Duration: Two years as Smaller Agency, and formerly known as Never Vanilla. Prior to launching my own agency, I’d spent fifteen years working in advertising, branding and communications.
Location: Toronto, Ontario.
Key creatives: I work with a diverse range of designers, each inspired by different cultures and surroundings. For example, one of my best packaging designers lives off the grid in a remote town in New Brunswick, while another is in upstate New York. And then, our core team is in Toronto, led by Amber Tsu, who is originally from Taiwan, but studied in Toronto and London. Amber brings a global approach to our business and a unique perspective that’s all her own.
Career path: When we started Smaller, our goal was to do the work that had the most impact to our clients. Auditing any brand, we’ve often found that packaging is one of the easiest ways to make that impact. It’s the last moment where real decisions are made, and if you can get an edge, it will move the needle. This is especially true for wine and beverage alcohol brands where there is a wall of choices, so standing out is important in brick-and-mortar stores.
I’ve been involved in the beverage alcohol world for a while, and helped clients design packaging and launch new innovations to market. So when some clients moved into the cannabis space, they had similar needs. Many agencies were reluctant to take on cannabis work. Some cannabis clients didn’t have big budgets and the work would be very iterative, so it would tax the large creative departments and structure of large agencies. My small team was willing to work together with our clients and their legal teams to hone the packaging.
Favorite projects: Cannabis company Saturday. We were launching a new brand/package into a completely new marketplace. There were no templates, examples or obvious resources to pull from—just legal documents issued from Health Canada outlining the regulations. We had defined parameters to play within and had to create something that stood out while adhering to the law. Super challenging, but also very rewarding.
I also loved the redesign for Peller Estates’s leading wine brand: French Cross. It is the highest volume wine in the country, selling more by liter than any other wine brand, so there was a lot at risk when redesigning an icon like this. We needed to liven up the brand, refresh it for a younger audience while not alienating the current consumers. There were about eight rounds of consumer and audience testing before we got to the final artwork. The photography on pack was custom for each varietal—ten different types of wine, so ten different photos—and shot locally to set the mood and use case for each stock-keeping unit.
Work environment: We work in a renovated house in the artsy west-end of Toronto. It’s a shared space with our production partners Someplace Nice. Sharing a unique environment helps keep the costs down, and also keeps the environment vibrant and fun. We have four unique spaces within the house with varying levels of community, enabling people to silo off into smaller groups or come together for lunches and meetings. In addition, we have remote teams, which lets us scale as needed and gives us access to a diverse range of talent.
Approach: We are super focused on keeping the agency small and nimble. It sounds like fluff because every agency I’ve ever worked for has promised to be nimble and fast, but I know how things can get complicated once your team and business grow. We work in a flat team, so limited hierarchy and no bureaucracy. This means that the work is the priority and creativity always wins. No timecard, no HR, no 9–5. It’s a free environment where employees focus on the work and the timelines. In addition, because we’re small, we have to focus on work that really matters and it moves the needle for our clients.
Aspirations: We have a size restriction built into our ethos: No more than twelve people, ever. So I’d like to hit that capacity in five years. As we gain more and more business, we can be more selective about who we can work with. I’d love to be able to say, “Sorry, we’ll have to take that on next month.”
Philosophy: Start small. Think big. We want to do the work that has the most impact but also while finding the small nuggets of truth that will foster creativity and insights. We want to start with “smaller” or startup clients that have the potential to be big.