2020 Small AOY Gold: 123w kicks into crisis mode

The Vancouver-based shop's commitment to talent helped it rally during the early days of the pandemic.

123w - Group Photo

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

The founders of Vancouver’s One Twenty Three West (123w) like to make light of the sacrifices that come from running a tight ship.

As the shop’s origin story goes, four men set up shop in co-founder Jeff Harrison’s garage in 2013; they later upgraded their digs to an industrial laundromat, and eventually, a mediocre office space with plywood floors – all to “keep the talent high and the overhead low.”

Over the years, that ethos is what helped the 2020 Gold-winning Small Agency of the Year thrive. With fewer than 40 staff, 123w has packed its creative bench with 15 CDs, including brand new CDs of design Tim Hoffpauir and Moreen “Mo” Bofill.

But never has 123w’s financial discipline and talent focus faced an adversary like COVID-19, whose claws have sunk deep into the economy and clients’ budgets.

When the crisis hit, the agency’s leaders pulled together a seven-stage plan that included measures such as reducing the five partners’ salaries and spending all the money the independent shop had in the bank, says Bryan Collins, co-founder and CD.

Having been able to keep everyone employed throughout the pandemic, the agency “rallied” as things began to rebound, says Scot Keith, founder and president/CEO.

“It allowed our staff to focus on the work and not worry about their mortgage payment, not worry about themselves,” adds Collins. “I think that comfort we were able to give [our staff] that we’ve invested in them and invested in getting through this allowed them to invest their time in our clients and solving their problems.”

Fortuitously, Collins says the agency had brought new production capabilities in-house before the pandemic started. In late 2019, it began building out its videography, editing and motion graphics chops and later hired Natasha Lakhani as head of production to manage the team.

The timing “could not have been better,” says Collins. “That was very helpful for a lot of our clients, being able to create assets ourselves.”

In fact, it’s worked out so well for 123w, that it’s expanding the capabilities and moving some of the early hires from contract to full-time, according to Collins.

The agency put its new in-house chops to work for Mogo, the B.C.-based fintech brand. A “Change your card. Change the world” campaign – the company’s first marketing effort, and the agency’s first work for the brand – promoted its new MogoSpend account as a way to achieve “zero debt and a zero carbon footprint.” With an assist from Murmur Music and Sound on audio, the digital spots were produced in-house, on a small budget and in “record time,” Collins says.

Beyond adding new capabilities, 123w brought on Bofill, who previously led the design department at John St., as a partner in October to build a new Toronto office from scratch. The new arm will help grow the business in Ontario, which already accounts for roughly 30% of the agency’s revenue, by initially taking a design-centric approach to work for Sleeman, CAA and the Canada Media Fund, among others.

Design was a strong focus for 123w when it launched in Vancouver. However, today, Keith and Collins say it has grown more integrated over time, with the work now roughly split between design assignments and more traditional advertising.

“Our bread-and-butter right now is clients that say, ‘Help me! We were number one, now we’re number four, and we’re falling fast and there are more competitors, so we need to up our game on a whole bunch of fronts,” says Keith. That means a lot of brand pivots, revitalizations and accelerations – work that many more brands will need as the pandemic rages on.

There’s no doubt the last year has been challenging, as the goalposts shifted from “increasing revenue by X percent” to putting everything aside to “work for each other and our clients,” Keith says. But the ordeal has also revealed that success comes from putting people first.

When tested, 123w stayed true to putting all its eggs in the talent basket, Keith says. And in the end, “I’m probably more proud of how we handled that situation than winning a Cannes Lion.”

New key business: Alpine Credits; B.C. Liquor Distribution Branch; CAA; Clearly; MEC; Nature’s Path; Rocky Mountaineer; Saje Natural Wellness; Sleeman’s; Spence Diamonds; Weber; Westbank; Western Hockey League (WHL).

New hires: Tim Hoffpauir, CD; Heleena Webber, account director; Natasha Lakhani, production director; David Felizarta, account manager.

Staff: 37