The new vision of a new-look John St.

For most of its run at or near the top of the Canadian ad agency world, John St. was associated with just five familiar faces.

But it looks very different today. The transition started in late 2017, with the departures of Stephen Jurisic and Emily Bain. Last year, Jane Tucker stepped away. Angus Tucker remains in the same position as creative lead, but Arthur Fleischmann has taken on new responsibilities with WPP cousin Ogilvy. He remains CEO at John St., but in March, Megan Towers was promoted to chief strategy officer and Stephanie Hurst was named president.

Asked if that means she’s now in charge of day-to-day operations at John St., Hurst balks a little. “I mean technically. [But] I think we have a team,” she says. “Arthur never worked that way, so that’s why I’m hesitating. I don’t think there’s ever been a situation where Arthur was like ‘This is the way we’re dong it.’ That’s the culture of the place.”

That is what will also make the changes at John St. so interesting to watch. Aside from its reputation for smart, strategic creative, it has always been known for the strong workplace culture nurtured by its founders. But now there’s a seven-person executive team, and only two of its founders remain, along with chief financial officer Joanna Groszek. Instead the agency is today being driven largely by Hurst, Towers, executive director of production Cas Binnington, and executive director of design Mooren (Mo) Bofill.

Is this a watershed moment for the agency? Well, yes and no.

The five founding partners actually began laying the groundwork for this a few years ago, says Tucker. “We started to talk to each other; when are we gonna kind of break up and how do we start identifying the next people who are actually going to take the agency forward,” he says. Consultants were called in to examine the culture of the agency and senior staff to see who would be the best fit to maintain it. This executive team is a result of that process.

“These four have been instrumental in the evolution of this company,” says Tucker. For a long time, John St. was primarily a CPG agency, he says. But in the past few years, it has pivoted towards large, Canadian retail brands: the President’s Choice mandate has expanded to Shoppers Drug Mart, No Frills, and now Loblaw; Home Hardware and Sleep Country have been added to the roster, as has Boston Pizza. “This group has been behind figuring out how you actually handle accounts like that,” he says. “And without losing culture,” adds Towers. “The culture has always been deeply important here.”

So on the one hand this is business as usual, with an executive team that has been preparing for this for years, absorbing the culture that was so carefully protected by the founders. But this is not about maintaining the status quo either. The appointments of Hurst and Towers are only the most recent and visible manifestation of larger efforts to change to meet the needs of clients and respond to the external forces that are transforming all business.

The agency has been building up its strategy, production and design capabilities and working hard to improve its own processes to provide more value to their clients—to become upstream advisors taking C-suite meetings to discuss brand foundations.

“It’s not been a flip of a switch,” says Hurst. “We have been actively changing, disrupting ourselves—and being extremely uncomfortable in some situations—in the last four or five years.”

After it was purchased by WPP in 2013, people predicted big changes at John St., says Towers. “Everybody expected that we would be pitching everything that moved,” she says. But while there were some systems changes, WPP has largely left the agency alone.

Both Tucker and Towers point to a greater focus on design, particularly with the addition of Bofill in 2015, as one of the more important shifts at the agency.

The agency has long prided itself on strategic thinking and being long-term partners to clients, says Towers. “We talked about transforming brands… but we couldn’t do that just with advertising. And we didn’t have the in-house [design] capability to actually transform brands.

“If you can actually transform the way the brand looks, speaks, appears in every part of [consumer] experience, that’s when you can actually transform a brand. We couldn’t do that before Mo,” she says. “There was Pre-Mo and Po-Mo.”

The agency has also worked hard to be better, faster and more efficient, says Hurst. “In the Amazon world you don’t have 18 months to get a brand out. You don’t have 18 months to reposition anything. So we need to keep the good of what we do but do it faster and more collaboratively with our clients.”

Strategy, design and creative used to tackle briefs in a sequential fashion; each group would work on it and then pass it onto the next group, she says. There’s no time for that anymore. “It’s a completely integrated process,” says Hurst, with projects now regularly completed in weeks, not months.

“Think about the world of cannabis,” she says. “If we take six weeks to create a brand in cannabis, it’s completely irrelevant and the brand has gone under.”

One of the biggest challenges is getting creatives to move past the “psychological barrier” of believing less time always means an inferior product, says Tucker. “Sometimes less time can make it better because there’s less time for second-guessing and research.”

But the agency is also challenging clients to make changes, too. “If you want us to work faster…  you have to change too,” says Tucker. “We’re not going to just do the old ‘assistant manager approval process’ because we’re gonna lose our shirts and your business. So let’s figure out how we change to adapt to this new more accelerated pace that every industry is facing.”

That is the context for this new age of John St. The industry is changing fast and the agency has to change along with it. This leadership team is about the past, but it is also about renewal and reinvention.

A client told them to “create the business that will put you out of business,” says Hurst. “Meaning your current business is not going to be the business of the future. And if you don’t create that business of the future right now, someone else will and you will be done.” Hurst and her new team are just getting started.

David Brown