If you’re a mid-sized creative agency headquartered in Ottawa, you don’t become a global player without a bit of pluck.
By Michael Woods
About six years ago, Siemens Enterprise Communications was looking for a company to help it rebrand. Then-chief marketing officer Chris Hummel had a previous working relationship with McMillan, the Ottawa-based branding and marketing agency.
He invited the company to bid, although the seven much larger competitors had a six-week head start.
“The criteria for the RFP was you had to be able to demonstrate that you had done three global rebrands. We had done zero,” Gordon McMillan, the founder, CEO and chief creative officer of the firm that bears his name, said in a recent interview at the company’s ByWard Market office. “But we knew that we could do it.”
Undeterred, Mr. McMillan and business partner Rob Hyams flew to Munich for the pitch. Rather than describe the global rebrands they hadn’t done, they spent an hour outlining their detailed proposal for the project at hand.
They won the bid with unanimous support in the room and oversaw the company’s rebrand to Unify.
“Part of it is having the moxie to say, ‘Dammit, we know what we’re doing. Let’s put our best foot forward,’” Mr. McMillan said. “They actually never ended up asking us what those other three global rebrands were.”
McMillan is unusual for an Ottawa-based company: it’s a branding and marketing agency that doesn’t do government work (it has done one government contract in the last 15 years, for Statistics Canada). Instead, it competes with the world’s largest branding agencies such as Interbrand, Landor and Lippincott for huge global contracts.
More than 90 per cent of McMillan’s revenue last year was from the United States and Europe. Annual revenue for its top five clients totals more than $60 billion.
The company is now valued in the eight figures and has nearly doubled in size in the past two years, to 75 employees.
“From the very beginning, we wanted to go global,” Mr. McMillan said.
That desire originated partly with his experience in New York City working on campaigns for Xerox and Mercedes Benz before returning to Canada to found his own company in 1996.
“On the one hand, I grew to appreciate the skill and talent of the New York agencies. But on the other, I learned not to be intimidated by it,” he said. “So I brought that perspective back to Ottawa.”
The company’s first clients were Microsoft and Information Dimensions, an Ohio-based firm. Oracle followed soon afterward.
The Unify rebrand was a turning point for the agency, but the bigger pivot came three years ago. That’s when Mr. McMillan and Mr. Hyams decided to narrow their focus to concentrate exclusively on business-to-business clients.
They cut loose 15 local clients and stopped bidding on RFPs that they would have before.
“It was a difficult decision,” Mr. McMillan said. “But it allowed us to focus on the opportunities that would allow us to be successful, and it led to some very large pieces of business.”
Among those: a global-brand refresh for Schneider Electric, the French energy giant with 190,000 employees. Other clients have included Intuit, Commvault and Hub International.
The shift in focus has helped the firm recruit the right talent, finding people “insatiably curious about how things work,” Mr. McMillan said. The narrower focus also helps assure clients that they’re getting dedication.
“When (clients) work with a generalist agency, they’re often given a team who would prefer to be working on Victoria’s Secret, for example, and they’re feeling compromised to have to work on a B2B client,” Mr. McMillan said. “When they come to us, they see the people they work with are actually very interested in what’s happening.
“Selling cloud services ain’t like selling cologne, and I don’t have a lot of people here who really care about selling cologne.”
A spirit of whimsy and collaboration is apparent at the company’s office at the corner of Sussex Avenue and George Street, in one of the city’s oldest buildings.
Roy Lichtenstein comic strips adorn the walls. Open-concept meeting spaces are plentiful and often named in tribute to the building’s past as the former home of the Geological Survey of Canada. There’s even a room named after Oscar Wilde, who visited the building once while on a Canadian tour.
McMillan’s own branding recently caught up to that decision three years ago to go exclusively global. At the agency’s 20th anniversary celebration party in May, a snazzy affair with 350 guests at an abandoned paper-storage facility on Albert Island, the company unveiled a rebrand, which its founder said takes the firm into bolder territory.
“I think it would be fair to say we’re less Canadian in the way we approach the market,” Mr. McMillan said. “There’s not a lot of modesty anymore. That isn’t to say it’s arrogant or anything, but it’s just very clear … We are a global player.”
McMILLAN’S BIG THREE
To mark the 20th anniversary of his company’s founding, Gordon McMillan looked back at three of his most firm’s most important rebranding campaigns and explained their significance:
“Probably the juiciest project we’ve worked on was rebranding Siemens Enterprise Communications as Unify. We brought them the name, which was perfect for a company combining phone, chat, video conferencing and file-sharing into one unified system. We really didn’t have a ton of experience doing global rebrands, and here we were asked to help redefine who they were, change everything from the corporate brochure to the website, create creative for a global ad campaign and, to top it off, help build out a broadcast live from New York and Munich. Yeah, that was stressful.”
“It still amazes me that a $30-billion-dollar company like Schneider Electric with 190,000 employees globally turns to us to help them define their brand. I’m pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”
“We’ve been fortunate to do some rebrands or brand refreshes with some great global firms like Unify, Schneider Electric and Commvault. But I know the best work is in our future. We just keep getting better and better at it.”