2021 Small AOY Bronze: Fuse Create turns heads

How the agency's "radical" decision to fundamentally change its product, reputation and culture has paid off.

Agency Group Photo - Fuse Create

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

Stephen Brown treats mat leaves as a measuring stick. The CEO of Fuse Create says they help validate just how far the agency has come within a short period of time. “People come back from mat leave and go, ‘Woah.’ Because they have a year gap, they come back and a few of them have said, ‘This is a very different company.’”

In the spring of 2020, the agency then-known as Fuse Marketing Group was gearing up to re-introduce itself as a creative-first shop. It was a big change for the 18-year-old, discipline-led agency, which had typically kept its creative services separate from its experiential expertise, offered under the Fuse Live banner.

With the help of Steve Miller – then a year into his role as partner, VP and ECD – Fuse had undertaken a lot of planning and behind-the-scenes work, including a new name, vision and branding by Jacknife that would help turn the heads of new and existing clients.

“We made the decision to radically change the product of Fuse, and the reputation of Fuse, and the culture of Fuse,’” Brown says. “We were in the planning stages. And we pulled the trigger early in the pandemic, because we were like, ‘We’re not going to let this stop us.’”

It wasn’t easy, Brown adds, but Fuse stuck to its guns and followed through with the relaunch, a decision he says is “paying off in strides right now.”

One of the biggest changes was Fuse’s decision to encourage everyone, from account and project managers through to IT and the CFO, to adopt a creative – as opposed to a profit-driven – mindset, says Miller. “The creative department might come up with the creative, but it’s the agency that has to champion [the approach].”

Previously, ideas flowed through the agency like a waterfall, moving from one department to the next like an assembly line “without people really being engaged or collaborative throughout,” Miller says. That, too, has changed. Team members now travel down the assembly line together, remaining involved in every step of the process until the work is brought to market, he says.

While the presence of a creative-first mindset can be difficult to measure in real terms, Miller and Brown say its presence is reflected in the agency’s ability to “turn heads.” That expression has become a rallying cry of sorts, Miller says, and is measured not only against the work it does for clients, but also in the design of its office and the way in which it conducts client pitches.

Brown says the new approach has already resonated with clients, which is proof enough for Brown that things are moving in the right direction. Last fall, for example, Fuse won the shopper, XM and activation business for Air Miles after approaching the pitch as a partner rather than a vendor, with more collaboration and agility.

The approach also led to new opportunities with Ricola, for which it is the social and digital AOR. After pitching an “Everyday Voice” campaign that highlighted the lozenge product’s year-round efficacy, the brand tested the concept in Canada in the spring and has since brought it to the U.S.

Just as important to Fuse, the new M.O. has been embraced by one of its longest-standing clients, CIBC, which could have decided to change tacks after welcoming Tammy Sadinsky as its new CMO earlier this year. To woo a new brand is one thing, Brown says. But to be able to “dig back in, reenergize, repurpose and get that motivated for an established brand” is evidence that “this brand mantra, this path that we’re on, is working.”

Before the year is out, Fuse’s new mantra will find further expression in the design of its office.

In November, the agency will be forced to vacate its current digs on Toronto’s Adelaide Street West, thanks to a reno project at its current location. The new office – in a building which Fuse has purchased outright, becoming both tenant and landlord – will be roughly one-third the size of its current home base.

Inside, Brown says the team is designing a “cafe-slash-Soho-house-slash-collaborative space” that reflects the creative needs of its staff and the hybrid reality of the future workforce. And on the street-facing ground floor is a blank retail canvas that Fuse intends to lend to clients for brand launches, activations and pop-ups.

In short, the space will serve as an extension of the agency’s new identity, fostering creativity from the bottom-up. Miller says: “If we create a space that can be inspiring and comfortable and supportive in that way, who knows what we’ll dream up?”

New business
Air Miles, Paird, Maple Leaf Food, Old Dutch

Hires
Robert Sarte, Nicole Raines, Jacquie Kostuk, Rita Steinberg, Shannon Wilson, Chatura Gnanaswaran

Office
Toronto

Staff
50

Small AOY cases

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1. When lockdowns hit, the problem for Maple Leaf Food’s Lunchmate – a prepackaged lunch kit – was clear: no more school meant no more school lunches. Realizing that kids were trapped inside, bored beyond belief and acting like little monsters, Fuse Create produced a quirky animated world using real found footage of kids monkeying around at home as a way to connect with apathetic kids on TikTok.

Everyday Voice - Case Board

2. To show that Ricola is about “voice care” and not just a “cough drop,” the shop created ads that demonstrated where people might need a Ricola to soothe their voices, such as a rollercoaster ride.

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3. Films for Reel Start began with students talking about their dreams to be in the entertainment biz, but were then abruptly silenced to show the barriers that exist for them.