It was the fall of 2008. Each day we were running on start-up, entrepreneurial adrenaline while working out of Andrew’s apartment in downtown London, Ontario. Our company was only 6 months old at the time. Our small and nimble team of 4 created a fundraising product that we hoped would change the world. We had everything: vision, heart, soul, and a fresh new customer based in Colorado who had made a $250,000 purchase order for our new and revolutionary fundraising product.
This wasn’t your average day of excitement that most entrepreneurs feel. This particular day we were on edge. Our new, large client had run into financial problems. The 2008 US recession had struck just weeks earlier and not only were the charity’s donations declining, a Fortune 100 sponsor was considering yanking their $5 million annual donation.
This charity had around $160,000 in receivables with our company and their CEO was talking with Andrew about the matter.
As Andrew finished the phone call, he looked at the three other partners with tension and paused. His face was solemn. It said it all.
Andrew said, “There’s a high likelihood that they can’t pay their invoices.”
It didn’t take the CFO of a Fortune 500 company to figure out what this would mean for our business. Our company, then called Tagged By Kindness, was only 6 months old and this one customer accounted for about 98% of our revenue. If this client didn’t pay their invoices, we’d be out of business within 2 months.
Back in 2008, tbk Creative wasn’t the web design and digital marketing agency you know it as today. Originally, we were a fundraising company called Tagged By Kindness Inc. That’s where the term ‘tbk’ comes from. We produced gift cards that tracked the movement of acts of kindness online through unique ID numbers. Andrew Schiestel and one of the original partners, Misha Allard, conjured up the idea one night after watching the movie Pay It Forward. They thought that if people could see where their acts of kindness went – even the smallest acts – it may motivate more people to be kinder to others in the world.
The product was good in concept but had its hiccups. Here’s how distribution worked: We’d sell the product to schools at wholesale prices, students would resell at retail prices, and the retail profit margin would go to the schools to raise money for various projects and initiatives. Unfortunately, the younger students (kindergarten to Grade 2) had difficulty understanding the concept and therefore communicating how it worked to family and neighbours. We also faced issues with the older students (Grades 5 and 6) who felt it was uncool to be associated with organized kindness. But we learned a very valuable lesson in marketing:
We forget who it was, but someone said it best: When you sell a chocolate bar, there’s no explaining it. Humans have figured that out over millennia.
We would transition Tagged By Kindness into a web design and digital marketing company. We would sell websites, creative and other digital marketing services to produce short-term, consistent revenue, and then one day, we’d get back to working on large social projects that would make the world better.
We chose option three and in 2010, tbk Creative was born.
We thought tbk Creative could be a company to fill the chasm. We would focus on architecturally sound web design and results-oriented digital marketing, while maintaining a focus on brand identity and creative.
In January 2010, tbk Creative was born, and by March our own website was live.
Starting a company isn’t easy, but we learned very quickly that this is especially true with a marketing agency. To get a seat at the table with a client you need an adequate work portfolio and a list of clients that are larger than or comparable in size to the company you’re talking to.
Starting out, we had neither a portfolio nor a list of past clients that we’d worked with. As you can imagine, this was a recipe for disaster. We felt like Odysseus trying to travel home from Troy to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey. Initially, times were austere and we weren’t doing enough revenue each month to support all four of the original partners’ salaries. It made the most sense for Melissa and Andrew to stay with tbk Creative, as Melissa was driving creative direction and overseeing website production, and Andrew was handling new client acquisition and overseeing the digital marketing programs. The company ended up purchasing the shares from the other two partners (Scott and Misha). Scott went into real estate development with his brother and Misha joined the marketing department of a consumer product goods company in Toronto.
We weren’t going to survive if we didn’t start working with clients, but we were still stuck with little portfolio work. We needed a way to begin acquiring clients.
One day, we had an idea: Why not offer free graphic design credits to select companies? We thought that if we could do some pro bono work we could build our client list, develop a portfolio and begin to prove ourselves. Andrew went to an International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) London event and started handing out his business cards and telling the recipients that they could receive a $750 graphic design credit. He offered this to four recognizable groups in London.
Only one took him up on the offer: Brescia University College, which is an affiliate of Western University.
We ended up doing a one-page print ad for Brescia and offered to build a website pro bono for one of their foundation groups. We were so wet behind the ears in the agency world that it was almost embarrassing. At the first meeting with Brescia, their marketing director at the time, Sheila Blagrave, said, “We’ll send you an RFP for a different project that’s coming up.” We didn’t know what RFP stood for back then. Andrew said, “Sure.” If they were offering an RFP, and the acronym sounded good to us, we were going to take it (we later learned through Google what it was).
The project the marketing director had alluded to was undertaking the graphic design for their annual report.
We submitted a proposal and lost. This was our first official bid so Andrew called Sheila up and asked if she’d be willing to provide feedback on our proposal. She was.
Then a video project came up. We partnered with a freelance videographer and bid on it. We lost again. Again, Andrew asked Sheila for advice and she was kind enough to give it.
With each failure we learned a little bit more about how this industry works.
Then a third project came up, this time for a video recruitment project for Brescia University College, King’s University College and Huron University College.
We bid again and won. And for the budget, did a good job on the video.
In London, Ontario, working with these three recognized brands was what we needed to contend for the better work in the area. We were finally being seen as a legitimate company.
“It’s not going to work. The message is off. We missed it. It’s not about being affected and calling a phone number. It’s about women’s rights. Women weren’t given all the information they needed to make an informed decision about their bodies.”
We needed a name to summarize this campaign and messaging. We called it Take Your Body Back.
Andrew called Siskinds LLP and requested an emergency meeting. We met that afternoon with the Marketing Director, Laurie Hause, and lead lawyer for the case, Matthew Baer. After thoughtful deliberation, it became unanimous – a new campaign would be created – one that would focus more on women’s rights and less on the law firm’s brand and technicalities regarding the legal proceeding.
In a London Free Press article, University of Windsor law professor Jasminka Kalajdzic, said, “Ingenious… It is the first example of social media for class actions that I am aware of in Canada.”
Best Social Media Campaign In the Legal Industry2012 Internet Advertising Competition
All this work landed Andrew a contributing columnist position with the London Free Press where Andrew writes on how the web, digital, and social media affect consumers and brands.
Despite entering the social media world early and with great momentum, we weren’t prone to failure as an agency. One day, an intern from Moosehead Breweries found tbk Creative through Google, was enthralled with our work and invited us to come in to meet with Moosehead to discuss becoming their social media agency of record.
We met with their marketing team. They liked our work – especially the “Take Your Body Back” campaign – but ended up giving the work to a large Toronto agency.
In hindsight, we weren’t ready to work with Moosehead at that time. There was still a lot Melissa and Andrew didn’t understand about the agency world. It’s interesting how life sometimes works out, though. Little did we know, this first encounter with Moosehead would lead to tbk Creative working with an international brand two years later. But before that was to happen, Ontario’s largest manufacturer of vinyl windows entered our lives.
After the Moosehead loss, we went on with our lives. Then one day in 2012, we got a call from our friend, Karen Anderson. She had just finished a meeting with the CEO of North Star Windows & Doors, Lorne Girard. Lorne expressed interest in learning how social media could help North Star, Ontario’s largest manufacturer of vinyl windows (of all the windows in Ontario homes, about 35% of them are North Star).
Andrew went in and met with Lorne and the two of them had a very deep, natural chemistry. After Andrew analyzed North Star’s marketing goals, it became apparent that they needed an integrated approach to their digital marketing. The company at the time was largely dependent on radio advertising across 20 or so markets, but Lorne recognized that consumer behaviours were shifting, traditional media had their limitations, and that digital channels needed to have a stronger role in North Star’s marketing efforts. Like many of the decisions Lorne made in his career, he wanted to be proactive and make sure that North Star was ready for this shift before a lot of the company’s competitors.
After we put forth a proposal for North Star’s digital marketing, their current 10-year-old marketing and communications agency pushed back and tried to talk North Star into choosing only one agency to represent the brand. North Star’s response was to let tbk Creative and their current agency bid on the entire business, which included the radio component. Admittedly, the traditional agency was more experienced with radio campaigns, but North Star ended up awarding tbk Creative the entire business. North Star felt that the future was digital and that tbk Creative could get them there.
Andrew still remembers getting the phone call from Lorne (the CEO) and Jesse Dyck (Sales Manager) at about 4 PM on a weekday. Lorne and Jesse were making the call from their St. Thomas, Ontario office and said: “Andrew, North Star would like to award the work to tbk Creative.” Andrew showed controlled, positive emotion and stoically thanked Lorne and Jesse, warmly saying, “Great, we look forward to producing some great work with your team.”
Clients like making the phone call to the winning agency and providing the good news. Quite often, they expect a big, positive reaction on the other line, but they don’t always get what they hoped for. If you’re on the client side, I’ll explain why this occurs. The agency doesn’t want to appear vulnerable by showing how much this business matters to their agency. We have this weird belief that if we’re too excited, you’ll take the work away. But trust us when we say this, every phone call you’ve made to a winning agency – even if you didn’t get a great, positive reaction – mattered a lot to them.
The moment Andrew got off the phone with Lorne and Jesse, he yelled at the top of his lungs, “Melissa! North Star gave us the business!” Melissa ran downstairs and they did this out of control, ecstatic happy-dance together.
For two years, we worked with North Star Windows and Doors and knocked things out of the park. Lorne’s patience, discipline and commitment to excellence was inspiring to tbk Creative and his values rubbed off on us in a big way. We became a better agency for working with Lorne Girard and the North Star Windows and Doors brand.
For North Star, tbk Creative built one of the best manufacturing websites at the time in North America (2013), rolled out an effective, integrated digital marketing strategy, and even figured out how to buy their radio (with the help of a third party consultant). And together, North Star and tbk Creative went on to win two international marketing awards:
- “Best Online Campaign in Manufacturing” at the 2013 Internet Advertising Competition
- “Outstanding Website in Manufacturing” at the 2013 Internet Advertising Competition.
Things were good and Lorne and Andrew developed a deep friendship. To this day, Andrew tells people that Lorne was one of his greatest business mentors.
Lorne Girard retired from North Star in September 2014. We believe he’s one of Southwestern Ontario’s great business leaders of our time. He’s mostly unknown to the larger business community because he almost always turned down media interviews and never had much interest in putting North Star in awards competitions. Some of the great habits Lorne had were:
Life was good for our agency. tbk Creative experienced a boom for about a year, going from 4 staff members to 11. More iconic brands in southwestern Ontario were choosing tbk Creative as their web design and digital marketing agency. Little did we know, trouble was right around the corner.
Up until about 2013, we focused predominantly on producing great work. We thought the work mattered so much that we didn’t hire account managers for our ongoing services. Instead, we had the production team (copywriters or search marketing specialists) handle the account management. We felt this approach resulted in:
Boy, were we wrong.
In September 2013, things started to change. Lorne Girard of North Star Windows and Doors retired and a new CEO was hired. After sending out only one email campaign, which was successful, we were dismissed as their agency.
Around this time we also lost one of our other largest clients: a medium sized Canadian retailer with about 20 store locations.
Then it dawned on Melissa what was happening. Our work was still great, but we lacked strong relationships with our clients. When we were smaller, Andrew and Melissa were the account managers. This worked with 4 staff members, but not when we grew past 10. Melissa started to research other agencies and found that most agencies had 3 times the account managers that tbk Creative had relative to size.
We saw many agencies producing work that was good but not great, yet they were thriving. And we figured it out:
There appears to be a sufficiency threshold in marketing: If an agency can produce work that is good enough, they can keep the account by having a sound relationship with the client.
So we set out to find great, dedicated account managers for tbk Creative.
We were also struggling with inconsistencies in our programming, and didn’t have a team leader who was managing the department. So we ended up hiring a senior programmer from 3M Canada named Andre Lefort for tbk Creative’s VP of technology role. Andre was on the team that built 3M’s B2B e-commerce platform that transacts over $5 billion each year.
The web industry is mostly unregulated and because clients don’t see code, they often don’t really know what they are getting. Andre brought to tbk Creative a rigorous approach to coding and development that has allowed us to build large-scale technological solutions for our clients.
In late 2013, tbk Creative was hired by one of our clients to make their website accessible for individuals with disabilities.
This was in response to a new law in the Province of Ontario called the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).
Under this legislation, large companies (over 50 employees working in Ontario) must ensure that they meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0).
To facilitate the work, we were going to use a free tool that was popular with many groups in Ontario. Melissa was sceptical. Although extremely popular, it was built by a non-profit consortium 5-6 years ago and there was no literature that spoke to its accuracy or whether it was being consistently maintained. The question she posed was:
We were also hired by brands and agencies to help new website development projects meet the WCAG 2.0 guidelines. We’ve since worked with some of Canada’s largest brands, helping them make accessible web properties.
If you wish for our assistance in ensuring your websites are accessible and meet the AODA, go to AODA Online’s website and sign up for an account or contact us there.
We feel really good about AODA Online. We started Tagged By Kindness Inc. to make the world better. Financially, we couldn’t keep that concept afloat. AODA Online is our chance to make the world better through business. We believe all people, despite level of ability, have the right to access information via the web. When people have access to information, they can increase the quality of their lives by making better, more informed decisions.
By 2014, tbk Creative was providing something very special to its clients. We were building some of Canada’s highest quality WordPress websites, had a great account management structure, were producing digital marketing services that were growing brands, and were helping to make Ontario accessible through AODA Online. Most importantly, we had heart and a passion for doing great work for great people.
Then, one day, someone filled out our web form. It was the intern from Moosehead from a few years ago. This time she didn’t work at Moosehead. She had completed her intern tenure and had gone on to become a marketing manager at Danby®, a 65-year-old appliance company and one of Canada’s largest and most recognized appliance companies.
One of Danby’s subsidiary companies, Silhouette Appliances needed brand identity work and a new website. It was an established company with good revenue, but it was missing a brand position and the website wasn’t living up to the expectations of the Danby team.
Danby hired tbk Creative to build a great, new website on WordPress and create a brand identity that would match the high quality of the company’s products.
Thankfully, around this time, word was starting to get out about the quality of our work and more iconic brands started contacting tbk Creative. Around the same time that we started working with Danby on the Silhouette Appliances website, Jiffy Lube Ontario (representing 60 stores) contacted tbk Creative. Like Moosehead, Jiffy Lube found tbk Creative through a Google search.
tbk Creative ended up forming a partnership with Jiffy Lube. The brand had a significant market share in Ontario but was falling behind certain oil change competitors and car dealerships in their presence online.
We believe in the power of digital, and both tbk Creative and Jiffy Lube Ontario’s marketing team worked hard to build their digital presence in a short period of time.
Marketing & Sales Results:
– Up over 75%
Organic Search Traffic
– Up over 33%
– Over 60 Million
– Increase (year-to-year)
– Increase (year-to-year)
We believe in the power of digital, and both tbk Creative and Jiffy Lube Ontario’s marketing team worked hard to build their digital presence in a short period of time.
Some of the items we created for Jiffy Lube included:
- New website on WordPress
- Digital Advertising
- Email Marketing
- Online Sweepstakes
- Search Engine Optimization
- Social Marketing
In 2016, all of our effort culminated at once into a run of awards and recognition. For this, we’re grateful. This year, tbk Creative was awarded “Top Web Design Provider” by Consumer Choice Award, “Small Business of the Year” at London Chamber of Commerce’s 2016 Business Achievement Awards, two international awards—”Best Manufacturing Website” for the creation of Silhouette Appliances’ website and “Best Retailed Integrated Ad Campaign” for our work with Beverley Hills Home Improvements—along with a national industry award for “Best Website Design” at the 2016 Canadian Association of Labour Media Awards for our work on OPSEU Local 110’s (Fanshawe’s Faculty) website.
Today, the team works hard to provide some of Canada’s highest quality web design and digital marketing solutions, and has an active client roster of iconic brands like 3M® Canada, Hino® Canada (a Toyota® company), Lerners LLP, and Jiffy Lube® Ontario (59 stores).
As you’ve read in this story, it hasn’t been easy but it’s the crystallization of principles that guide our team.
Help our team live great lives. At our bi-weekly leadership meetings, this shows up on our agenda. Where someone works is a large part of their life (about 1/3 of their working years) so we want tbk Creative to be a source for people to live healthier, happier, and more successful lives.
This has led to initiatives like an annual Blue Mountain Resort trip (two years in a row), providing every other Friday off for staff over the summer, and helping staff out financially in rare situations.
Produce great work. When tbk Creative takes on a WordPress website, our team literally tries to build the best website ever made in that industry. We want to be proud of our work and want our clients to grow their website leads and sales as a result of what we build for them.
Help our clients be great in their roles. We work with many CEOs and Marketing Directors of mid to large sized groups. In the last 5 years, they have gone through a dramatic change in their roles with digital becoming instrumental to their brand’s success. We see our role in the client relationship as helping them help their respective companies master the web and grow their revenue. Further, by staying boutique, we’ve developed really close relationships with these clients. And in many cases friendships that we value dearly.
Quality of quantity. There’s a desire that many companies share where they want to become ‘big’. We used to think like this with tbk Creative but now feel it’s not tbk Creative’s destiny. tbk Creative has become one of Canada’s highest quality providers of web design and digital marketing solutions. To try now and grow the company to 50-100 employees would put that brand promise in jeopardy.
We have and will continue to focus on quality over quantity.
Make things better. We live in an incredible era where technologies are literally revolutionizing industries within 3 years from their launch. This is happening partly because technology can be used to make the world better and more efficient. We have begun using tbk Creative as an incubator to launch technologies and products that make the world and industries better. Our first foray into this is AODA Online (2013) which has since become Canada’s most popular web accessibility software.
So in between working with a moderate but mighty group of brands like 3M Canada, Danby®, Lerners LLP, and Jiffy Lube Ontario, we use tbk Creative’s resources to launch additional companies and technologies that we hope will make the world and industries better.
Thank you for reading our story.
Sincerely, your friends at tbk Creative.