How Agency Life in Toronto Reflects the City’s Diversity and Innovation

Come enjoy the views from the 6ix

A zest and multicultural vibe can be found in Toronto and its agencies. Mecaleha/Getty Images
Headshot of Christine Maw

Sorry fellow Torontonians, I couldn’t help myself. The headline will be the only Drake reference. I’m here to give you a guided tour on life in Toronto, and how it shapes our agency world. For a city that’s so rich and diverse in culture, I could go on forever—but I’ll try to stick to the highlight reel.

First, let’s dispense with the obvious. Yes, we’re clean, hardworking, polite … even a bit humble. We’re not just the land of hockey, apologies and snow. Toronto is having a moment right now. And while we might not be loud, we sure are proud.

With a population close to 6.5 million people, the GTA is the largest urban center in Canada, and the fourth largest in North America. But despite our size, we’re a city that defines itself by our neighborhoods and we feel a deep attachment to community. Ask a Torontonian what’s better—east end or west end. I dare you. We consistently rank in the top 10 of many global quality of life indexes, which helps attract strong talent, investment and innovation.

The agency scene is made up of all the big multinationals you know well, a handful of established made-in-Canada shops that have really shaped our world-class creative (Taxi, Cossette, Lg2, Sid Lee, John St) and a recent surge of new startups that are challenging the agency model.

We are contending with many of the same industry issues here as south of the border—trying to figure out how to harness the power of data while not losing sight of humanity, the shift to short-termism, margin compression and the onslaught of consultants. And we have the added dimension of helping make global brands meaningful locally, at a time when more clients are looking for one-size-fits-all campaigns. And yet, the steady heartbeat of resourcefulness and resilience beats on, manifesting in creative solutions to new challenges.

The city we live and work in is reflected in our work and the cultures of our agencies. Life in Toronto always begins with a nod to multiculturalism. We are an incredibly diverse population, with 51.5 percent coming from a plethora of homelands. And with them come their rich cultural heritage and languages. There are more than 200 languages spoken in Toronto, with over 45 percent of Torontonians speaking a mother tongue other than English or French.

While our experiment in multiculturalism isn’t perfect, we largely live together in a vibrant hodgepodge of customs and traditions. You need to see the Filipino marching band in our annual Santa Claus parade to believe it.

The city we live and work in is reflected in our work and the cultures of our agencies. Life in Toronto always begins with a nod to multiculturalism.

This diversity gives us different cultural reference points to reflect in our work. It gives us unique values to celebrate when we think about modern Canadians. Yup, the CBC broadcasts hockey games in Punjabi. And while the diversity of our agency workforce definitely has some catching up to do, it’s a work-in-progress that keeps getting better.

We also live in a city with a rich cultural scene, featuring big, world-class organizations and festivals, but also a huge number of small, indie events. On every day, in every corner of the city, there is something interesting, inspiring, mind expanding happening. This helps fuel ideas and hones our love of craft. It also means we have a deep community of talented people to draw upon when we want to make great work even better.

We are a country of modern, progressive values. We have universal healthcare, have led the way in minority rights, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, immigration, and on July 1st, cannabis will become legalized nationally. University education is highly subsidized and widely accessible. We have the highest percentage of university-educated adults among OECD countries, at 54 percent. So the notion of “the educated cultural elite” as a bad thing … isn’t a thing. And it gives agencies access to a very deep pool of highly educated talent.

Again, while not perfect, this reflects an agency culture that is generally inclusive. And work that reflects these progressive values.

If culture is the soul of Toronto, we have a big brain in the form of innovation and technological excellence. The MaRS Discovery District is one of the largest innovative research hubs in the world. Professor Geoffrey Hinton, who is considered the godfather of AI, splits his time between the University of Toronto and Google’s Toronto AI research lab, attracting millions of dollars in research funding from around the world. Google Sidewalk Labs has formed a partnership with Waterfront Toronto. And Toronto is the only Canadian country on the Top 10 list of potential Amazon HQ2 cities.

We have a vast array of smart startups and some biggies, such as Shopify, Wattpad, Wealthsimple and Flipp, that have secured substantial funding and are scaling in a real way.

This eye toward smart technology permeates the city, and weaves its way into much of the work agencies do every day. We have the smartest brains in the world, just around the corner. But it also means that the demand for great technology talent is at an all-time high. Toronto agencies are competing with startups to attract and retain that talent.

And finally, agency life in Toronto wouldn’t be complete without a nod to our smaller budgets. This is where the 10:1 rule doesn’t always smile on us. But there’s also something awesome about this reality. It means we have to be agile and nimble. It means that we have to work harder to find interesting solutions to solve unique challenges. I would say that tenacity, resourcefulness and creative problem solving is what best captures agency culture in Toronto.

Come up north and see for yourself. And as promised, only one Drake reference.

This story first appeared in the June 4, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Christine Maw, vp, head of strategy at Taxi Toronto, oversees the office’s team of brand planners and leads its planning department.