking at are now no longer a priority, based on what this new world will look like,” Muir says. “The long- term strategy is still there for us, but what we prioritize in order to get there has changed.”

Key new business: Aphria (Broken Coast, Good Supply); St. Michael’s Hospital Foundation.

New hires: Sean Citrigno, senior account director; Emily Kett, Harriett Austin and Spencer Emmerson, senior account managers.

Staff: 25

To see the agency’s winning cases, visit the AOY website