Harlequin hooks up with Round

Iconic romance brand Harlequin has hired Round as its creative agency for North America.

While awareness may not be an issue for the world famous romance brand, one-year-old Round—which has just two employees (more on that below)—has been hired to help with a business reset, develop a new communications strategy, update the brand and drive growth.

Farah Mullick, Harlequin’s Toronto-based senior director, global series marketing, said in a release that the brand is entering the “next stage” of its journey. “Our business is evolving quickly to address rapid changes in publishing and the entertainment industry as a whole,” she said. “Harlequin has defined romance fiction for over 70 years and we’re poised to take advantage of a growing consumer appetite for romance in all formats.”

“It’s definitely a brand refresh,” said Mike Davidson, Round’s founding partner and managing director. “It is a brand that has kind of flattened out in terms of its appeal. Its core customers are getting older, and this is about repositioning the brand so it is relevant to younger generations.

“They really want to turn this into an entertainment company,” he said.

Round won the assignment in July and has been doing some “serious strategy work,” since then, he said. That includes researching current consumers and prospects to better understand the challenges of connecting with young people who are interested in romantic fiction, but not engaged with Harlequin.

From there, Round will develop the brand strategy—what they call the brand fight. “That gives the organization a real sense of their mission, where they are and where they have to go,” he said. The final piece will be the creative platform and communications strategy.

“We chose Round because they have incredible experience helping brands transition within changing industries,” said Mulllick. “They also stood out to us as the anti-agency agency—real industry disruptors that are focused on delivering great work and real value for clients.”

Davidson started Round last year with Paul Riss, the agency’s creative director. Davidson had more than a decade as VP and business leader at DDB, and five years before that at Arnold. Riss previously held CD roles at DDB and Cundari.

Their business approach is part of a trend among independent agencies: highly accomplished, senior-level agency professionals offering a distinct problem-solving alternative to the big agencies (not unlike this and this). They start their own operation and draw on a growing pool of qualified and experienced creative and strategic talent.

“I have been doing this for a couple of decades now and great work comes form a handful of people, it truly does,” said Davidson of the small agency approach. The promise to clients is that Riss and Davidson will be directly involved on their business.

“They trust us that we are able to staff it. We never bring in anybody but senior people. We never hire junior people and we’re going to put top award-winning talent on this and try to crack it.”

This model might not have been effective five or six years ago, but so much senior freelance talent has been aged out of bigger agencies with no desire to return, he said. Round has established connections with a pool of about 40 top professionals from across North America, plus a few from Europe, and have worked with about half of them since launching last year. The very best agencies in Canada only have a few top teams to work with, he said.

“We feel our bench strength is better than any agency in Canada.”


Photo: from Harlequin’s Bride Behind the Billion-Dollar Veil by Clare Connelly.



David Brown