It began, four years ago, as an offhand idea: create a short film that makes fun of the way ad agencies tend to glorify themselves a bit too much in their own case study videos. If you’ve ever seen an agency case study video at an awards show, you know the drill: When client X came to us, they had a problem… And then we thought of a brilliant idea… Soon our idea was everywhere… and sales went through the roof!
The folks at john st.—at the time a growing, but still under-the-radar Toronto ad agency—figured it was time to let some air out of the balloon. “It just seemed like [case studies] were getting out of hand—they were making it seem like every ad campaign was the second coming,” says Stephen Jurisic, an executive creative director at the agency.
So john st. responded with a two-minute film featuring its own mock case study—in this case, the daunting challenge faced by the agency involved an eight-year-old girl having a birthday party. How on Earth would she get other kids to come? This led to the agency’s Big Idea—have a pony at the party—and to the inevitable result: attendance that exceeded all expectations (i.e., a few extra kids showed up). Of course, all of this was communicated in a breathless, self-congratulatory tone that made it a dead-on parody of every case study video ever done.
The agency brought its little spoof film, “Pink Ponies,” to strategy magazine’s 2010 Agency of the Year awards show in Toronto, where it was a hit with the crowd. Then they put the film on the web, where it quickly went viral. It resonated in the worldwide advertising community, and soon it seemed everyone in the business was talking about a Toronto agency named after a street.
The experience taught the young john st. agency an important lesson—if you’re going to exhort clients to take chances with edgy ads, you ought to be willing to do likewise for your own agency brand, on your own dime. “It showed we were willing to walk the walk,” says executive creative director Angus Tucker. It’s actually something very few ad agencies do; most do not apply their creative talents and strategies to promoting their own companies.
But maybe more of them should, considering the results john st. enjoyed. New clients began approaching the agency almost immediately, as did talented people looking to work at an agency willing to produce “Pink Ponies.” Jurisic, Tucker and their agency partners decided they should do more of this kind of thing, and thus began what is now an annual tradition: every year, john st. produces another short film that makes fun of advertising, or some particular aspect of it.
“Pink Ponies” was followed up with “Catvertising,” a poke at niche agencies who specialize in one thing. In the video, john st. repositions itself as an agency that makes only cat videos because, as the film explains, “everything is moving toward cat videos, and the agencies that don’t realize that are going to be left behind.” “Catvertising” was an even bigger hit than “Pink Ponies,” so john st. came back the next year, 2012, with “Buyral,” which made fun of the practice of trying to make videos go viral by buying online clicks. In 2013, the agency took on the trend of “prank advertising” with its film “ExFEARiential,” which shows the staff doing terrifying things to unsuspecting people, all to hawk beer and deodorant.
If the mock case studies show a certain mischievous streak, so do many of the agency’s ads for clients. john st. is not above the occasional attention-getting stunt for brands, such as having a man hitchhike across Canada in his skivvies (as part of a campaign for Stanfield’s underwear). The agency’s founding partners believe that everything john st. produces should be “unignorable”—in fact, it is a core principle that the agency has tried to live by since opening its doors twelve years ago.
The agency started in 2001—five weeks before 9/11—shortly after Tucker and Jurisic, co-creative directors at the Toronto office of Ammirati & Puris, grew restless on their perch. “We were at work one day and Angus asked me, ‘Are you having fun?’” Jurisic recalls. “I answered no, and that got things started.” They banded together with three other Ammirati colleagues—Arthur Fleischmann, Emily Bain and Jane Tucker—and, with backing from a silent partner with deep pockets, set up a new shop on John Street, in the heart of Toronto’s “cultural corridor.”
It wasn’t glamorous at first: the agency’s initial ad was for a local karate school attended by one of the partners. “We went from doing big commercials for Labatt beer to finding ourselves in a Toys“R”Us trying to come up with cheap props for a karate school ad,” recalls Jurisic. “Initially, our driving philosophy was just to stay in business,” Tucker adds.
But about two years in, the partners began to clarify a set of guiding principles, inscribed in a document they called “The Book of john.” Unignorable was among the words written down, and it became an agency mantra. There’s nothing all that radical in the notion that an agency would aim to do work that’s hard to ignore; most agencies strive for that. But it’s easier said than done—and it doesn’t get any easier in a time of information overload, media fragmentation and short attention spans. The formula for creating unignorable work, if such a formula existed, would probably call for a delicate balance between crafting a message that is smart and purposeful, yet playful and fun, while also figuring out the best ways to make that message ubiquitous without hitting people over the head. It’s tricky stuff, but john st. seems to have struck that balance in a number of its campaigns.
Take its celebrated work for Stanfield’s, featuring the aforementioned hitchhiker in underwear. That’s an attention-getting idea, to be sure, but it was also rooted in solid brand strategy: Stanfield’s wanted to be seen as “supporting men,” so john st. devised a campaign that raised money for testicular cancer while adding an element of fun. The scantily clad hitchhiker—himself a testicular cancer survivor—had to make his way across Canada in the dead of winter. Followers could track him on Facebook, offer him rides, invite him to stay in their homes or donate to the Canadian Cancer Society on his behalf. The campaign raised more than $100,000 for cancer, generated 47 million media impressions and earned Stanfield’s a 50 percent increase in sales.
The Stanfield’s campaign helped earn john st. Agency of the Year honors from strategy in 2013. Also cited were strong campaigns for Mitsubishi cars, Zellers stores and Carly’s Café, a remarkable interactive website that mimics the sensory experiences associated with autism, helping visitors empathize with people who struggle with the disorder. The agency has shown a flair for this type of nontraditional marketing, using a variety of innovative media formats—from creating apps to staging live events.
john st.’s client roster now includes Mitsubishi, Labatt, ING Direct, consumer electronics manufacturer Kobo and Maple Leaf Foods. It’s gotten to the point of some clients practically begging the agency to take their business: when john st. turned down a pitch invitation from the Dixie Outlet Mall, the retailer sent a “treasure chest” of goodies from its stores along with a pleading note. The agency relented.
Handling all the work for that growing client roster is a staff of 100, housed on three floors of a building with a wide-open floor plan. The five partners sit within 20 feet of the front door (at their original desks), “so when anyone walks in we’re pretty much the first people they see.” Typically there are a few dogs roaming around (but no cats, giving the lie to images in the “Catvertising” film that suggests the place is teeming with felines). The other thing visitors tend to notice right away is a huge stenciled message on the wall that reads: “People hate advertising.” Says Tucker: “It’s a constant reminder to us that advertising better be interesting.”
Angus Tucker and Jurisic oversee all the creative work, with help from two other creative directors. Fleischmann is the agency president, Jane Tucker heads up account services and Bain oversees strategic planning. The culture emphasizes easygoing collaboration with “no screaming or yelling—you’re not allowed to be a diva, male or female,” says Tucker. “But you do need to be able to debate and defend your work.”
The agency was recently acquired by WPP—perhaps the ultimate testament that this once under-the-radar shop has gotten itself noticed in a big way. But even though it now has global resources at its disposal, don’t expect any bold predictions of global domination from john st. “We’d like to win more awards on a world stage, of course,” says Jurisic, “but the main thing we’re focused on is pretty simple. If we do work in Canada that’s world class in quality, that’s a good enough goal for us.” ca