High-stakes pitches, client pressures, the daily struggle with creative block: Life in a typical ad agency is no day in the park. Although a certain up-and-coming agency in Toronto would like it to be.
In fact, the founders of five-year-old Juniper Park have built their agency around “the notion of a park,” says Terry Drummond, one of three creative directors who, along with a fourth partner specializing in strategy, founded Juniper Park in 2007. “In a park,” says Drummond, “you’re constantly playing and learning. It’s a place where you go to try new things. And in a park, you have to be prepared to play with others.”
That open, experimental, collaborative spirit is very much in the air at this 90-person hot shop, which has been garnering acclaim and awards with its work for clients such as Frito-Lay, Quaker, EOS, Virgin Mobile and others. The agency’s open architectural layout eschews barriers, as does its overall business structure. The four partners have made a conscious effort to minimize bureaucratic layers and merge people from various departments and disciplines. As one of Drummond’s partners and co-creative directors, Alan Madill, puts it, “Unlike most agencies, we don’t have a ‘designer pod’ over in this area and an interactive group over there. There’s no room off to the side for the ‘wacky creatives.’ Instead, they’re all interspersed.”
And the work is out in the open, too—pinned up on large foam core boards that are situated in the four corners of the “park.” Drummond believes that at too many agencies, people become overly-protective of their ideas and work. “I can still remember, years ago at another agency, when I walked into someone’s office and they immediately flipped over the paper they were working on to hide the idea. We don’t do that here. You put your idea out there, where anyone can see it and comment on it. There’s no hiding." Or, to return to the agency's defining metaphor, “When you’re at the park, you must be willing to share your toys.”
Drummond and Madill have been creative partners for more than a dozen years, going back to early days at the renowned Toronto creative agency TAXI. From there, they moved on to work at several other agencies, most recently Grip Limited, where they linked up with Barry Quinn (now Juniper Park’s third creative director and its resident design maven) and Jill Nykoliation, who had a strong background on the business/strategy side. When the four of them were offered an opportunity to do a startup venture—with the backing of the larger BBDO agency and the Omnicom network—they jumped.
They did so in part because they were feeling restless. As the partners explain it, they saw an advertising industry in the midst of dramatic change, offering new opportunities and demanding new ways of working. But to be able to pursue those new opportunities and approaches, they needed to break free of the old agency model. As Drummond puts it, “When you’re dissatisfied with where you’re working, the only thing to do is start a new place where you can work the way you want.”
They had some pretty clear ideas of how they might do things differently. One involved designing a much more collaborative environment, as expressed in the “park” theme. But there was more to it than that: The partners, and particularly designer Quinn, had a vision for an ad agency that would be focused on design as a central element of building clients' brands.
Of course, it’s not unusual for ad agencies to have a design department—design is often a kind of “add-on” service provided to clients by ad agencies; but Quinn and the partners thought that design could be more of a holistic, driving influence, as opposed to a secondary one.
“Consumers don’t know the difference between advertising and design—and when it’s done well, there should be no seam between them,” Quinn says. “The goal is to create a seamless consumer experience. To do that, you have to get rid of the seams—and that means getting rid of the ‘design ghetto’ that exists in the ad world.”
So instead of being an add-on or an afterthought, design drives all of the work at Juniper Park. The agency is extremely focused on developing a strong and clear visual language for each brand—one that can stand out amid the cultural cacophony, and help a brand be more identifiable and meaningful to consumers. As Quinn explains, this kind of visual clarity and consistency has become more important than ever. Today’s brands must communicate across many media channels and consumer touchpoints.
Without a coherent design sensibility, a brand is likely to transmit fractured and disjointed images, messages and signals. The job of design is to ensure that brand communication remains clear, consistent and compelling every step of the way—even as the content of ad messages change or the ways of delivering that message vary. From a creative standpoint, Quinn says, this requires more than coming up with a clever ad line. “You always have to be thinking about, ‘What will reinforce the identity of this brand, as people encounter it in ads, on the street, or in the store?’” As the agency is coming up with ideas, Quinn adds, “You have to think about all the places this idea will have to live: How will it look on a billboard? Can it be read on a mobile phone?”
This is where the agency's park-like, highly-collaborative environment comes into play—it enables Juniper Park to bring together people from across disciplines, right at the outset of a project. “We usually start with a freeform conversation that includes a little bit of anthropology, design, digital, everything—everyone brings their point of view so you can see a challenge from different angles,” Drummond says.
After these initial sessions, teams divide up and work within their expertise, but continually come back together at various stages to keep the collaboration going. It’s up to the three creative directors, Drummond, Madill and Quinn, to orchestrate this process. When it all works, Madill says, “People are able to produce something together they could never do themselves.”
The agency has grown quickly in its first five years, outgrowing three spaces already. The environment wasn’t always park-like: When the four partners were starting off, they were squeezed into a small 22nd floor office space where, Madill recalls, the employees that were hired sometimes had to do their work sitting in the lobby. The economy was just starting to take a downward turn in those early days, but that didn’t daunt Juniper Park’s founders. “When you’re starting off during a recession,” Madill says, “you have everything to gain and not many accounts to lose.”
The agency did start off, however, with one very important account in Frito-Lay—for whom Juniper Park delivered strong results, right out of the gate. The agency had an early breakthrough with a campaign aimed at women that featured a series of animated online films (or “webisodes”) under the theme “Only in a Woman’s World,” starring four female cartoon characters who shared wry observations about dieting, exercise and life in general. The product tie-ins (to various Frito-Lay snack foods) were low-key throughout. “The idea was to say, ‘Here is some interesting content—and by the way, it’s from Frito-Lay,’” says Drummond. The webisodes were an online hit, as confirmed by Ad Age’s weekly viral ad rankings.
As Juniper Park was given a variety of Frito-Lay brands to promote, the agency responded with an impressive range of work. There was, for instance, a striking outdoor installation inside a pedestrian tunnel in the Chicago subway—with giant potatoes that appeared to be sprouting from the tunnel’s ceiling, promoting Lay’s potato chips. To promote Lay’s Kettle Cooked chips—made with traditional artisan cooking methods—the agency hired a team of skilled artisans to hand-carve a wooden billboard (it took ten days to do it).
For the client’s SunChips brand, the agency opted to create a campaign that was “solar-powered.” This included a newspaper ad that had to be held up to the sun in order to be read (the text was printed backward on the following page). There was also a billboard in Oakland, California, featuring a stencil-like overhang that (when the sun was shining) produced a shadow that read, “SunChips.” This involved some advance planning. “We had to figure out the best location, the angle of the sun and so forth,” Madill explains, but it was worth it in terms of generating attention for the brand (including stories in the New York Times and elsewhere).
The agency is not easy to pigeonhole. Fresh off its success in snack food, it has proven it can also do strong work in the beauty products category, specifically for a beauty line called EOS. The agency’s design smarts have played a big role with this client—influencing not just the ads, but also the packaging of these products (including a shaving cream for women). But if Juniper Park has shown it can succeed with “soft” products like EOS lotions, it can also play well in the tech arena—as evidenced by a current successful campaign for Virgin Mobile.
The Virgin Mobile campaign exemplifies Quinn’s point about giving a brand a consistent design look and feel across many channels and touchpoints. Virgin Mobile, which does a lot of event marketing, needed a visual language that could work in a wide range of environments—from the digital space to concert venues and nightclubs and retail. Juniper Park delivered a multi-faceted campaign that morphs into a large variety of forms.
It could be said that this Canadian agency defies labels—in fact, “Canadian agency” is a misnomer, as well. Most of its clients are outside Canada. And its work for American clients such as the Chicago Tribune demonstrates an intimate understanding of American culture and topical issues. That campaign, which touches on neighborhood stories and the Tribune’s role in telling them, feels like the work of a Windy City native.
If there is a unifying theme behind all of Juniper Park's work, it’s probably clarity and simplicity (as fostered by strong design). The agency believes in work that gets to the point—and it believes that clients need to think likewise. “Today more than ever, clients should be simplifying what they stand for and how they communicate that,” Drummond says. “Even as everything is changing in this industry, some things remain constant—such as knowing what your brand stands for, and then lining up everything behind that.”
Meanwhile, Juniper Park’s own goals, as articulated by Drummond, are also pretty simple: “My whole career, I’ve always wanted to do one campaign that was better than the last best thing I’ve done,” he says. “So I guess that’s the goal—just keep pushing your work to the next best level and, I hope, with that comes growth and recognition for the business.” ca