2021 PR AOY Bronze: Citizen Relations has purpose

Rarely seen in the PR world, the agency is spearheading ESG tasks and helping businesses become better corporate citizens.

Agency Group Photo - Citizen Relations

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of strategy.

Citizen Relations’ Nick Cowling would like the industry to think beyond one-time corporate charitable donations and ad hoc cause campaigns.

“If I was a retailer,” he says, “I would want to put food banks out of business.” The agency president acknowledges the crassness of his statement, “but, in my opinion, there’s still too much ‘marketing’ and not enough ‘purpose’ being done in purpose marketing.”

Recent times has shown that humanity can do anything when the stakes are high enough. “If the world can come up with a vaccine faster than ever before, why can’t it do the same for climate change? For world hunger?” The question posed by Cowling may be too big for Citizen Relations to address on it’s own – but perhaps someone with a handful of degrees in environmental science and social anthropology can help?

Enter Dr. Shilpa Tiwari.

In June 2021, Citizen appointed Tiwari as its first global EVP responsible for counseling clients when it comes to social impact, sustainability and DEI. A tall order, but one that she’s thoroughly equipped for: Tiwari arrived at Citizen with education and experience from places like the U.K., Asia and Africa, having held senior ESG positions at companies like Manulife and SNC-Lavalin. She’s also the founder of Her Climb whose mission is to fill company ranks with women who look more like her.

“I needed someone who actually understands ESG, because it’s quite complex,” says Cowling. “I can dumb it down to a bunch of spreadsheets but it takes someone like Shilpa to understand the [totality of ESG] and how to build it up.”

Say a client wants to promote the fact that it’s planning to become carbon-free by 2030. That’s great, says Cowling, but if they are also contributing to the world’s methane emissions (which environmental scientists are now saying is a much worse contributor to climate change in the short-term), then someone is going to call the brand out on it.

“With the level of transparency today, we have to look at the entire proposition… You can look for one thing you’re doing right and you can create a marketing campaign around it, but just promoting that one piece is not what the client needs. They need us to say, ‘OK, here are the areas that we have identified as weaknesses. Let’s talk more about plans to improve that.’”

Food producer Nissin started working with the agency for that very reason. Cowling says the U.S. arm of the company first approached Vision7 sister shop Cossette to assist with its ESG strategy. But Citizen had just launched its social impact and sustainability practice (which is currently a team of four, with eyes on a fifth to support its rapid growth). Several conversations later and it’s now helping the Japanese company collect and measure its emissions throughout the supply chain, a task rarely spearheaded by a PR firm.

A higher level of scrutiny is also being applied to the creative product, says Cowling. More clients are approaching Citizen to review campaigns and advise whether they’re appropriate for the current environment. (“We’ve actually stopped some,” admits Cowling.) And there’s a growing client desire for more integrated teams, he says, with some RFPs now calling for a senior communications client to be on the core marketing team for the creative.

Similar to media, decisions around how to make an idea live through PR is traditionally kept separate from the creative. But Citizen wants to be a bigger part of those discussions, and even lead some of its own.

That’s why, in May, Cowling hired Josh Budd to lead its creative hub – which consists of two ACDs, two ADs, a copywriter and a senior designer – working across North America. Budd came from creative shop No Fixed Address, where he helped produce work that has PR legs, and so he understands the intersection between the two disciplines, says Cowling.

“We brought in strategy years and years ago, and it helped us make smart work from the beginning. But one of the things I wanted to do is create a larger [creative] contingent,” he says, adding that making Budd’s remit cover the whole of North America means he’s able to support Citizen’s offices across Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Quebec City, New York, Irvine and Los Angeles.

While the agency’s mission – “to make every conversation count” – has informed the transformation of its operations over the years, it’s now able to execute on that vision with an experienced creative (Wunderman Thompson, Leo Burnett and Cossette are just some of ad agencies on Budd’s resume) at the helm. As Cowling has said before: “We’re focused on developing a creative organization, not an organization with a creative department.”

New business
VinFast, Ville de Laval, UQAM (Université du Québec à Montreal), Vitacore, Article

New Hires
Josh Budd, Dr. Shilpa Tiwari, Laura Muirhead

Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Quebec City


PR AOY cases


1. SickKids patients earn “Bravery Beads” with every procedure they endure, and over the years more than one million patients have earned over one million beads. Yet few outside the hospital have ever seen one. So Citizen put them at the heart of five installations in places like the Eaton Centre. It also shared patient stories through media interviews with the volunteers who run the Bravery Bead program at SickKids, and enlisted influencers to continue the conversation online.

unsanitary products

2. For “Unsanitary Products,” the shop sent red boxes across the country to media and influencers that included items like socks, a t-shirt, and paper napkins – things that some women are forced to use as an alternative period product. Each item was wrapped with period poverty stats and what Shoppers and U by Kotex are doing about it.


3. Citizen helped beverage brand Vizzy and Ru Paul’s Drag Race star Priyanka promote “The Vizzybility Project” – a grant program for LGBTQ+ artists – with a widespread media tour that saw the influencer become a co-host for ET Canada, land on the cover of ELLE Canada, and get the attention of global press, including a feature spread in Forbes.