Toronto & Everybody is an interview series with creatives who have worked in Toronto and in other cities. We seek out the similarities and differences between cultures, industries, and people, to see how people’s experiences abroad can help us improve and grow in our work and lives here in Toronto.

I spoke with Alex Newman about his experience working as an art director for ad agencies in Toronto and now Sydney, what cultural differences he’s observed, how clients differ on either side of the Pacific, and how to keep up your career momentum when you move so far away.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do?

I’m a senior art director at DDB Sydney. I work primarily on airlines and travel, although I’ve begun to spread out into different industries like fast food – I now work on McDonald’s which is quite fun.

I started as a digital designer at BBDO in Toronto which was fantastic, did that for a year. Entered the Young Lions competition in that first year and ended up winning, which took me and my copywriting partner Patrice to New York City. We worked there for about two years, and then moved back to Toronto, ‘cause Toronto is home. I worked at JWT Toronto for about five years before making the move down to Australia.

Wow. Can I ask why you chose to go so far away from home?

[Laughing] That’s become the question my parents constantly ask me. “Have we done something wrong that made you want to go the furthest you could possibly get from us?” But that couldn’t be further from the truth to be honest.

I was down here on an Air Canada project shooting in Sydney. It was bridging an aboriginal musician from Canada with the aboriginal musicians of Australia, for him to get new inspiration and new sounds for his repertoire. A little aside, it’s incredible how much similarity there is between the indigenous cultures even though they’re never met. The smoke ceremonies and their belief systems, they way they pass on stories and how stories are related to their history. It was almost creepy in a sense, like there’s no way these two civilizations could’ve ever communicated hundreds of years ago, and yet they share so much in common.

So I looked around at Sydney and I thought, my god this is so much like Canada, but there’s little tweaks and little differences that just make it kind of fit me better. And plus it was warm.

Yeah that helps!

We were in the middle of winter up in Canada (it’s Australia’s summer during that time). I was turning 30 that year, and my life wasn’t where I really wanted it to be. Y’know, when you’re at an agency for about five years, you’ve basically touched every brand and milked it for all it’s creativity and it’s time to move on. At that age you can get a working holiday visa in most commonwealth nations, so I’m like, it’s either now or never. I basically folded up my life in a week, and moved down here on a whim without a job.

The distance is the only thing about this place that makes it difficult. The time zones, being able to keep in touch with people at home… it’s not like if there’s an emergency I can just fly home on a whim, it’s a trek.

Oh, I’ve done it. I was in Melbourne a while ago and that 26 hour flight nearly killed me. It’s so rough.

I’m sick right now because of the flight back from Canada just two weeks ago. It’s taxing.

Having moved to a new country and not really knowing anybody in Sydney, how did you find getting in to the ad industry there?

I underestimated the amount of difficulty I’d have trying to break back into the industry. I remember being a young designer coming out of university – I was unemployed for seven months trying to find work – and it’s because nobody knows you, you have no footprint in the industry. So when you come in, all of your history doesn’t matter, they’re just like who the heck are you? I thankfully got in touch with a really good recruitment agency here in Sydney. They helped me freelance and all of my business came through them. There were some scary moments – y’know, if you go a month without work as a freelancer you’re like “Am I gonna make rent this month? I dunno!”

In the long run – I think I knew it deep down inside but I didn’t believe myself until I moved here – moving this far, you take a step back in your career. You’re stunted a little bit, because you don’t have the momentum that you had in your home country. All the connections that you had made over the last few years, they can’t do anything for you, so you have to start from ground zero again. So that was a bit of a learning for me. It’s tough, getting back up again and trying to establish yourself.

So how do you feel now? You’ve been there about two years?

Yeah, I’m finally getting my foot in. The first year was still a bit unknown, I was still struggling. This year, I feel like I now know the production companies, I now know the producers, I know creatives that have cycled in and cycled out through different agencies, so I now have a network that I can call on if I need something. But it takes about two years to cultivate that.

Having done the freelance life and the agency life in Sydney, do you find there are many differences in how creatives work down under, compared to Canada?

I mean, creativity is creativity across the board in our industry. You either have an amazing idea or you don’t. I find the creative process down here, at least from my limited knowledge of experiencing it only in Sydney, is a little more “cowboy shotgun” style; it’s a little less organized and a bit more chaotic. And I think that’s sort of in the industry across the board because our timelines are so short, budgets have shrunk and everybody is becoming as scrappy as they can to get ideas done. It feels a little more “mad men” these days down here than it did in Toronto.

People have said to me before, the ad industry in Australia is about ten years behind the ad industry in Canada. And they’re right in some respects – they have the slowest internet I’ve ever experienced – it has some growing to do. Here we’re a little more influenced by Asia, and tend to be a bit more conservative than what I’ve experienced in Toronto.

New Zealand funny enough does incredible work, which is interesting because they have like almost no money to work with. So people in Australia really admire how the Kiwis get stuff done.

So you’re saying the ad industry there is ten years behind – would you say that’s true of what clients expect as well? Are they asking for things people over here asked for ten years ago?

I mean, the saying down here is that Sydney is like the corporate centre, it’s kind of the New York of this region. New York has the bigger budgets, anything can happen, but at the same time there’s a lot of hesitation to make amazing work. It’s hard to get really good work out of a place like New York. We have some of the biggest clients in Sydney in our office, and some of them take risks. McDonald’s is one that’s really interested in taking some risks and do some awesome creative work. But the larger ones tend to be more corporately structured and risk-averse. Purely by just numbers of people on their side, the more people you get in a room having an opinion about something, it just becomes a little more watered down.

I’m surprised to hear you say that you find it’s hard to get good ideas out of Sydney and you’re comparing it to New York, ‘cause from my perspective as a Torontonian, New York gets all the cool stuff, and Toronto and Canada get the lame, “redo this for Canada”. But you’re saying that’s not the case?

It’s all about perception to be honest, because we have a ton of stuff that comes in from North America where we have to “Australianize” it. I thought we’d be making original content but anything that has a fir tree in it people are like “Oh that’s not Australia”, so we have to reshoot things to have Australian trees in it. So there’s that angle, but then I think in terms of the region, because we have the most amount of money, and the most opportunity to create amazing work, it does tend to come out, it’s just… I guess the ratio of the amount of agencies working from that great stuff, versus how much is actually made, is lower than say, what would happen in Auckland, where there’s fewer agencies and fewer clients, but the ratio of good work to work overall is much higher.

Is there anything that you’ve observed or learned working in Sydney that you think Toronto would benefit from or adapt? Or vice versa.

I mean I’ve only worked at large multinationals – my next move would probably be to something smaller just to get that sense – so I have a bit of “multinational glasses” on at the moment, but I think both markets could do with less talking and more doing, and I do think this is a symptom of large agencies. I dunno about you but I’ve been in boardrooms where there’s fifteen people talking about the idea that you’ve come up with and adding on their opinion because they think they have to, and sometimes you need to say, y’know what, fuck it, I’m just gonna make it, and everybody can have their say after the fact. It’s much easier to have opinions on something that’s speculative and hasn’t been made yet, versus something that is created and then the feedback can be decisive, “well we could improve that in this way”, as opposed to just general “oh well maybe it could be like this”. I find both markets struggle with that, and I think that is a symptom of large agencies.

Probably, I think you’re right. I’ve definitely observed that myself.

For instance, my copywriting partner and I just launched a project called Pet Me which uses artificial intelligence and the influence of Instagram famous dogs to help rescues get adopted. It’s such a fun little project and I’m working with a developer in Toronto on it, and my copywriter is from Brazil, so it’s been sort of this global effort of Brazil, Toronto, Sydney, working to create this thing. The way we did it was we took it offline and actually got our own client and developed and built it and then brought it to the agency and said: it’s done. And at that point our CCO could either say “oh I like it” or “nah I don’t wanna deal with this”. I think what’s nice about this market is that the creative directors just want things to get made, and so even though it can get caught up in that sort of washing machine of comments, if you just get something done and it’s good and you believe in the idea, then they’re willing to support you on it.

That’s good to hear.

Yeah, I think that’s something that Toronto could probably learn a bit from, ‘cause I hadn’t experienced that there.

So then aside from the hurdle of networking and actually getting to know the industry when you first arrived, once you got into the work it was pretty familiar and what you were used to?

Oh yeah very much so. I mean every market sort of has their own little quirks. Interestingly enough, everybody asks me here if I have been to Award School.

Award school?

Yeah – there are these things that are market specific that I just didn’t expect. I didn’t know what Award School was, but they hold it in high esteem. They don’t really care about a Bachelor of Design, but in Toronto that’s a thing.

Is it learning how to do work to win awards?

Essentially. It’s sort of a crash course in creative. It’s 12 weeks long, so it’s not like a university degree or college certificate by any means. The training required to get into the industry here I haven’t seen to be a scrupulous as North America, and since I wasn’t in that I just wasn’t known. So like if I’m not in Spikes Asia, which is an awards show in the Asia-Pacific region, it’s like “who are you?” And I’m like “oh well I have a Cannes Lion and a London International Award” and they’re like “meh”. [laughing]

That’s funny, I mean coming from Toronto culture where awards are great and they can certainly get you places, hearing that this is a culture in Australia where you basically have to win an award to even start working in the industry, that sounds so difficult.

Yeah, the regional awards are more visible and that’s the thing, if you’re not in the regional award circuit then you’re not really known and you won’t make it to the master circuit – it’s almost like qualifying. It’s fascinating, whole different ecosystem.

So can you basically not get a job as a creative without winning an award? ‘Cause over here you certainly can.

No you can, and there’s several people at my agency who aren’t on the awards circuit and still make incredible work, it’s not a necessity. I think in the industry globally, if you win awards you’re going to be better off, in terms of getting that top tier agency or bonus or what have you. Everywhere I’ve worked my performance has been based on whether I win awards or not. At JWT, DDB – it’s the metric of success.

It’s a funny relationship because, on one hand the entire business functions on the sort of the day to day, what pays the bills, but the awards help the agencies credentials. It’s interesting, ‘cause in both cases where awards have been a metric of success, they’ve never been intrinsic to my job title, it’s always well, you do awards in your spare time or it’s your extra curricular, even though it’s directly tied to your success in this industry. It’s almost like this weird oxymoron objective, where it’s like, “you have to do this but you can’t be seen doing it”. You need to be seen doing the multi-page banner ads for the local bank.

I know you won a Cannes Lion early in your career – can you tell us how that went down and impacted your career?

It was the Young Lions 2011. I entered it just for fun for me and my writer, who I wasn’t even working with at the time, and I still have the email I sent her, “hey you want to win a free trip to France lol”. We won the qualifying round in Canada, and then won the global round in the cyber category in Cannes – that’s the first time Canada’s ever won. That feeling of being sought after in the industry, there’s nothing like it, ‘cause all of a sudden everybody wants to know you, they’re hunting you down. In your first year of advertising you have to be scrappy and sort of beg people to take you on and trust you. So it went from being a few months unemployed leading up to [my job at] BBDO, to having the global chief talent officer trying to slip me her business card under a table and it’s like… it is mind boggling how it can transform your life.

Once you have a taste of that you kind of want to get back to it, and I know many creatives who every year want to try and pump something award worthy out. But I’ve been noticing after being in the industry for almost a decade now that you sort of go through cycles, and they tend to fall into three year patterns where you have a killer year, and then two years you kind of recuperate, come up with new ideas, craft them, and the third year again is another hit. So I think if I have any advice for people chasing the awards circuit, don’t be anxious that you have to have something award worthy every single year. Some years you just need a breather, ‘cause creativity’s taxing, it takes a lot out of you, and chasing awards is exhausting, especially if you’re doing it in your spare time like agencies want you to do.

But from that I’ve never actually hit that high again. I mean, me and my creative partners I’ve worked with have had a couple silvers, bronze, even a couple Pencils, but we hadn’t quite his that pinnacle again yet so I’m hoping in the next little while I can give it one more jab, before I start relaxing for another two years. It’s tough, it’s so tough, but it can transform your career, and whether your agency believes in it or not, whether it’s a metric of your performance, the industry sees it as success. And if that’s what the whole industry sees, then it can take you anywhere. It’s literally the keys to every agency, every city, as a creative.

Now that you’re competing from Australia, a different market, what differences do you find with that compared to competing with North America and Europe?

Canada sort of has that direct competition with the US most the time. Europe isn’t really in our scope, they do good work but Europe sort of competes with itself as a region. In this case, the Asian ads are so different from what we do, we don’t really see them as a competitive point. So we’re kind of in our own silo, quietly competing against the US. There is still this mentality here that America’s pretty awesome and they hold it in high regard. They’re very patriotic here, to the point of Americans in America. Canada’s patriotism has grown over the last couple years, but here it’s really solid. And it’s almost like the more Aussie your ads are, the more culturally accepted they are. We’re the only market in the world that changed the name of McDonald’s to Macca’s, ‘cause that’s the nickname Aussie’s use. That name is so prolific in this culture that McDonald’s changed their name.

A little aside on that, there’s so many cultural references that I’m still naive to here. Even though our cultures are very similar, there’s so many inside jokes that Australians have as a nation, that I’m sometimes not privy to. For instance I was in an audio record last week with my Brazilian writer making ads for Australia and New Zealand, and we’re trying to distinguish between an Aussie and Kiwi accent and trying to find the midrange between the two. We couldn’t do it for the life of us! I turned to the audio tech asking, “Is that right?” and he was like, “Nooo”. We must’ve gone through fifteen rounds where the client was like, that sounds too Kiwi or that’s too Aussie, and we’re like, we don’t know! They sound the same! That was another adjustment point for doing creative in this region, ‘cause there are some things we just don’t know. Somebody will say, “remember that scene from that TV show that everybody knows” and we’re like… no? It’s just a cultural thing. Just like Americans don’t know what those Canadian Heritage Minute commercials were.

Does that make the experience of working in Australia more interesting for you personally? You wanted to leave Canada for kind of an adventure right, and this is part of it?

It totally is, and getting to learn these sort of curious insights and cultural cornerstones, it feels like I’m getting closer to the people because I’m having to learn all of this. So whenever I’m out or if I’m in Canada or somewhere else and I come across an Aussie, I’ll have all these references, “oh yeah it’s like that moment in that show” and they’ll be like “oh yeah I know what you’re talking about!” It just bridges a cultural gap. I’ve sort’ve been studying them.

Would you move back to Toronto?

Yes, I would. Yes. I’d have to fight my urge to stay with the beach, that’s the only thing that would be a struggle. I mean, to be able to get on a bicycle and go to turquoise water is everything to me down here. I was back in Toronto this last time – it’s funny, the city’s growing and maturing and you can’t really see the progress ‘cause you’re in it, but when you step out of it and come back, Toronto is frigging pumping. From the outsiders point of view, the economy is doing well, it’s growing like mad, the industry is on fire. And there’s this energy and this drive that Toronto has that’s quite infectious. I had this experience before when I lived there, and clearly it was building and mounting but, only when I stepped away and came back it was like, wow this city is really growing into its own, it’s emerging, it’s becoming a powerhouse. That’s where good work is getting made. So yeah I would, one day I think I will definitely return to Toronto. It’s where my family is, it’s where home is. Like I said the hardest thing about being down here is that it’s so far away. Industry aside you wanna be close to your family as they get older. But I’m not done with Australia, I probably have a few more years in me yet.

Would you go anywhere else to work before coming back to Toronto?

I would, yeah. I’m turning 32 this year, I think I need to start setting roots down somewhere, and the roots would probably be in Toronto. I think I have maybe another 5 or 6 years of skipping around the world. Like I said New Zealand work is amazing so if an opportunity came up there I wouldn’t be adverse to it, even though it is a smaller market. Asia, Japan is weird, I love it. I’m not done, there’s so many places to live, our industry is huge.

Yeah it’s true, that’s one of the great things about working in this industry, you can go anywhere.

Yeah, you really can, you have to be ready to sort of start at the beginning again a little bit, but you’ll find your footing.

Toronto & Everybody is an interview series with creatives who have worked in Toronto and in other cities. We seek out the similarities and differences between cultures, industries, and people, to see how people’s experiences abroad can help us improve and grow in our work and lives here in Toronto.

I spoke with Caitlin Wharton about her experience working as a graphic designer in Calgary and Toronto, how she runs a design studio across two provinces, and what different kinds of clients you find on the east and west sides of the country.

So to start off, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

I’m Caitlin Wharton, the founder and creative director at Trout + Taylor, which is a branding agency based in Toronto and Calgary.

And you have a business partner in Calgary, right?

I do. Our agency is purposefully split 50% business and 50% design, because we found that our experience with agencies is that they’re notorious for slow timelines and bad communication, so we saw that as an opportunity for us to really capitalize on having amazing timelines, amazing communication, amazing client care. So the business team is in Calgary and design is here.

How long have you been running this agency?

Trout + Taylor is three, just a baby!

And you moved to Toronto about a year ago?

Almost two actually, Halloween 2016.

It’s pretty unusual to be divided across two provinces (and so many time zones) – many agencies have multiple offices in different countries, but they don’t always operate across that border. How do you find that’s working for you guys?

Um, good. I think it would probably be a lot more difficult if we had designers in Calgary as well, but I think because it’s split across two cities and split across two departments, that makes it a lot easier. When I first moved out here we still had our design team in Calgary, and the communication time zone thing was just too difficult, so we were like, nope, too hard, move the design team here.

Tell me about why you moved here in the first place, what started this whole divided operation?

Well this is a lame story, I wish it was more interesting, but my husband got a job transfer to Toronto. Prior to moving here I’d only ever visited for a weekend. I think we just were relying on good will and chance that we were gonna love it here. Aislinn [my business partner] and I were working full time, in an office, and then we just made the call to split it up. I joined a coworking space here and just started from scratch, without ever having set foot in Toronto. So it was kind of a leap of faith to be honest.

What was your impression of the city before moving here?

There are inter-city rivalries, and I lived in Vancouver prior to living in Toronto. Vancouver hates Calgary, so we moved to Vancouver we were like “why do you hate us?!” and then when we told our friends and family that we were moving to Toronto they were like “why would you go there?!” I’ve never been a part of this – it’s mostly sports based rivalries – but when we moved to Toronto, there was this impression that everybody here was stuck up, thought they were the centre of the universe – I didn’t know what to expect before moving here. But I have been so pleasantly surprised at the warm embrace of the community and how interconnected even diverse pockets of design are. Copywriters know designers, know web designers, know developers, it really is connected here. I don’t know if it’s just the point in my career right now that I’m starting to meet those types of freelancers but I didn’t experience that in Calgary or Vancouver.

So then what’s the industry like in Calgary and Vancouver in terms of networking and scale and diversity of skill and that kind of thing?

So we’re in branding so I can only speak to that little portion of it, but I think that the entrepreneur community is strong in Calgary. So many people starting up larger scale businesses than the circles that I know in Toronto. A lot of tech, a lot of social good or innovation type businesses starting up there, and because the industry in Calgary is mostly oil and gas, geology, engineering, a lot of the branding agencies are supporting those types of industries. Vancouver I found had a lot less money – people don’t have a lot of funding when they’re starting a business – but a lot more lifestyle, so a lot of the more sexy brands are there. Tons of restaurants, bars, and a lot of people in Vancouver had side hustles, so a lot more small scale branding opportunities there. You would be a backpack designer at MEC but you would also have a lentil grain company on the side, or you would be working at head office in accounting at Lululemon, but you would also have a dog accessory line. So that was more small scale but a lot more fun. Then in Toronto what we found is that it’s kind of everything: there’s a huge tech industry here, obviously huge finance and wealth management here, and a lot more of the big players are here too. So you get experience in all these different pockets; there is that sexy restaurant and bar industry, and then you can also have one client in Rugby Canada and one person starting the dog accessory company, so it’s a little bit of everything and that keeps it fun.

Once you moved here – since you didn’t know anybody in Toronto – how did you meet people here?

I cold called people! For me what’s important is community, I need to know my design crew, so I actually did what a student would do when they’re looking for a job and I would seek out people that had amazing design portfolios and I was like “Can we meet for coffee? I just wanna be friends with you”. So I just went on blind dates with various designers, and we’re friends now! I think it is unconventional, but you almost have to be aggressive with finding friends in the same way that you’d be aggressive in finding a job.

So now that it’s been about two years, do you feel pretty comfortable here? Do you consider this city home?

I do consider it home. It feels like a cold embrace, ‘cause it’s a city with no ocean and nature, and so you’re like “what is here?” but as soon as you break into those circles, people really are amazing here, so wonderful. So we’ll stay, haha.

Would you ever move your business operations here?

Oh my god I would love to! At the same time it’s been really cool having at least two people on the ground. A lot of the big design events come through Toronto, some come through Vancouver, but almost never go through Calgary. So it’s been great to have at least [the design team] here to attend the big conferences. But it’s also great to have a different perspective and different people going to different events. Our business team goes to a ton of pitch competitions, startup events, startup networking drinks, and we go to events to be inspired.

You kind of have a wider reach that way.

Yeah for sure.

You’re right, a lot more design events do come through Toronto than the rest of Canada – do you feel that’s impacted your output and your work?

Yeah, I think from an inspiration standpoint for sure. We have a running joke with some design friends that there’s literally an event to go to every night of the week. And if you attended every event you would basically burn out from inspiration overload, and I think that’s so cool. You have the opportunity to go to one of the greatest museums if you’re feeling stuck or hit up a cool event in the evening if you’re feeling like you need inspiration. That is an invaluable tool, and we have set up a specific “inspiration fund” for our team to be like “here’s $120 a month, go to whatever inspires you” and to know that those opportunities exist in Toronto. You don’t have the same design communities and art communities in Calgary as you do in Toronto.

So when you were living out there what did you do for inspiration?

Calgary has a wonderful home base for nature retreats, so if you’re inspired by the greater world around you… that is one thing that I miss so much about being in Toronto: nature. For me, when I’m feeling stuck I know I have to go find a mountain somewhere, find some trees, and walk around in them. That was really instrumental for our business. We used to go to Canmore when we were feeling stuck, and just go on a retreat. There’s not quite the same nature here.

Yeah, I think a lot of Torontonians are envious of the west coast mountains. They’re gorgeous!

Yeah definitely, I would take pictures of the same mountains and the ocean every day on my walk to work. I’d have 365 pictures of the mountains and ocean on my phone, it’s so beautiful! And I’m not giving Calgary enough credit ‘cause I think the design community there is small but emerging. There’s new cool restaurants in Calgary that are cropping up and there’s really cool smaller agencies in Calgary that I think are doing a phenomenal job of servicing those emerging businesses. So many craft breweries in Calgary! How are there still craft breweries popping up? But there is an emerging thing happening there which is cool to be a part of.

So knowing that it’s growing, would you move back there?

Um… no. And said with so much love for the city that I was born and raised in. But, no.

Are you ready to settle down in Toronto or would you go somewhere else after this?

I would love to live in Toronto for a while. And I think the next step in the journey would be to live in Europe. I’m really inspired by Scandinavian design, and I would love to just live there for a year. I think I would come back to Toronto though.

What’s kind of the feeling overall between Calgary and Toronto, based on your experience? You said there’s a lot more nature in Calgary which makes sense, but there’s a beauty of its own kind here as well. And Toronto is obviously a lot bigger, so what would you say are the overall differences between the two?

That’s a hard question. I think the sense of Calgary is – I don’t want to say more of a community but maybe more of an obvious community? There’s really great strips in Calgary, like Inglewood is the place to be. When you go to Inglewood you know you’re going to run into everybody you know and love. The stitching of Calgary is a lot tighter in that way. And I think Toronto is a much looser net to cast over everything, and I think the beauty in that is that you get to find what interests you and you get to hang on to those pieces versus like, Calgary’s community is pretty… it is what it is.

Is there anything you would tell somebody coming from Calgary, or even Vancouver, moving to Toronto to look out for or do when they get here?

Definitely events, there are so many. Go to events, follow designers that you love. I’ve been so surprised that people are just willing to meet you for coffee, or a glass of wine. And everybody wants other people to be successful. So go to events, cold call designers, go on blind dates with people, that has been really great in my experience.

Do you find that this community is really supportive? That people look out for each other?

Yeah. I don’t know if that’s a Toronto thing, or if that’s just a design thing. In Calgary we shared an office with our biggest competitor, and we would often refer clients to each other, we’d go out for drinks with them all the time, same thing here. You’re always pushing people to each other. I think it might be a design thing, and that’s so cool to me, community over competition.

That’s definitely what I try to champion.

Yeah, and I mean I think it’s just where Trout + Taylor is in terms of our growth. But we’re also working with a lot of students, and I feel bad for students right now because it’s so competitive. It’s really hard to get your foot in the door. We didn’t work with a lot of students in Calgary so I can’t speak to the student perspective over there, but there are great art schools here, so I’m sure OCAD and George Brown attract students from all over Canada. I don’t know if I have advice for students, ‘cause I see the struggle of trying to break into the industry and the agency world here and it’s just really hard. Where possible I’ll go for coffees with students and look at the resumes and see if we can get their portfolio up to snuff, but it’s really difficult.

It’s definitely really difficult, I felt the same way when I graduated from school years ago. Part of that was not knowing where to go, which is the story behind why I started the Directory, but the other half is having the skills to get somebody’s attention, which is it’s own challenge. There are more agencies around here than I would’ve thought a few years ago, which I see now having done the research to build the Directory, but there’s even more students, and more people moving to this city. There’s definitely a lot of competition.

You’re right, and I think it’s really obvious to go and find the huge agencies, so I think you graduate with the idea that “I’m gonna go work for Blok or the huge guys”, and maybe that’s why it seems harder to break into jobs, ‘cause of course it would be harder to go with those guys. But in Calgary or Vancouver there aren’t really the big guys, they’re not really there.

You’ve hired in both cities, so in terms of how many resumes you get, is it different between Toronto and Calgary?

Yeah, I think more here. Definitely more graphic design and art students here, Calgary there’s a lot more informational design, kind of hybrid degrees, especially out of Mount Royal University; they have an amazing program for communication design. We were in that community really heavily in Calgary. And here it’s like, artists who go to design school to get a degree to be profitable.

It’s interesting that you find such a contrast between here and Calgary in terms of education.

Yeah, I think there’s also maybe a lot of self taught designers in Calgary, which are great as well ‘cause I think, if you have a degree in English for example and then you teach yourself design, it positions you in a different way than if you know acrylic versus oil painting.

What was your education in?

I have an English degree.

So you speak from experience.

Yeah, I’m self taught in graphic design. I worked in marketing, I was doing invitations for an interior design firm, and then I realized I loved graphic design. So I started going to school at ACAD, and that’s when I got a job transfer to Vancouver, so I stopped that. But I started working at Lululemon without a graphic design education, so I had a lot of experience-based learning. I actually went to school at Parson’s after I quit Lululemon, and I decided to go there because of the level of education. I took a program remotely at Parson’s while I was living in Vancouver, and actually I have one class left.


It’s an internship. And I was like “can I intern at my own company?” and they said no, you can’t. So that was about six years ago, and I haven’t finished my design degree.

You have to get that internship!

I have to get that internship! And I’ve actually been talking to my team about it, I would love to intern at my own company, I would love to get an inside perspective and be the intern of like our senior graphic designer. Teach me! So I’ll see if I can do that. But my education is very random. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way.

Yeah, I’ve known people who did English, history, biology, and ultimately came to design in their own ways as well, and they’re just as talented – you can be, I think, stronger having a background in a different field, you see connections between things differently. Having a foundation in something completely different like the sciences can be a huge advantage.

Yeah I totally agree. One of the founders of the big agencies back in Calgary has a degree in microbiology in ferns, and he says he’s so inspired by the shape of ferns! That’s so cool! And now he’s running this incredible agency. So yeah I agree, and I’ve made the plea to Aislinn my business partner, that the next hire I want to be a copywriter, and teach them design. ‘Cause I think there are gaps that are missing from a traditional art background, where people don’t really know how to write any more, and a lot of what we do is writing and messaging.

Since you had friends from Calgary and Vancouver who commented “why would you move to Toronto” when you told them your decision, what would your response to them be now that you’ve been living here for a while?

Just that there’s way more opportunity in Toronto. In a way it feels like an aspiring singer from a small town moving to Nashville to try and hit it big. There’s just more opportunity in everything, there’s cooler tennis leagues and there’s more events, and the volume is bigger. So if you were interested in a city with more energy – it’s louder here, it’s dirtier here, it’s –

It’s windier here right?

It’s way windier here! What the hell is with the wind?! That’s something I could do without. But yeah it’s just that there’s more here than there is Calgary. And I love Calgary, and if the Leafs are playing the Flames, am I gonna wear my Flames jersey? Hell yes! I’m still a Flames fan (and a Raptors fan, and a Jays fan).

What’s one thing you would tell Torontonians about Calgary? If somebody was moving there what would you say?

The ease in which you can find a community is amazing. Everybody knows everybody in that community, and that is really cool. A lot of cool things are coming out of Calgary right now. If you were to move there from Toronto, there would be a really great base to land on, and I think it would be a lot easier to meet people. You probably wouldn’t have to cold call designers like I did here. It’s so friendly.

We go back and people ask us how it’s going in Toronto, and we’re like “it’s great” and they say, “No, how’s it really?” and it’s just awesome. We love it here.

What do you think they expect you to say?

I don’t know. Maybe there is that illusion that it’s business and banking and corporate here, but I think because of that or maybe in spite of that there is also an amazing creative community here, it’s just another thriving industry here that isn’t immediately apparent.

I think there’s a natural artistic wave that moves to either Toronto or Vancouver. If you know you don’t belong in Toronto you definitely belong in Vancouver. I have friends who moved from Vancouver to Toronto and just immediately went screaming back to the west coast. I think the trends that come up the east coast are fashion, and publication, and music and art, but the trends that come up the west coast from LA are like green juice, yoga, meditation, so there are trends in Vancouver that still haven’t started in Toronto. The two cities are like fraternal twins. Both great, both beautiful, but one likes green juice and one likes tattoos.

Because of the proximity to Vancouver there are a lot of people in Calgary that are picking up on really cool trends, and that’s why there’s a really cool community building in Calgary. I remember coming home at Christmas from Vancouver one time, and somebody had just started cold pressed juice in Vancouver, and I was like “Dad I need to borrow thirty thousand dollars, we have to start a cold pressed juice company in Calgary! We could be first to market here!” And the first juice pressed juice company started in Calgary about five years ago. I think there’s a lot of really smart, really inspired entrepreneurs there that are picking up trends from all over the world, and they get to start it there. So if the fraternal twins are Vancouver and Toronto, then Calgary is the younger sibling that’s picking up on everything and has the potential to be really smart and rad and cool, and gets to be humble and friendly for now.

I would move back to Vancouver, I will say that.

What do you miss from there?

Nature, pure and simple. It’s so pretty there.

I love living in Canada. It’s been cool living in three cities, they’re very different. Every city that I’ve been to has been phenomenal, I’m so proud to be Canadian.