Jenny Smith: A Ray of light in Canadian advertising

—Last month, we revealed the 10 names on our first annual Mighty Women List, and have been sharing individual profiles since then. Today it’s Jenny Smith, founder and CEO of St. John’s creative agency Ray—

We’ll start at the bottom. Shortly after 8 a.m. on the chilly morning of April 3, 2013, Jenny Smith was informed that her employment at Target Marketing & Communications, the Newfoundland agency where she had spent the past 12 years of her career, was over.

Widely respected and awarded for her work on behalf of clients including Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism, McCain, and Irving Oil, Smith suddenly found herself unmoored and adrift, her confidence momentarily shaken.

“Absolutely there was some self-doubt,” she says nearly nine years to the day since the event. “I felt like the biggest loser on the planet.” She was, she admits, in a “really bad place,” and that manifested itself in several distinct phases: Shock. Anger. And vodka.

“The vodka phase was excellent, because it really jolted me out of my ridiculous state,” says Smith with a laugh. “I pulled myself together because I realized ‘I’ve got to do something, and I’ve got to do it fast because I’ve got to pay the bills.'”

Smith’s creative reputation was enough to warrant job offers from agencies in the country’s major ad markets. But while she had spent some time in Toronto at Roche Macauley & Partners, she had long ago decided that Newfoundland was home.

“It was amazing and I learned a lot, but I realized I didn’t want to be in Toronto anymore,” she says. “So I made my way back east. I love this place, so it was sort of meant to be that I came back.”

With her career at a crossroads, but determined not to uproot her family, Smith came to a decision that surprised even her. “I said ‘I’ll open up my own agency without having any kind of business background,’ and that’s what I did.”

She launched Ray from the kitchen of her St. John’s home in July of 2013. It’s named after her husband Steve Noftall (stay with us here), who was nicknamed “Ray” by friends because of Ray Noftall, a notorious ex-con (no relation) who was the subject of an extensive manhunt in Newfoundland that year.

When coming up with a name for her new venture, Smith wanted to avoid advertising lingo, wanted something easy to spell and easy to sell, and wanted a name that could have different connotations, like ray of sunshine, or ray of hope, etc.

Less than a decade later, Ray has become a ray of light in Newfoundland’s tiny advertising industry. It is one of the East Coast’s hottest and best-known shops, with a staff of 20, a growing client roster that includes its new U.S. client, and regular appearances at both the East Coast’s ICE Awards as well as national shows.

And while Smith’s creative bona fides are well-established, it’s her success as a business leader she’s most proud of, and is a key factor in her inclusion on The Message‘s Mighty Women List for 2022.

Smith says she didn’t really think of herself as a business leader. “Failure was a good teacher, because it helped me realize that if you put your mind to it, you can do anything. I know it sounds like a cliche, but it’s true.”

Ray was named a top 50 startup in Canada by Maclean’s, while Smith was a finalist at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in 2017, and has been one of Atlantic Business Magazine‘s Top 50 CEOs for the past four years. In 2020, The Globe and Mail named Ray one of the top-growing companies in the country.

She has since expanded into other leadership roles, partnering with the Atlantic Canada businesswomen Patty Howard and Georgia Pothier on an edibles company called Ritual Edibles, and is working with her husband on a company that develops commercial properties.

“I never knew I had an [entrepreneurial spirit], but when you get fired you’re like ‘Holy shit, I’ve got to pay the mortgage,'” she says. “All of a sudden you get into a groove, and you realize there’s a whole new world out there and you get the hang of it.

“It’s very difficult sometimes, and there are a lot of ups and downs, a lot of hard work,” she adds. “But if you surround yourself with people who are really smart in things that aren’t necessarily your forte, and you let them thrive, it’s really important.”

Along the way, Smith has earned the respect and admiration of co-workers and fellow creatives from across the country who are impressed by her leadership skills, and business acumen, as well as her steadfast commitment to helping other women attain professional success.

“[S]he is a fierce, kick-ass woman who, against all odds, started up an award winning shop in one of the most unexpected places in Canada,” says Mighty Women judge Shelley Lewis. “With a bit of grit and a whole lot of talent, she has created a creative powerhouse on the east coast, and we can’t wait to see what is next.”

Ray’s creative director Terri Roberts has worked with Smith for 20 years, and has had a front-row seat for her friend and colleague’s emergence as a strong, capable business leader who has provided a nurturing environment for staff. “I don’t know anybody who works harder for the people she works with,” says Roberts. “She always has your back, even if something goes disastrously wrong. You’re allowed to fail, you’re allowed to explore and take risks, and she encourages that.

“That’s not an easy thing to do when you’re running a small, independent agency.”

Smith has also become an enthusiastic mentor for women (and men), her way of paying forward the help and advice she received from established industry leaders like Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin when she took her first tentative steps into the business world.

“It was really eye-opening to me that people would actually take the time to help,” she says. “I am so happy when someone asks me for help now…I love helping people, and I think that’s a big part of who Ray is.” Today, she mentors people from a range of different industries beyond advertising.

And while Smith says there’s “still a long way to go” in terms of gender equality in creative departments, she has made promoting and advocating for women a priority. Today, women make up approximately 70% of Ray’s staff, and there are processes and systems in place to ensure they’re supported on important things like childcare.

With a flourishing business and professional recognition, it might seem like Smith has attained the height of success. But she’s adamant there’s more to be accomplished. “There’s always something more,” she says. “I’m never satisfied. There’s no way I’m finished yet.”

She’s maybe not quite at the top, then, but from where she’s sitting, things look pretty good.

Chris Powell