McMil­lan’s brand builds mo­men­tum

Ot­tawa-based cre­ative agency has carved suc­cess­ful niche by be­ing true to its vi­sion

Ottawa Business Journal - - Front Page - BY MICHAEL WOODS SPE­CIAL TO OBJ

It doesn’t do gov­ern­ment work — in­stead, firm fo­cuses on cor­po­rate clients and keeps grow­ing stronger af­ter 20 years

“I think it would be fair to say we’re less Cana­dian in the way we ap­proach the mar­ket. 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.”—


If you’re a mid-sized cre­ative agency head­quar­tered in Ot­tawa, you don’t be­come a global player with­out a bit of pluck. 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 Ot­tawabased 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.”


Gor­don McMil­lan is the founder, CEO and chief cre­ative of­fi­cer of the ByWard Mar­ket brand­ing agency that bears his name.


McMil­lan founder and CEO Gor­don McMil­lan is still hav­ing fun af­ter two decades in charge of his own firm.


Now 75 em­ploy­ees strong, McMil­lan re­cently cel­e­brated its 20th an­niver­sary with a party on Al­bert Is­land.

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