Most Eyereturn staff find new home at MPL after Torstar shutdown

Just prior to the holidays, Torstar announced it was shutting down its Eyereturn Marketing digital media business, putting 27 people out of work. But a happy second chapter to the story emerged this week, with 16 of the 27 staff starting work with digital media agency Media Propulsion Lab.

Former Eyereturn president Pary Bell announced the good news on his LinkedIn Wednesday: “I am thrilled to update you on the situation with Eyereturn Marketing. Despite all the odds, an incredible solution was dreamed up with a wonderful group of people at Media Propulsion Laboratory, led by the amazing Dave Hale.”

At a time when so many people are worried about the economy and layoffs—particularly in media—this feels like some rare good news, Bell told The Message on Thursday. “It is a story of the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

The story began in mid-December, when Bell (right) announced on LinkedIn that Eyereturn Marketing—a ground-breaker in Canadian digital media going back to the early 2000s—was being shut down.

However, with digital campaigns either in market or about to launch, the move left some Eyereturn clients scrambling, unsure how they were going to execute. One client, Ottawa ad agency Banfield, had worked with MPL in the past, and reached out to Hale (main photo) to ask if he could help.

Hale was on a ski vacation when he got the urgent call. “My vacation brain ended, and my entrepreneurial brain kicked in,” he said. What was going on? he wondered. Why was a client looking for a new media partner so close to the holidays? When he learned that Eyereturn was being shut down, he asked for Bell’s number and cold-called him (literally, since he was still on the ski slopes).

“We had a really great, pretty long chat,” said Hale. “And it became obvious very quickly that we shared very similar values as leaders.”

Bell wanted to find work for the Eyereturn staff, not just someone else to pick up the book of clients. Hale stressed that when he called Bell it was not about charity, but growing the business. “And this looked like an opportunity to do so,” he said.

But at the same time, he wanted to grow with new staff, and he and Bell both felt compelled to figure out if they could help some of the Eyereturn staff losing their jobs as the holidays approached.

Things happened fast from there: “Over the next six days, we probably had six or seven calls a day,” said Bell. “We started at seven the morning, and often we were still talking at midnight.. He was exploring with his business partners what would be possible, I was exploring with my clients and staff to see what they might be willing to do.”

“It was absolutely the most unorthodox business partnership deal I’ve ever encountered,” said Bell. “Something that would take months, we tried to do it in six days.”

By Dec. 23 they had an agreement in principle, and letters of intent started going out. MPL could take about 75% of the client business, and slightly more than half of Eyereturn’s staff—even better, many ended up getting a raise.

“We didn’t want to just pick up their existing employment agreements and copy-paste them over to MPLs,” said Hale.  “We went through a full pay scaling exercise for all these people, and on average, there was something like a 14% or 15% pay increase that we were able to offer.”

MPL’s previous business was about 70% planning and 30% buying, while Eyereturn was almost the inverse, said Hale. “For those clients who have been working with Eyereturn, now they’re getting a beefed-up planning partner from the original MPL team. And we’re very excited because now [MPL’s] buying capabilities have gone up.”

The deal more than doubles MPL’s size, putting the company about two years ahead of where they thought they’d be at this point, said Hale. MPL is part of Craft & Crew, a web design business specializing in B2B, and they also added a small video production company last year. “We’re going to have, I think, 54 or 55 full time employees, up from 21 a year ago, so yeah, it’s been a crazy time,” said Hale.

Bell, meanwhile, said that “once the dust settles,” he and Hale are going to talk about how or if he could help MPL. “I haven’t closed the door on being involved in this,” he said.

But for the past six weeks, his only priority was finding work for his team at Eyereturn. When he first put the word out, he received hundreds of emails and messages of support.

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “The outpouring of care was amazing.” Aside from the 16 people joining MPL, another five have been hired at other places, and he’s still working with the remaining staff to arrange meetings and interviews.

“It’s a success story,” he said. “And I think people need some hope now and again.”

David Brown