2020 Small AOY Silver: Juliet walks like a giant

With new hires and a growing research arm, the Toronto-based agency is gearing up to help clients move further into digital and ecommerce.
Juliet - Group Photo

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

Given that Juliet has fared relatively well this year, one would assume Ryan Spelliscy is sleeping a little more soundly, but making all those pivots has been tiring work.

“It has been an exhausting year, for sure,” the agency’s co-founder and CCO says. “But right now, I’m as optimistic as someone can be. We operate relatively well when we aren’t sure what’s next.”

The kind of economic upheaval that 2020 brought with it could topple a young agency that’s trying to establish itself – that’s not been the case for Juliet.

Three years ago, the shop was founded by Spelliscy, creative director and head of art Denise Cole and chief strategy officer Sarah Stringer. But now, the agency boasts a head count of just over 40, including additions to its creative and design teams, a new head of performance media and a growing U.S. presence to handle new clients in Atlanta and L.A. It also hasn’t had to do any layoffs or salary reductions.

Spelliscy credits doubling down on investments Juliet made prior to the pandemic for driving the agency over the last few months, something it has been able to do because of its independence. Performance media, for example, is an offering Juliet leaned into early and has been especially beneficial to clients who are accelerating a shift to digital and relying more on ecommerce.

“You don’t need to be a psychic to see that things are going that way,” Spelliscy says. “But we could quickly place bets where we believed we needed to place them and not have to go up the line to New York [if we were part of a network] to respond to the obvious fact that ecommerce was exploding.”

Another bet that’s been paying off is new research arm Real Talk Insights. Instead of focusing on the major moments brands tend to spend marketing dollars on, Real Talk focuses on what it calls “micro-marketing decisions,” the countless choices a consumer makes in their day-to-day lives that can add up to major insights.

Real Talk findings come from tracking a dedicated group of up to 50 consumers and enabling the brand to follow up with the cohort digitally throughout the course of a year. The offering has become very attractive after months of rapid consumer behaviour change based on how the pandemic is playing out in towns or regions on a day-to-day basis.
These offerings, along with razor-sharp creative ideas, have helped Juliet add roughly a dozen brands to its client roster over the last twelve months, including an increase in retainer assignments.

But the fact that it is finding its footing doesn’t mean Juliet plans to abandon one of the biggest advantages of being a small indie shop. “I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know what the fuck is going to happen next,” Spelliscy says. “But we’ve fared well because our culture embraces uncertainty and is not afraid to try new things. And I don’t mean we try different things in our creative ideas; I mean forming new businesses and arms and structural things. If you’re willing to pivot, but it’s not in your DNA or structure to do that, it’s going to be hard, because you’re a bit frozen and miss some opportunities while you’re figuring out if and how to do it.”

Being nimble doesn’t mean simply jumping on new tech, being comfortable with your staff not being in the office or other startup-esque things that have been forced on most companies. It means being responsive to what’s happening and what works. So, while many agencies touted their ability to adapt to work-from-home and looked for silver linings that could be embraced long-term, Juliet opened its office back up in late August when the number of COVID-19 cases were trending downward, while being ready and willing to close and open again depending on the situation.

“I’m of the attitude that Zoom is a proficient tool for treading water but a terrible tool for swimming,” Spelliscy says. “Human interaction is essential to advertising and I don’t think agencies perform their duties well when everyone is separated. We’re not embracing with open arms this idea that everyone is going to work remotely forever. We’re not accountants where the answer is in a spreadsheet. You need those moments that happen with human interaction.”

New key business: Diet Coke; Sprite; Fairlife; Lawtons; Sobey’s Pharmacy; Harry Rosen; Director’s Guild of Canada; Nature’s Path; Milestones; Capstone Partners; Sweet Reason; Bio Raw.

New hires: Marco Tramonte, head of performance media.

Staff: 43