Jan Kelley gets new owners, separates from WPP

Burlington, Ont. agency Jan Kelley has announced new ownership, including reacquiring a minority stake in the company previously held by WPP.

Jan Kelley’s former co-owners, Jim Letwin and Ken Nicholson, have transferred ownership of the agency to an employee-led team comprised of president and CEO Chantel Broten, vice-president of customer innovation Shannon Ballard, creative director Geoff Redwood and vice-president of digital strategy Josiah Shelley.

It is the culmination of a carefully considered succession plan for the 106-year-old agency, says Broten. “Our vision was always to have a management team [buy out Letwin and Nicholson] and to maintain our independence,” she says. Letwin and Nicholson remain involved in the agency in an advisory capacity, with Letwin assuming the role of executive chair.

Reacquiring WPP’s 22% stake in the agency means that Jan Kelley is wholly independent for the first time in nearly three decades. New York’s Grey acquired what was then Kelley Advertising in the late 1980s, and maintained a stake when Kelley merged with JAN Marketing in 2001.

Independence affords the agency greater leeway to pursue partnerships, develop internal solutions and work with preferred vendors, says Broten.

“Our business is very fragmented, and in order to be successful in this environment you need to be singularly focused on doing what’s right for the client—and that means collaborating with whoever, whenever, however it makes sense,” she says. “Once upon a time the WPP connection was much more relevant than it is now, because now we work with a variety of partners as we see fit.”

Recent years have seen Jan Kelley pursue innovation through partnerships with groups including Waterloo’s Communitech, Hamilton’s Innovation Factory and the National Research Council. It has also focused on internal product development, leading to products like its B2B lead generation tool LeadHatch.

“I believe that independent agencies have the ability to be nimble and take action quickly, which is good for clients,” says Broten.

Jan Kelley has also continued to grow through acquisition, including the 2018 purchase of Burlington-based Rainforest Digital, which specializes in search, social and Amazon marketing. Rainforest’s co-founder, Josiah Shelley, is now part of the agency’s leadership team.

The agency is known largely for its work in the B2B space, a mandate that will continue under its new ownership. The 55-person shop will also continue to build around its internal concept of “humanology,” which Broten describes as the pairing of human insights with technology.

Jan Kelley’s work includes Canadian Blood Services’ “It’s in you to give,” and ArcelorMittal Dofasco’s “Our product is steel. Our strength is people.” It has also added FirstOntario Credit Union, Sheridan College, Toyota Materials Handling and Revera Retirement living to its client roster.


Chris Powell