2021 Small AOY Gold: 123w is a talent magnet

The indie shop is embracing being in the transformation business after a year of revamping and accelerating brands.

Agency Group Photo - 123w

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

By Will Novosedlik

Known for its senior-heavy business model, 123w not only hires for great talent but for strong character, says co-founder Scot Keith.

“My partners and I have seen and worked in so many agencies that make the mistake of throwing their money at over-the-top office space, lavish client entertainment or fat returns to the shareholders when they should really be investing in better processes or working conditions or staff. We just put the money into talent.”

Out of a staff of 48, 15 are hands-on senior creative directors. Its model goes back to when Keith and his partners – creative director Rob Sweetman, writer Bryan Collins and designer Jeff Harrison – asked themselves what would make them happy and what would make them miserable. In the latter column, they put departments, hierarchy, disciplinary silos, and high overhead. In the former column they put doing what they do best: actually creating work, not just managing it, and hiring people for the same reason.

Moreen “Mo” Bofill, who in late 2020 left John St. to join 123w’s leadership team and lead its expansion to Toronto, is one of those people, says Keith. “She is an expert on the business of design and how it integrates with advertising and digital,” he says. Mo’s strengths will come in handy as 123w becomes increasingly focused on two areas: brand transformation and brand acceleration.

“The pandemic has made not only [a client’s] marketing team, but the CEO, executives and board members, prioritize their brand communications. So we see 123w as being in the brand transformation business. It’s where strategy, design, advertising and digital intersect, and it’s targeted at brands that are top three in their industry but are threatened by new market entries.”

An example can be seen in work for new client Real Canadian Superstore (RCS). Its first task was to help move RCS from its previous “Shop like a mother” platform to “Shop how you want.” The campaign (see sidebar) is more diverse and inclusive, and works to make everyone and anyone feel represented and celebrated when it comes to discovering whatever food combinations they want. Real Canadian Superstore is now working with 123w on its design systems, brand campaigns and day-to-day marketing programs.

For new market entrants, 123w is focusing more on building out its “acceleration” services, which include creating a brand from scratch, positioning it, naming it, designing it and integrating all of that with storytelling at different touchpoints. For instance, MOGO – a digital platform that’s focused on improving clients’ financial health and environmental impact – worked with the agency to create a brand anthem that provoked people to take responsibility for their debt and carbon footprint.

The shop has also helped accelerate SAAS brands such as Later, Thinkific, Deel and SWAY, as well as supported the transformation of companies like the Canada Media Fund, Athletics Canada, White Spot, Okanagan Spring Brewery, Kal Tire and Diane’s Lingerie. And since August 2020, 123w has won 22 new accounts across a variety of industries, including ATCO, Calgary Airport Authority, Essilor, Mark Anthony Group, NexGen Energy, Sleeman, and Sapporo.

Keeping the agency small and senior in response to its recent growth will require disciplined management and more autonomy across the teams.

“The trick,” says Scot, “is to avoid the situation where one or two CDs at the top need to approve all the work. It slows things down and pretty soon you have a sweat shop environment, where the creatives end up showing their work to the CDs on evenings and weekends because they were too busy during business hours.”

Some of the ways its investing in developing talent and maintaining its founding values is through initiatives like “CDX,” where all of its 15 working CDs must be creative directed by a colleague, including younger creative staff. Then there’s “123w Pitch School,” an initiative to train talent on pitching business. Lastly, the agency is changing annual reviews to concentrate more on development, which means focusing their training around what they’re good at and what they want to do.

The firm’s talent selection and development team has also been very mindful of the importance of diversity, with almost half of its creative directors being women, along with growing LGBTQ+ and BIPOC representation among staff. It has also been diversifying its skillset to include specializations like motion graphics, digital media planning and buying, strategy and production.

As Scot says, “We’re not trying to build an army here. We’re building a team of Navy Seals.”

New business
Canadian Tire, Deel, Essilor, Gymnastics Canada, Industry Trade Authority, Later Living Forest Institute, Natural Resources Canada, NexGen Energy, No Boats on Sunday, Real Canadian Superstore, Road 13 / Mark Anthony Group, Sapporo, Sleeman Clear 2.0, Stratus Winery, Teknion, Thinkific, Vancouver Fraser Port Authority

New hires
Mo Bofill, Sandra Gardon, Hannah Russell, Taeya Page, Alhyssa Bofill, Lenny Kai Yang, Dave Felizarta, Jesse Shaw, Katie Muir, Ryan Semeniuk, Jeremy Grice, Natalie Wu, Rich Parkes, Jaime Nilsson, Josh Kodis

Offices
Toronto, Vancouver

Staff
48

Small AOY cases

Real Canadian Super Platform - Image 4

1. Real Canadian Superstore has everything for everyone. 123w relayed that message to its diverse customer base with a spot that speaks to the pride Canadians have in the food they eat, from maple syrup to perogies, dim sum and halo halo.

CAA

2. Instead of hammering cannabis users with facts, 123w and the CAA created a campaign that applauded younger drivers for planning ahead. “Do Anything But Drive” spoke to youth on social media and kept the message positive while still communicating the dangers of driving on edibles.

You'll Get It When You See It - Case Board

3. For the Vancouver Mural Festival, the shop designed wayfinding billboards, posters and IG Stories that focused on the weird, distinct and too-hard-to-explain art, claiming that “You’ll get it when you see it.”