Choi, Kawalecki and Candy talk about the Angry Butterfly effect

In the digital age, no brand truly exists until it has a website. So even though Angry Butterfly has been operating as an agency for more than nine months—doing work, winning clients and adding staff—its co-founders were reluctant to talk much about themselves until now.

The agency “officially launched” this week, with its new website up and running. It was a cobbler’s children situation, said Erin Kawalecki, one of the shop’s co-founders along with Brent Choi and Graham Candy. The three, who worked together at DDB after Choi took over as CEO in early 2019, have been busy building the business instead of talking about it.

Since the start of the year, the agency has grown to 18 full-time staff with another 10 on contract. The client roster has expanded to include Dairy Farmers of Canada, Campari, Canadian Tire, Capilano University, Fire & Flower Cannabis Co, AutoIQ, Bally’s Gaming & Entertainment, Boston Pizza, Spirits Canada and WW (Weight Watchers)—some of which came through pitches against well-established agencies across Canada.

In some ways, the Angry Butterfly story is a familiar one: Three successful, highly respected agency execs see a changing world unfolding in front of them, feel confined by the holding company model, and start their own agency capable of meeting those evolving client needs.

The partners talked to The Message about their vision for Angry Butterfly and how they can help marketers in a chaotic time.

The Angry Butterfly Model: Aside from the creative thinking of Kawalecki and Choi, the cornerstone of the agency is a heavy emphasis on strong consumer insight and strategy led by Candy, who has a PhD in social-cultural anthropology from the University of Toronto. Angry Butterfly wants to work with brands further upstream to identify truly unique consumer insights and apply creative thinking to solve business problems.

“Erin and I have always had that point of view and that disposition, but Graham really gives us the rigour to deliver on that,” said Choi. “We always wanted to be upstream, but Graham’s data insights and the rigour he puts in allows us to have the data and factual information to give us sound thinking as we discuss it, and then leap off that into a creative idea.”

Data and emotion: “One of the things we share is the openness or desire to embrace the crazy world we’re in, as opposed to maybe wishing for a simpler time,” said Kawalecki. “There are sort of two narratives right now: There’s ‘It all has to be about data,’ and then there’s ‘Let’s return to talking to people as humans, and make people feel something.’ And I think they’re both very relevant.” Angry Butterfly wants to be about both narratives, she said: Embracing the data, but using it to make people feel something.

Embracing the chaos: “I find some people are really thrown off by chaos,” said Candy. “They want to make it simpler and push back and they just struggle to adapt. I get along really well with people who can adapt and move at the speed of business—and it’s really fast. The advertising world is pretty chaotic these days, so it’s hard to find a group of similarly minded people who can actually manage that, deal with it a positive attitude, and put out good work… and I think that’s what clients are looking for.”

The strategic difference: Aside from being a PhD himself, Candy has hired other PhDs in anthropology and sociology. They specialize in uncovering original consumer insights rather than pulling from research and studies that are widely available to other agencies and brands, he said.

“We’ve hired data scientists and machine learning people… not the standard advertising people that have been trained and have a certificate somewhere, but hiring people with a PhD in math and do machine learning, and then bring them in. I like to take those people and train them how to be marketers, versus taking marketers and training them to be data scientists.”

How Covid might have helped in year 1: A lot of people were looking to work at a different agency, and a lot of clients were looking to hire a different agency, said Choi. “It kind of accelerated our growth and success early because it was almost a perfect storm of having great people that wanted to work with us and clients looking for something different, at the same time we knew there was a better way to do it.”

The name: “Butterfly has some meaning that we really like around transformation,” said Kawalecki. “And obviously every industry is in transformation, every business is in transformation, and advertising maybe should be in more transformation then it is sometimes… Also the butterfly effect, because that’s a big part for communications in general—to make an impact on people and have it make a bigger impact than the original output. And then the angry is really just about [our] dissatisfaction with the status quo and passion to do things differently.”

David Brown