Call it T.O., the 6ix or “Toronno” (as Torontonians are apt to do), this city along the northwest shore of Lake Ontario has established itself as a vibrant, diverse creative hub across industries ranging from tech and design to music, marketing and more. Far from being a regional player, Toronto can stand on its own next to New York, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, offering bold, new ideas on the world stage. In this special report, we’ll meet 33 key movers and shakers behind its success. Some of these folks fashion innovative brand campaigns and guide digital innovation, while others create chart-topping hits or craft cautionary tales that plumb the depths of our cultural soul. Many give back to the community as mentors, grooming the next generation, or raise big bucks for social causes. Collectively, they continue to push the city forward, raising the bar for artistry and excellence, giving Toronto a spirit and style all its own.
Nancy Crimi-Lamanna, Jeff Hilts
Fostering campaigns consistently praised for their insight, inclusiveness and innovation, this dynamic duo continues to transform FCB Toronto into a creative force. Notable work ranges from “Down Syndrome Answers”—a searchable YouTube series that won 10 Cannes Lions and netted an Adweek Arc Award for storytelling—to Bank of Montreal’s clever ads that subverted gender clichés to celebrate women in the business world. “We’re on This Road Together,” a brand platform for Fountain Tire, took some unexpected turns to stress the commitment to service and safety. “This type of work isn’t easy, because it’s almost always something that hasn’t been done before,” Crimi-Lamanna says. “When you get that terrified, yet excited feeling in your stomach, that’s when you know you’re onto something extraordinary.”
La Mar Taylor
As creative director for musical artist The Weeknd, La Mar Taylor operates largely behind the scenes, setting the tone, style and strategy for high-profile releases and tours by the music superstar and other acts signed to the artist’s XO label. In the fall, Taylor steps out from behind the curtain to guide others into the limelight. That’s when he will launch Hxouse, a mentoring and incubator program to support artists and entrepreneurs looking to make an impact in photography, music, film, digital design, fashion and marketing. He’s doing so inside Artscape Daniels Launchpad, a business and design hub located on Toronto’s waterfront. On-site facilities include a computer lab, sound and video recording units, editing booths, and photography and electronics studios.“The concept of Hxouse came from frustration,” says Taylor. “It came from hopes of fixing a broken system—a system that is supposed to propel creative, but only leads them to a wall. I felt like it was time.” Initially, Hxouse hopes to enroll 30 students. A No More Dreams Scholarship will cover the cost for candidates who cannot afford it. (The fee to access the facility ranges from $75 to $150 a month depending on the type of the membership.) The program will provide a conduit for young people to work on XO projects and other activations at Taylor’s branding agency, Hxouse Creative Studios, which will be located at the same site.
Carlos Moreno, Peter Ignazi
Since joining Cossette three years ago from crosstown shop BBDO, this team has turned up the creative heat to position the agency as a cutting-edge player in Canada and beyond. “Just to be heard, you have to do something genuinely creative, genuinely unseen previously,” Ignazi says. Putting that theory into practice, Cossette scored industry kudos (eight Cannes Lions) and widespread acclaim for SickKids Foundation (memorably casting gravely ill youngsters as indomitable warriors); McDonald’s (cropping the iconic golden arches to guide drivers to the closest Mickey D’s); and Honey Nut Cheerios (its “Bring Back the Bees” program saw the brand’s buzzy mascot vanish from cereal boxes to raise awareness of declining honeybee populations).
Depending on the subject, Zibert’s cinematic lens can be poignant or playful. But it’s almost always transformational, taking viewers on unexpected journeys and challenging them to see things in new ways. His stunning work for SickKids Foundation portrayed youngsters, their families and medical professionals as tenacious fighters, confident in their ability to conquer. Elsewhere, bikes rode themselves in compellingly surreal fashion for Cycling Canada, inviting folks to “Hop on,” and Axa leapt past insurance clichés by focusing on a gifted ballerina with a prosthetic leg. “Toronto is a great market to grow up in,” he says. “Agencies are keen to take chances.” Now, Zibert is taking a chance of his own by launching a video company, Scouts Honour, with producers Rita Popielak and Simon Dragland.
Published in 1985, “The Handmaid’s Tale” seems like a nightmare vision tailor-made for the era of Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. The Hulu series based on that cautionary novel became a runaway success, allowing Atwood, a literary icon for nearly six decades, to connect with a new generation. Adept at social media, the author’s pithy posts, like her prose, resonate with intelligence and wit. In a world obsessed with surface imagery and spin, she shines a light into the depths of the human condition. “We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people,” she once said. “But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.” Atwood probes uncomfortable truths, inviting her audience on a quest for understanding in realms where, sometimes, there are no easy answers.
After 14 years in senior management at Taxi (following tenures at Molson Coors and Unilever), Guenette continues to drive the venerable agency in new directions. Taxi turned 25 last year, and bid adieu to co-founder Paul Lavoie. At the same time, it launched a strategic design and technology practice (Signal) and an in-house production and postproduction unit (Clutch). Those extensions followed a 2015 merger with Y&R Canada offices under the Taxi brand, significantly boosting the shop’s scope and scale. “Sustainability is the goal,” says Guenette. “Don’t let the short-term greed interfere with the long-term greed. The industry is rife with rewards for immediate gratification. Play the long game with the client’s objectives in clear sight. Make the client’s brand famous, the agency will follow.”
Following tenures at BBDO and Leo Burnett, Davison joined the foundation four years ago. Since then, often working with Cossette and commercial director Mike Zibert (see separate profile), she has guided some of the most poignant, praised and powerful charitable appeals Canada has ever seen. “Our decision to position SickKids as a performance brand was intended to tap into a new emotion and a less talked about dimension of purpose-based organizations: the will to win,” she says. For SickKids, Davison’s will to win has yielded new records for donations in each of the past three years (totaling $425 million) and a $2.4 billion commitment from the government of Ontario to build a new medical center.
If Chen ever tires of the agency game, she can fall back on her parallel career as a restaurateur. Along with refining marketing strategies for clients such as Samsung (crafting a global storytelling approach) and Viacom (exploring opportunities that tap into popular culture), she owns three Toronto eateries: Otto’s Berlin Döner, Otto’s Bierhalle and the brand-new SoSo Food Club. “With one foot in the agency world and one foot in Toronto culture, my approach to solving problems tries to close the gap between strategy and creative,” she says. “My role is to help my clients evolve their businesses in a way that is true to their purpose, produces effective breakout creative work and that ultimately, can even impact the world.”
As the name implies, Wealthsimple prides itself on simplifying the process of online investing. “The investment industry is generally too focused on the how—the mechanics of investing,” Katchen says. “We focus on the why, and for us the why is so you can live the life you want to live.” Since launching four years ago, Wealthsimple has grown to manage more than $1.5 billion for 75,000 clients. In the past year, the company’s innovative “Investing for Humans” platform, with 80 videos, plus billboards and transit takeovers, has compellingly spread the word. “We think of our brand as the promise we make to the public, and our product as the way we deliver on that promise,” he says. “Both are crucial for building that trust.”
“Wheels” has legs, and then some! Hitting the road in August 2016, the ridiculously viral Canadian Tire video tells the story of kids who ride various devices during a neighborhood basketball game, allowing their wheelchair-bound friend to play. Transcending its initial mission as a Summer Olympics tie-in, the effort actually gained additional momentum after the Games wrapped, generating more than 250 million unpaid views and 4 million shares to date. “Wheels” epitomizes the kind of people-focused advertising O’Brien fosters across all company divisions. Last month, her team took a new turn, leveraging data and customer relationships to launch Triangle Rewards, a reimagining of the company’s loyalty program that features personalized content and offers, encompassing various Canadian Tire brands, including Mark’s and Sport Chek.
Weis grew up in advertising. As a boy, he hung out at commercial shoots with his dad, who worked as a creative director. Today, Weis harnesses data-driven insights to drive strong storytelling across multiple media channels. “We’re back to the roots of marketing, anticipating the needs of consumers and delighting them with remarkable product innovation and brand experiences,” he says. Along with importing Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman to endorse J&J beauty brands in Canada, he’s enlisted local influencers and masterminded innovative activations such as Polysporin’s #MadeForThis and Listerine’s partnership with the Canadian Dental Association. All told, Weis helped grow J&J’s beauty business 13 percent between 2015 and 2017.
Following sweet success at Mars’ chocolate candy and pet care operations, Frost was elevated to lead all confectionery marketing as 2018 began. She guided one of the company’s biggest and most successful Canadian rollouts, for M&M’s Caramel (named Product of the Year by Rogers Media), and helped reestablish the Maltesers brand. Earlier, she got Whiskas cat food purring along with solid growth after years of decline. “It doesn’t come along often in one’s career to have the privilege of being part of a category leader with an opportunity to shape the future,” she says. “Continued leadership and growth will come from consistently evolving and innovating how we connect with consumers and go to market.”
When Drake’s new album, Scorpion, drops this month, it will debut at No. 1 on music charts worldwide. That’s not much of a spoiler, is it? Since bursting onto the scene a dozen years ago, the man has established himself as one of contemporary culture’s foremost artists, approaching 90 million in global sales. Drake’s become a business-side player on the music scene, too (through his OVO Sound label), and also launched his own clothing line. As perhaps the biggest star “the 6ix” ever produced, he provides an inspirational template for the next generation, maintaining a keen self-awareness through it all (his, um, exuberance at Raptors games notwithstanding). “You know it’s real when you are who you think you are,” he sang on “Pound Cake” back in 2013. For many, those are words to live by.
“From selling a record number of ‘add-ons’ at the Gap as a teenager, to slugging beer as a bartender and server to help pay for university, I enjoyed the stimulation of ‘influencing’ a customer from an early age and creating an experience of service that was so positive, they left feeling better than they did when they walked through the door,” Webster says. Today, she works from that playbook guiding projects for brands such as Bayer, Kimberly-Clark, Labatt and Microsoft. Veritas launched Audible.ca during last year’s Toronto Film Festival; “The Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood (see separate profile) and Elisabeth Moss (star of the Hulu show based on the book) hosted an event. Seeking greater cultural insight, Webster recently invited influencers to share Veritas’ space, spurring creativity and collaboration.
One of Canada’s most influential executives across media and technology, Stewart joined TribalScale, a company that provides digital product strategy, design and development, in January, following high-level tenures at the CBC, Twitter and social news site Diply. The very next week, TribalScale launched a venture studio program to raise $100 million for AI, blockchain and voice-assistance initiatives. Matching entrepreneurs with legacy businesses to leverage the best of both worlds is the goal. Venture Studios will give something back to the community, with 5 percent of its profits donated to groups supporting diversity and social causes such as MovetheDial (founded by Jodi Kovitz, who is also featured among Adweek’s Toronto Brand Stars) and the Upside Foundation.
Skyrocketing rents. Rough commutes. Cramped living and working conditions. Dwindling green spaces. These are some of the challenges former New York City deputy mayor and ex-Bloomberg CEO Doctoroff is tackling at Sidewalk Labs, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, which uses cutting-edge tech to improve urban environments. First up: transforming Quayside, 800 acres of rundown Toronto waterfront property, into a “city of the future,” complete with robo-taxis, a thermal-energy grid, modular multi-use buildings and sidewalks that melt snow. “Toronto is the world’s most diverse city, with a remarkable spirit of openness that has driven its incredible growth,” he says. “It’s the perfect place to explore, together with government and the public, new kinds of people-first neighborhoods that use technology and innovation to become more affordable, sustainable and inclusive.”
Dolan combines doing well, for Big G and himself, with doing good for the community at large. Drawing on his background at General Mills, where he led direct marketing for iconic brands such as Cheerios and Green Giant, Dolan has helped Think With Google, the market research and insights platform, surge to more than 60,000 Canadian subscribers in just the past few years. His team also spearheads hardware marketing with Google’s Pixel and Home offerings, and it created Go North, an initiative to mentor and support Canadian tech startups. What’s more, he advises Toronto-area students to help shape the next generation, and he cofounded Serving for Sinai, which raises funds for medical research. All of this activity has boosted Dolan’s profile as a heavyweight thought leader and in-demand public speaker in T.O. and beyond.
“We have to drive ourselves to stay ahead of where the world is going, and stay focused on solutions, ideas and disruption,” says Tory, who’s put a premium on innovation and business development since he took office in 2014 as the 65th mayor of Toronto, vanquishing the troubled Rob Ford. A former radio talk-show host and ex-CEO of Rogers Media, Tory is polished, pro-business, and he faces a reelection fight in the fall. Toward that end, he touts efforts to bolster Toronto’s infrastructure and create a beacon for corporate investment. Initiatives include easing traffic congestion (via smart signal technology), the ongoing bid to secure Amazon’s second HQ, and welcoming Google’s Sidewalk Labs city-of-the-future initiative (see Dan Doctoroff’s entry for more).
These days, all eyes are on Corus. Well, 38 percent of them, anyway. That’s the company’s share of the English Canadian television market, positioning the telecom giant as leader of the pack. Its networks such as Global TV rake in big ratings across virtually all demos, with special strength in the kids’ space (eight of the top 10 channels). Williams continues to help Corus diversify, developing content for international sales, doubling down on VOD and digital delivery, and boosting dynamic ad insertions. Integrated sponsorships are also a priority, with innovative placements across original series including Big Brother Canada, Home to Win and Top Chef Canada.
When it comes to reaching young adults, “Fido: Go Get It” might just be Rogers Communications’ best friend. Championed by Williams, the award-winning, aspirational brand platform takes a slick, soft-sell approach, seeding gadgets and services in well-told, documentary-style stories about DJs, chefs and photographers. The light focus on products and performance was a tad risky, but Williams believes that taking chances can open the door to new opportunities. “Fear of the consequences of not being perfect stifles innovation and the ability to move ideas and initiatives forward,” he says. “Know that preparation and empirical experience gained from trial and error is what provides credibility. Confidence will lead to success.”
For AmEx, BMO, Lowe’s, Rexall and Safeway, Papadatos strengthens the ties that bind, driving initiatives such as Air Miles that build long-term customer relationships and generate deep, actionable analytics. This entails “serving three masters,” she explains, depending on geography. In emerging economies, such as India and Southeast Asia, “data-driven customer management is still in its infancy, and we work to establish the foundations,” she says. “In maturing economies like China and Brazil, the challenge is to marry data automation with people, process and change management to address the scale of those markets. In North America and Europe, the focus is on customer experience, personalization and data insights. Operating in global markets demands the ability to listen, recognize patterns in the data, apply best practices and pivot constantly.”
David Hopkinson, Shannon Hosford
They boost the image and drive the success of franchises such as the NHL’s Maple Leafs, the NBA’s Raptors, MLS’ Toronto FC and the CFL’s Argonauts. Hopkinson’s playbook includes the blockbuster 20-year, $800-million deal to rebrand Air Canada Centre as Scotiabank Arena, and a big push into esports. Hosford’s game plan includes the yearlong Maple Leafs centennial celebration, the Leafs Nation Network across TV and digital platforms, the Raptors’ “Welcome Toronto” program with its irrepressible fan-bassador Drake, specially themed games and financial support for community hoops programs. Delivering an inclusive, multifaceted, “world-class experience, on every level” is the goal, Hosford says, as MLSE stokes hometown pride to deepen the relationship between its teams and their fans, and boost Toronto’s standing as a mecca for big-time sports.
With his recent best-selling extended play My Dear Melancholy, The Weeknd cemented his standing as a premier dance-floor poet who chronicles the roiling recesses of the heart and soul. Working with longtime friend, creative director and fellow Adweek Toronto Brand Star La Mar Taylor, The Weeknd’s raw, revelatory worldview—coupled with a falsetto style that recalls vintage Michael Jackson—has generated worldwide hits and critical acclaim since his big breakthrough seven years ago. “I just want to keep pushing the envelope without it feeling forced,” he once said. His musical sensibility fuses R&B, funk and hip-hop with rock and electronica—in the service of lyrics that are often both intensely probing and profane. Like his idol, Prince, The Weeknd gets massive cred for exploring new territory and challenging his audience and other artists to follow.
A 19-year company veteran, Jahan strives to create platforms that quench consumers’ thirst for new, innovative products while still satisfying their more traditional tastes. “I’ve tried to instill in my team that challenges should be welcomed, not avoided,” he says, “and that listening and asking the right questions goes a long way.” Promotional plays in the past year smartly sweep across media types. Some notable efforts include Pepsi’s playful Snap-It Snapchat lenses, fanciful spots for Gatorade Frost with sports stars like DeMar DeRozan and Andre De Grasse literally “chilling out” before our eyes, and an Arto Lifewtr takeover of Toronto’s Dundas Square with kaleidoscopic signage akin to an outsize pop-art exhibition.
Imagine planning a function for 30 people—and discovering that 1,000 wanted to attend. Kovitz found herself in that position in January 2017. Based on the overwhelming response to her proposed one-time networking event, a global movement to help women succeed and lead in the tech space was born. Kovitz, formerly CEO at AceTech Ontario, began building MoveTheDial full-time six months ago. So far, she’s forged partnerships with companies like CIBC, PwC, Wealthsimple and Ceridian, and designed a program that includes monthly TED-style events, with an annual summit in the works. “MoveTheDial is about community, generosity and shifting our collective mindset,” Kovitz says. “With the recent focus on AI and machine learning, it’s more important than ever that we ensure diversity of presence and thought of all kinds in this space.”
It would be something of an understatement to say that Verkindt takes the global view. She founded online procurement platform OMX (Offset Market Exchange) in 2012. OMX focuses on corporate social responsibility, driving procurement opportunities to diverse and local suppliers worldwide, and measuring the impact of those activities in the aerospace, defense, infrastructure, mining and energy sectors. “There is a lot of money on the table for us to create real value by innovating,” she says. Winner of multiple awards for innovation and entrepreneurship, she’s built an enviable personal media platform with a column in Vanguard magazine and TV appearances, most notably on CBC’s Next Gen Dragons’ Den, which focuses on early-stage tech startups.
A serial entrepreneur, corporate director and private equity investor specializing in digital strategy and tech, Wu steers the MaRS Discovery District, one of the world’s largest business incubators. In February, MaRS secured a portion of $950 million in funding for the Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster. That initiative is designed to help Canadian manufacturers across advanced robotics and 3-D printing. Ultimately, it could generate $13.5 billion in GDP impact and 13,500 jobs over 10 years. “Toronto is primed to become the world’s premier launch pad for made-in-Canada ventures—operating in sectors from healthcare to transportation to advanced manufacturing—to ‘win’ on the international stage,” he says.
Uber’s been working hard to perfect self-driving technology, and Urtasun may hold the keys to the project’s success in Canada. She leads R&D for Uber’s efforts there, guiding a team of 30 engineers and designers dedicated to putting AI in the driver’s seat. Her work involves developing AI algorithms for detecting and tracking vehicles around self-driving cars, and automatically generating high-definition maps from aerial and ground-view data. To give back to the next generation—not just in the scientific community, but all Canadians—she cofounded Vector Institute, which is dedicated to developing the local cyber ecosystem and grooming researchers and engineers.
Last September, Burns drew massive acclaim for guiding the Invictus Games—an international adaptive sports competition for ill and injured veterans—to near-Olympian heights. Founded by Prince Harry in 2014, Toronto hosted the 2017 Games, in which 550 athletes from 17 countries competed. Burns signed up more than 100 corporate sponsors and community partners, ultimately staging an event that shone like a beacon of hope across the globe. His advocacy for vets began after he attended the funeral of a friend’s son who lost his life while serving in Afghanistan. That experience inspired Burns to cofound the True Patriot Love Foundation in 2009 to fund mental health, physical rehabilitation and career training efforts for veterans and their families. He brings two decades of expertise to the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, which he joined as chief executive officer in January.
Each year seems to bring at least one bold stroke by Livingston to enhance and refine Kik, the messaging app he founded a decade ago that boasts more than 300 million registered users by some counts. A few weeks ago, Kik said it would launch its own blockchain to eliminate fees and speed transactions across the platform. That move came a year after the company debuted its Kin cryptocurrency (raising $100 million via the sale of Kin tokens in what’s known as an ICO). In 2016, Kik launched a chatbot shop to bring together users, brands and publishers (beating Facebook into the marketplace). Taken as a whole, these moves point toward the creation of a streamlined digital ecosystem that blends commerce and communications for millions of folks every day.