Is Toronto a vital tech hub, a groundbreaker in cannabis marketing, Hollywood North or a magnet for boundary-pushing creatives? The answer, as this year’s roundup of Toronto Brand Stars makes stunningly clear, is yes.
Zak Mroueh, CCO & Founder
His decorated independent agency would be twice its current size (120 “Zulligans”) and could’ve raked in more than $100 million in incremental revenue in a decade if Mroueh hadn’t instituted his strict “no spec pitches” policy.
That, along with a website that doubles as an industry parody, “act as a virtual colander” in attracting like-minded clients and sifting out the rest.
Mroueh, a ChiatDay and BBDO alum who was previously partner and CCO at Taxi, challenged what he calls “an antiquated Mad Men-era procurement model that agencies sheepishly follow” with the viral hit video Say No to Spec and its successor, World’s Worst RFP.
Mroueh’s roster includes Avrio Health, Bell Canada, Uber and Whirlpool, with Harley-Davidson’s Common Ground content series inspiring a Discovery Channel documentary and Cineplex’s Lily & the Snowman logging 85 million-plus views. Instant-classic work for Tim Hortons last fall brought Kenya’s only hockey team to Canada to play with NHL stars.
With global domination on his mind (and shelves full of Cannes Lions and One Show awards), Mroueh believes the key to an agency’s long-term health “is to stay true to your creative vision, values and goals no matter how big or small you are.”
Eugene Levy and Daniel Levy, co-creators and co-stars
Canadian comedy legend Eugene Levy started his career in Toronto, so it’s fitting that Schitt’s Creek—the quirky Pop TV hit show that he co-created with son Daniel Levy, with whom he also co-stars—is shot in the city where it all began. “That the show ended up in Toronto is really delightful for me,” says Eugene.
Hollywood North, as it’s been nicknamed, has quietly become a major player in film and television, to the tune of a $2 billion production spend in 2017—an all-time high for the city. And Schitt’s Creek, which shoots at Pinewood Studios, has helped cement its status as an entertainment industry go-to. While the series has connected with fans far outside the country’s borders, Daniel notes that he will “always hold a special place for our Canadian fans. They were the first cheerleaders of the show and helped a lot in getting the word out.” (Read more in our Q&A.)
Andrew Norris, co-founder and COO
As a new parent, Norris shields his 9-month-old son, William, from screen time. But when it comes to showing off his first born—and, perhaps, “oversharing,” he admits—he’s grateful that tablets and smartphones allow him to relay a steady stream of ’grammable moments and early milestones to his extended family.
“Technology plays a big part in my life,” Norris says, noting that he has the same personal concerns, like data security and privacy, as any other digital devotee.
That’s why he made consumer safeguards the heart of Taplytics, which started as a project among friends (brewed in a basement) and formally launched in 2014.
The Y Combinator-backed mar-tech firm works with companies like CBS, Chick-fil-A, Royal Bank of Canada and Ticketmaster, helping them build mobile and digital consumer experiences, with its software running, he estimates, “on hundreds of millions of devices worldwide, processing trillions of events every month.”
Personalization is key, whether it’s a brand communication via a mobile app, marketing email or website. “It’s about not treating every consumer the same or simply bucketing them into broad segments,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if they’re banking, ordering food or buying clothes online—it should all be built around the user.”
Claudette McGowan, chief information officer, Enterprise Technology Employee Experience
The best technology is invisible, and users need only know that it works. In other words, they can leave the guts of the operation to executives like McGowan, an 18-year veteran of BMO who makes sure that 45,000 employees are able to do their jobs efficiently.
She has shaped the company’s infrastructure, from cloud-based computing to mobile communications, with her “passion for everything technological,” she says. McGowan’s overseeing the smart tech for the “workplace of the future,” also known as BMO’s sprawling new urban site in Toronto’s Eaton Centre set to open next year, and office towers in Chicago and Milwaukee.
McGowan, a literacy advocate who’s written five children’s books, founded the Black Arts and Innovation Expo, an annual job fair that aims to diversify the tech sector. With her husband, Ian, she recently opened an innovation center in Aurora, Ontario, that specializes in robotics, VR and software development, making the most of her post-9-to-5 hours, saying, “I’m driven to create and to learn.”
Karan Walia, co-founder, CEO Sobi Walia, co-founder, ad ops director Anton Mamonov, co-founder, CTO
Since it’s an algorithm-driven company, it’s fitting to describe Cluep’s meteoric rise in mathematical terms: Three entrepreneurs, two of them teenagers at the startup’s founding in 2012, raised $500,000 from angel investors to fund their AI-powered mobile ad platform, which taps into consumers’ social sharing (via videos, photos, text) for real-time brand targeting. Some 500 marketers, like McDonald’s, Microsoft, Nike and Starbucks, signed on, and Cluep went global with campaigns in five countries.
All those numbers equal a $40 million sale last fall to Impact Group, an Idaho-based grocery sales and marketing agency. Rejecting early offers from Silicon Valley and bootstrapping it forced the partners to “be nimble,” says Karan Walia, but ultimately allowed them to “maintain control and exit on our own terms.” But they haven’t exactly cashed out. The trio is continuing to run Cluep as an independent operation, he says, with plans for “new AI innovations.”
David Bigioni, chief commercial officer, recreational cannabis
With its “4/20 Commitment,” Canopy Growth has promised to dole out $20 million over four years to community causes. The company, one of the biggest players in cannabis, with an $11 billion market cap, also revamped the abandoned Hershey chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, Ontario, aiming to draw visitors and revive the area.
Though Canopy Growth is a global powerhouse, with growing operations, foreign distributors, a health research division, consumer brands like Tweed and Tokyo Smoke and U.S. expansion plans, Bigioni touts its small-town values with campaigns like “Hi” (not “high”), “compassionate pricing” on medical marijuana for low-income patients, educational outreach and partnerships with MADD Canada and Uber.
“We’re belief-led and purpose-driven,” he says. “We have the legal authority to sell cannabis, and now we’re building the social license.”
Expect to see more marketing and content that lean into what Bigioni, a Unilever and Molson Coors veteran, calls Canopy Growth’s “personality and approachable brand voice” touting cannabis “as a force for good in the culture.”
Denise Rossetto, CCO
Far too few viewers had seen the “amazing feats of true elite athletes” in the Paralympics, says Rossetto. So she led the 2018 launch of the Paralympic Network, turning fans into broadcasters and making it simple to stream events live on social feeds. BBDO’s “Greatness Is Rare” campaign for the Canadian Paralympic Committee boosted viewership by a whopping 11,464%.
The DDB veteran, recently adding Hudson’s Bay, Ignite TV and OrganiGram to a roster that includes Labatt, Mars, PepsiCo, Subaru and Wrigley, repositioned the lowly city bus as a high-tech, self-driving car (Go Transit) and spotlighted global childhood oppression (Right to Play).
“We have the tools not only to convey messages but to solve real problems,” she says. “It’s an incredible time for that.”
Dennis Matthews, vp, marketing and communications
If you had the earworm jingle “For the People” playing on an internal loop last year, you have Matthews to thank for that.
Instead of using an existing pop song, he advised Doug Ford’s campaign to commission an original piece. The result was a catchy anthem that some people likened to stadium rock and Vice described as “the musical equivalent of latte milk being steamed.”
In any case, Ford won (he’s now Ontario’s premiere), as did many of the conservative candidates in Matthews’ stable, which includes former longtime Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper (Matthews was a staffer from day one).
A longtime marketer, Matthews handled the ubiquitous advertising for Shaping Alberta’s Future, a Super PAC that helped propel Jason Kenney to the province’s top elected office. His brand clients include Labatt Brewing, food retailer Sobeys and pharmacy chain Shoppers Drug Mart.
The two worlds go hand in hand these days, Matthews wrote in a recent Macleans column, because, “Everything is political now,” and marketers and civic leaders who tap into consumers’ and voters’ “fast-response emotional thinking” will come out on top. “Political advertisers pioneered this years ago, and populist politicians perfected the message,” he says. “The rest of the world is now joining in.”
George Stroumboulopoulos, music journalist, TV host
Fans know him simply as Strombo, and artists like Father John Misty and Maggie Rogers treat him like a confidante, playing intimate sets in his downtown Toronto apartment. The 10-time Gemini Award winner has layered actor and scripted TV producer (Watching the Detectives) onto a media resume that includes CBC Music’s The Strombo Show and YouTube and Apple’s House of Strombo.
A veteran of CNN and MuchMusic, Strombo recently interviewed legendary Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye and touts his musician heart-to-hearts by saying, “Tell your friends that the spirit of radio lives on.”
Jamie Webster, director, founding partner
Why practice one form of creative expression when you can deftly juggle a dozen?
Webster, who studied at Germany’s fabled Bauhaus school, moves fluidly among music videos (emerging Toronto R&B duo Majid Jordan, for whom he’s also served as creative director), brand campaigns (Ace Hill, Ronald McDonald House, Tokyo Smoke), experiential installations (Stella Artois Sensorium), filmmaking, clothing design, photography and more, where he draws on inspiration as varied as baroque and neoclassical paintings and brutalist architecture.
The proprietor of his own bar, Dog & Bear, and a Muay Thai devotee, Webster looks “outside the expected boundaries of whatever medium I’m working in because I believe it leads to a deeper perspective,” he says, distilling a project to a singular emotion. “Then I do my best to evoke it through whatever visual tools I have at my disposal.”
Janet Bannister, partner
During her five years at Real Ventures, Bannister has led investments in dozens of tech companies, including the now-global VarageSale, and worked with groups like MoveTheDial to recruit more female VCs.
A dedicated triathlete and veteran of eBay and Procter & Gamble, she readily identifies with startup founders, having launched Kijiji.ca, which became Canada’s top classified ad site before expanding internationally.
Even if the robots come for our jobs, as algorithms and AI grow in influence, Bannister insists the human element will still be central to investing. As she recently told DealRoom, “Understanding people, establishing trust, communicating effectively—these things will always be fundamental.”
Jen Mann, artist
True to her millennial roots, Mann draws from internet memes, Instagram filters, pop culture and Snapchat stories for her large-scale, color-saturated portraits. Her work graces the Saint George boutique hotel and brand campaigns for Absolut, CIBC and Red Bull.
Author of Endless Quest for Myself(ie), a book of poems, sketches and photos, Mann is adding filmmaker to her CV. A fall launch of Love & Romance is planned, which arts pub Juxtapoz calls a fitting companion to her “wonderfully cinematic paintings.”
Kathryn Hume, director of business development
For someone who speaks seven languages (eight, if you count computer), Hume is perhaps best known for her ability to translate the intricacies of machine learning for college students (MIT, Harvard, Stanford, University of Calgary) and regular folks (her popular TED Salon talk, “What Henry Ford Can Teach Us About AI”).
Transplanting to Canada for a gig at Integrate AI in 2017 and switching to the RBC-run research institute Borealis AI early this year, Hume calls Toronto “an ecosystem that feels similar to what Silicon Valley was like 15 years ago” with “the right energy flowing between groups in academia, policy, government and business.”
Laura Calder, author, TV host
A meal is more than sustenance, says the Food Network Canada star and cookbook author, who has transformed from accomplished chef into domestic doyenne. Her latest book, The Inviting Life, focuses on the undervalued skills of entertaining and homemaking, which she considers strong leadership roles in disguise.
Calder, a James Beard Award winner, gave a thumb’s up to the new Canada’s Food Guide in The Globe and Mail recently, saying it’s an important reminder of the “social and sensual aspects of dining, both to health and to overall quality of life.”
Laura Pearce, head of consumer marketing
Margaret Atwood prefers the haiku-like challenge of 140 characters (280 makes her a little sloppy), lets her internet trolls run wild and looks forward to a splashy livestreamed debut this fall of her Handmaid’s Tale sequel, The Testaments.
Those tidbits from the beloved author hit Twitter via an April fireside chat with CEO Jack Dorsey. The event came courtesy of Pearce, driven by her love of “the power of conversation,” she says, and her goal of capturing “breakout moments and big impact” on the social platform.
The digital marketing maven, a veteran of Blue Ant Media, Canwest and Dell Canada, launched #HockeyTwitter (with its own stick-and-puck emoji) to connect hardcore National Hockey League fans with each other, superstar players and top commentators. Buzzworthy topics, from HBO’s Game of Thrones to Canada’s 150th birthday, serve as fodder for her hashtag extravaganzas.
Bridging digital with physical, Pearce harnessed real-time comments about Star Wars: The Last Jedi and delivered them to 90-foot billboards in Toronto and New York. She also partnered with the Weeknd’s creative director (Adweek’s Toronto Brand Stars alum La Mar Taylor) for an incubator and mentoring space dubbed Hxouse, where Atwood kept mum on her unpublished stories, according to tweets, so her publisher wouldn’t arrive “in a chariot drawn by dragons.”
Laura Stein, creative director
No pressure at all, but great design should “shift the way we think about the world around us,” says Stein, a Cannes Lion bronze and D&AD Pencil winner who has led global rebrands of sneaker maker Asics and consumer electronics company Sonos.
Stein, who spent a dozen years at Bruce Mau Design working on Harvard University, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Ontario College of Art & Design University, is featured in the must-have instructional book Designing Brand Identity.
Current clients at Sid Lee include McGill University and the MaRS Discovery District, where Stein says she aims to “bring together strategic thinking, deep-seated stories and inspired creative expression.”
Lauren MacDonald, CMO
Even after an ad campaign as creatively fertile as “Beautiful Possibilities,” launching “Lamp 2” last fall was a risk. It was, after all, a sequel to one of the most decorated commercials of all time, and even MacDonald found herself asking, “Should we dare take on the challenge?”
But she ultimately decided that resurrecting a small household appliance and using it to tout the retailer’s sustainable message could be a winner. And it was.
The spot, from Rethink Canada, was a pitch-perfect hit, setting up MacDonald’s holiday outreach, which focused on repurposing Ikea items to lengthen their life cycles.
Under the same banner, the PepsiCo veteran linked with Pride last summer for ads starring drag queens wearing fabulous runway-ready outfits made from Ikea products, part of the brand’s diversity and inclusion efforts. That kind of marketing freedom (also see in-store sleepovers) makes the CMO role what she describes as her “dream job.”
Lindsay Mattick, creative director, co-founder
In Finding Winnie, Mattick tells the true story of her great-grandfather and an orphaned Winnipeg cub who became a military mascot and, later, a beloved resident of the London Zoo. That bear inspired the classic character Winnie the Pooh.
Mattick used her journalistic skills (and a box of family mementos) to create the Caldecott Award-winning and New York Times best-selling book, believing that “when you ask the right questions, you will find the defining stories.”
She applies the same approach to her PR firm, building in three short years a client roster that includes Bacardi, CIBC, Dermalogica and Peloton, and, in her inimitable way, “uncovering, crafting and sharing those tales.”
Martin Coyle, chief marketing and craft officer
From launching the first-of-its-kind Belgian Moon Brewery in reclaimed shipping containers to redesigning the flagship brand identity, U.K. expat and company veteran Coyle has covered considerable ground in 18 months at Molson Coors Canada and its specialty division, Six Pints. (He’s also a hockey convert.)
Whether mass produced or craft, “beer is so often at the center of people coming together and enjoying each other’s company,” he says, noting Molson’s plans to step up its innovation in beer “and beyond the category” with nonalcoholic beverages.
Masai Ujiri, president
Considered one of the NBA’s top front-office strategists, Ujiri rebuilt the Raptors last summer with the expressed goal of making it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
A big bet that paid off: bringing in Kawhi Leonard, whose buzzer-beating shot won the playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers on May 12. (Cue televised tears of joy from Ujiri, whose name often gets floated for open league gigs like the Washington Wizards.)
“I want to lift this team, I want to lift this organization,” he said when welcoming Leonard, whose effort helped put the Raptors in the finals for only the second time in franchise history. “I want to lift this city and this country.”
Michele Romanow, co-founder
Having already launched five companies, three by the time she was 28, tech titan Romanow doesn’t just understand the entrepreneurial spirit—she champions it, to the tune of $1 billion that she plans to invest in startups this year through her latest venture, Clearbanc.
The youngest star of inventor competition series Dragons’ Den on CBC, Romanow says it may be easier to start a business these days, given the gig economy, but “it certainly is harder to scale.” Hence, she lends a helping hand for ideas that she thinks can “make a huge difference” in solving society’s ills (just look at electric vehicles and smart thermostats, she says, which far outstrip government efforts to battle climate change).
An engineer by training, Romanow credits her upbringing (in a community of farmers in Regina, Saskatchewan) with her nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. She caught and cleaned her own product, for instance, at her first company, a caviar fishery, part of what she calls being a “chief everything officer.” She later co-founded ecommerce platforms SnapSaves, acquired by Groupon, and Buytopia.
Using personal growth, not dollars earned, as a gauge of success, Romanow believes in moving fast and breaking things because entrepreneurship isn’t about “having a perfect plan,” she says. “It’s about executing at triple the speed of anyone else.”
Rajen Ruparell, co-founder, chairman
Potential buyers had circled the fast-growing ecommerce mattress player for years, but Ruparell decided against selling Endy, which he’d launched in 2015 with his high school friend from Calgary, Mike Gettis.
The fit didn’t seem right with any of the would-be suitors, he says, until Sleep Country Canada came along in late 2018, offering $89 million and, more important, complete autonomy. Endy’s leadership remains intact, and headquarters stay in Toronto so that the “patriotic Canadian brand” will continue to be “built for Canadians, by Canadians,” he says. “That’s a really important part of our DNA.”
Endy’s considering its own brick-and-mortar shops, instead of selling in Sleep Country’s 264 locations, expanding the millennial-targeting brand the consumer-centric “Endy way.”
Ruparell, a serial entrepreneur and Clearbanc board member, co-founded Groupon International via the acquisition of his Europe-based Citydeal. He built the multibillion-dollar ecommerce arm, Groupon Goods, and helped take Groupon public in 2011.
He and Gettis, class of ’01 from Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School, set out to disrupt the traditional mattress market with Endy, creating a product that shipped in a box the size of a hockey bag and attracting investors like former Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista. Its acquisition was one of the largest ecommerce transactions in Canadian history.
Sarah McCredie, head of field marketing
Possessed of a renegade streak herself, McCredie can identify with “upstart” merchants like Allbirds, Brooklinen, Cuyana and Outdoor Voices on the Shopify Plus platform.
She founded a tech company when she was 17 (with an “anti-social media” app) and backpacked alone through Europe before bouncing from Halifax to San Francisco and back to Canada for gigs in marketing, business development, events and partnerships.
Late last year, she created Commerce+, a global conference catering to the exploding D-to-C industry (so far, London, New York and Sydney). The gathering boosts “this new generation of brands,” she says, just as Amazon competitor Shopify “democratizes commerce.”
Shawn Mendes, recording artist
The red-hot poster boy of pop (6 billion video views), Mendes should be welcome anywhere. When he was turned away from a Dublin pub recently (he’s only 20), he used it to create a social-media win. (Trip to McDonald’s, photo shoots with fans.) His 42 million Instagram followers were stoked.
The singer-songwriter is part of an all-star lineup on the single “Earth,” his #MyCalvins campaign broke the internet early this year and he’ll wrap his global tour this August in New York.
Susur Lee, chef, owner
Foodies call Lee “the ponytailed chef” (though he often rocks a man bun), Zagat refers to him as a “culinary genius” and Food & Wine named him one of the top 10 chefs of the millennium. (Drake, a former business partner and super fan, sang about his scallops.)
Lee, owner of five eateries and star of Iron Chef Canada, draws inspiration for his cross-cultural style from Toronto’s melting pot and openness to new ideas, saying, “Without that drive to recreate and continue, I wouldn’t be interested.”
Takara Small, founder, executive director
Tech leaders and investment mavens tell Small she should charge a fee for VentureKids, her nonprofit program that hosts coding classes and startup workshops for low-income youngsters.
But she refuses, saying even a nominal amount would “push out the very families” she’s trying to reach, many of them from rural areas and underserved populations. “$10 would be a prohibitive cost when they’re struggling to put food on the table or pay the electricity bill,” she says. “We put the focus on helping the community first.”
Small, a tech journalist (for Metro Morning, CBC’s top-rated morning show), developer and entrepreneur, provides not only tech know-how but breakfast, laptops and transit fare for participants because “low-income youth, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are always the most likely to be left behind.”
A small-town gal herself, she recently partnered with Northeastern University and Venture13 to serve kids from rural Ontario, furthering her goal of a tech future that’s “bias-free and reflects every person in society.”
Tyler Turnbull, CEO
A self-professed “geek by nature,” Turnbull asks everyone at FCB Canada to take the Google AdWords test, less for the actual certification and more for the lessons learned through the process. Case in point: The agency’s Cannes Lion-winning “Down Syndrome Answers” for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society sprang from that exercise.
The campaign—heartwarming videos of people living with the genetic disorder answering commonly Googled questions—wasn’t just about “connecting with parents during a critical moment,” Turnbull says, “but ensuring that this content lives online forever.”
The same principle applied to “Destination Pride” for Pflag, also a Cannes winner, which Turnbull calls a “never finished” platform that gives the LGBTQ community a constantly updated resource for safe travel.
Turnbull, who has built a 68% female management team, oversees a client roster that includes BMW, Clorox, Drug Free Kids Canada and Michelob. Recent wins have added Air Canada, Home Depot, Lotto Max and Lotto 6/49 to the list, where his “relentlessly curious” teams “leverage digital across every aspect” of the consumer experience.
Tyrrell Schmidt, global brand and customer experience officer
Crossing the finish line of this spring’s Boston Marathon was even sweeter for Schmidt, “a bucket-list experience,” she says, because she was leading a blind friend on that pavement-pounding journey.
Schmidt, who races regularly with blind and disabled runners via the nonprofit group Achilles International, found a kindred spirit in TD Bank, joining four years ago to continue an inclusive push that is “simply part of the fabric of the organization,” she says.
In addition to leading customer experience and brand marketing, Schmidt oversees such efforts as the BlindSquare app, launched last fall, that helps blind and partially sighted customers navigate the midtown Toronto location. She also championed a new video chat service for the deaf that uses American Sign Language on in-branch tablets.
“Considering diversity in all we do is not optional,” she says, knowing that diverse residents make up 44% of the Canadian population, with numbers growing quickly.
Also under Schmidt’s wing are TD’s relationship with the Toronto Blue Jays, which she expanded, and the founding sponsorship of Union Station, which turned the bustling transportation hub into a retail and cultural destination with pop-up events, music and arts programs.
Along with outreach to underserved segments, Schmidt says the community involvement reinforces TD’s rep as “a trusted, human and approachable brand.”
Uwe Stueckmann, svp, marketing
Taking a page from Amazon, Kroger and Walmart, Loblaw has become a digital ad seller, but with a twist: Canada’s largest retailer will see a bottom-line return from the venture, but so will its customers.
“Just serving people targeted, relevant ads in return for their data—that’s insufficient,” says Stueckmann, who debuted the pilot program in April with a subset of the company’s 18 million loyalty club members. “We’re rewarding consumers for the advertising they see in their everyday browsing. They don’t have to click or buy anything.”
The ad platform is part of Stueckmann’s goal of stripping out the guesswork and creating a “zero-waste precision-marketing approach to brand building” for the grocery and pharmacy giant and its vendors.
Stueckmann, a 20-year marketer, recently reinvented No Frills with a throwback 8-bit video game (tied to rewards) and campaigns to destigmatize the discount chain and celebrate the “swagger and confidence” of bargain shoppers. “We told them they should be proud to let their frugal flag fly.”
Another pet project, the three-year-running #eattogether movement, has logged 150 million views for its content series, which is light on shilling and heavy on the message, he says, that “the world becomes a better place when you share meals.”
Stuart Lombard, founder, CEO
With no experience in consumer electronics, Lombard created the world’s first Wi-Fi-enabled smart thermostat, though haters, he says, told him, “That’s the stupidest idea ever!” Almost a decade later, Google Nest competitor Ecobee has raised $95 million (backers include Amazon; current models communicate with Alexa) and debuted a smart light switch. Lombard, a former venture capitalist, wanted to reduce his own carbon footprint and simplify energy conservation.
So far, users have prevented a half-million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.