Early into the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 when the world was shutting down, things were opening up for Nikki Ormerod. “It was time to do something super scary,” says the 37-year-old international-award-winning commercial portrait photographer, filmmaker and director based in Toronto. By July, her partner Scott Houghton had resigned as executive producer of Morrison Films, and the two had been talking a lot. As Nikki Ormerod Photography for 17 years, and with Houghton’s 23 years in the industry, “we saw that it was always the same white, 40-something-year- old men doing most of the photographing and directing,” says Ormerod. “Scott and I were scratching our heads about why younger artists [of] more diverse [backgrounds] weren’t asked to do the big jobs where they get paid properly. We were feeling a huge divide. What better way to cross that divide than by creating a new production company?”
Enter Undivided Creative Inc. in October 2020, dazzling clients with all aspects of advertising and branding, including editorial, short films and music videos. Equal parts diversity, creativity and opportunity, Undivided “brings together a community of talented artists who haven’t had the chance they deserve in the industry,” says Ormerod, copartner with Houghton who’s also the executive producer. “We want to use our experience to help give them a leg up.”
“We want to help them be even better artists and see themselves as brands,” adds Houghton. “It’s not just what you do; it’s also who you are. I’m excited to see how we can change the mindset of the industry, revolutionize it. We have to be leaders.”
The two already knew the “younger, fresh thinkers” they invited in, having taught or worked with them for years. Undivided’s creative team, all contract, just happens to be people with a mix of gender, ethnicity and LGBTQ+ identities. “A lot of creatives and clients we work with want to choose from a diverse group of artists, but the visible options in Toronto are limited,” Ormerod says. “We’ve done the footwork of selecting. Now let us pitch our artists and blow you away. It’s not totally selfless for us, though: our artists are so inspiring, they make us realize why we got into this industry in the first place.”
For Ormerod, it began in Burlington, Ontario, where she was born and raised Catholic. “I fought hard against that and questioned everything,” she says. When she switched to a public high school, “everything changed for me. There was art, free thinkers, music”—and photography. Supportive of this new interest, her parents bought her her first 35mm camera, which she pointed at the hardcore punk scene she was heavily into. And her “weird, awesome” photography teacher handed her a key to the darkroom.
After she got her MA in photography from Sheridan College in 2004, she left for Toronto. The photo lab that hired her as a retoucher made it easy to meet other photographers who not only turned to her for retouching but printing as well, which kickstarted her into assisting. But what Ormerod really wanted was to shoot. Within a couple of years, she was photographing for local and national music magazines, and soon record labels Universal Music Group and Warner.
“The artist in me always wanted to photograph fashion, but the way I shot was too dark and moody,” says Ormerod. “I found that the moodier music stuff I liked to shoot, the fashion I wanted to shoot and the advertising I needed to shoot met in sports.” In 2009, Nike became her first client, and it was during photographing athletes that she learned how to light. That same year, Ormerod joined Westside Studio, where she stayed until Undivided. She gave them the “happy, shiny and glossy” look that clients wanted, and shot creatives and bands on the side. In photographing Harlequin romance-novel covers (“a bread-and-butter client”), she learned even more how to light and, for the first time, form styling teams and direct.
Caitlin Jeffery, then Ormerod’s rep at Westside, told her: “Don’t lose yourself. Don’t stop doing what you love.” That meant documentary-lifestyle, less lighting for a cinematic feel and her camera closer to her subjects. By 2013, what she loved also meant directing, so Ormerod signed with Spy Films where she met Houghton, who became her producer and mentor. The next year they were both at Westside, he as executive producer.
Here, the director in Ormerod took off with Air Canada’s Your World Awaits rebranding. J. Walter Thompson came up with the campaign for its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, expanding them internationally. Using a unique retouching aesthetic, Ormerod superimposed her portraits of models on stock photography of world landmarks for a double-exposure effect. “It was a career changer for me,” says Ormerod. “The creative room it gave me shaped my style and set my aesthetic on a new trajectory.”
“Nikki's research process has always impressed me; she does more than most photographers,” says Nicole Ellerton, creative director on the Your World Awaits campaign and now a creative director at Cossette. “She embraced the holistic vision of the campaign’s concept and became an integral part of the ideation process, collaborating throughout the entire project. She was as invested in the campaign as we were. It was a huge success.”
So was the campaign Ormerod started on in 2015 with Cossette for SickKids Foundation with The Hospital for Sick Children (aka SickKids®), in Toronto. Its five-year SickKids VS fundraising campaign—with a target of $1.3 billion to build a new hospital—shifted the foundation’s charity brand to a performance one.
Over the course of three years, Ormerod took photos of about 100 patients in the hospital-lobby atrium. “I was shooting kids fighting for their lives,” she says. “We thought it would be depressing, but it ended up being the most empowering—and humbling—shoot I’d ever done. And fun.” In her portraits of the kids, even with their IV or colostomy bag, they’re laughing, punching the air and sticking out their tongues.
Says Craig McIntosh, executive creative director at Cossette, “Nikki is phenomenal at capturing people’s essence and spirit in front of the camera. She’s got this very vibrant, positive personality. That’s why the work is so great. Her photos are supermodern, superfresh and so alive. The campaign already has broken all the fundraising records for the hospital.”
Ormerod gets to know her subjects by spending time with them before the shoot. “The first few frames show how receptive they are to me and how I might have to soften them,” she says. “While I’m shooting, I go ‘out of body,’ then I go back to the monitor and see what I just did. The entire time, I’m seeing how close of a connection I can get to the person, to get something provocative and emotional.”
Ormerod’s gift for drawing out her subjects’ authenticity spurred Denise Cole, cofounder and creative director of Toronto-based ad agency Juliet Creative, to call on her for the first time in 2016. The White Ribbon Campaign wanted to raise awareness of—and stop—violence against women, galvanized by a highly publicized court case where the father of a former Stanford University swimmer convicted of the intent to rape an unconscious woman stated that his son shouldn’t have to be imprisoned for “20 minutes of action.”
Cole says, “It’s such a sensitive subject matter [that] a strength and a concern needed to come across in the work.” In Ormerod’s 30-second #20MinutesOfAction4Change spot and still photography, fathers, sons and young women speak out with their eyes. You can’t help but feel the discomfort of the five fathers in the voiceless video, only their facial expressions conveying their struggle with how they’re going to talk about sexual consent with their sons. The final shot has a teenage girl looking squarely at viewers, silently urging them to consider the consequences if people don’t have that discussion.
Franca Piacente, former director of production at Leo Burnett Toronto who met Ormerod when she worked there and, at Westside, knew she would be a terrific collaborator. In 2018, she was Piacente’s first choice for a Virgin Mobile campaign targeting a younger audience, where she photographed alongside a TV crew in Barcelona. “This was the next big joint on my stylistic path,” says Ormerod. “I was on a path of redefining what and how I shoot, focusing on youth culture and imagery that felt more stripped back and raw. And I could shoot whatever and however I wanted.”
“Nikki is incredible with people,” Piacente notes. “And she created stylized shots and beautifully natural portraits. The photographs she captured looked stunning.”
Also in 2018, for a large Canadian financial institution (unnamed while the campaign is pandemic-delayed), Ormerod clicked away with three other photographers by her side to convey a brand-new multicultural look. From about 3,000 models, 200 were chosen for 80 portraits.
Says Hylton Mann, a freelance creative director in Toronto who hired her for the campaign, “Nikki had to stay in touch with hundreds of subjects, juggle clients, face a demanding shoot schedule and still photograph. It was a massive undertaking, and she handled it famously. She does her own thing but also wants to know what you think and want. Clients just love her.”
And Ormerod loves her work. “I can’t not do this,” she says. “I’ve never taken a photo or made a film that I haven’t poured everything of myself into.” She wants to do more motion, like the four-minute film she made of Canadian poet Rupi Kaur performing her “Broken English,” which aired on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on April 28, 2021.
As Toronto’s Hollywood North only grows, there’ll be more film opportunities for Undivided there, and within the company. If they aren’t already doing it, some of their photographers aspire to become cinematographers or directors.
“Our artists are interested in learning from us as well as each other, cross-pollinating their talents so we can foster each other’s symbiotic nature to work together,” says Ormerod. “The most important thing for us is that Undivided holds true. We want it to survive the test of time—and help transform the industry.” ca