Sylvia Smiley on the power of relationships for talent attraction [Video]

How does a creative agency manage to grow its talent pool and engage its people despite being distributed across a country?

In this episode of StartWell's Gathering podcast we hear from Sylvia Smiley whose job it is to attract talent to the full-service-agency of Zulu Alpha Kilo, and hear about their value for relationships, new purpose-built office in Toronto and growing footprint in multiple cities.

Spend time with this conversation - here's the full transcript

Creative agency Zulu Alpha kilo's mission and work

Qasim Virjee 0:12
Sylvia, it's a pleasure to have you in the studio. Thank you for joining us for this, the fourth episode of The Gathering podcast.

Sylvia Smiley 0:19
Oh, that's cool. The so happy to be here.

Qasim Virjee 0:21
Yeah. Well, it's great to have you. And the series is off to a great start we've had so far, you know, our mission, of course, is to share tips, tricks, anecdotes, anything that's helpful in perspective, or Comedy for people that support teams, right. So that's the whole thing of gathering. And so far, we've had, you know, people in charge of people from a VP level, large corporations, we've had technical recruiter, we just had a technical recruiter, and then, you know, some, some, some perspectives from the world of co working as well. So the whole idea is to kind of give a full 360 on on teams, team culture coming out of the pandemic, what hybrid looks like for people, all that jazz. So we'll see what we talk about. But to jump into it. Zulu Alpha kilo. What did I just say? Break it down for us

Sylvia Smiley 1:17
break it down. Okay. So Zack, our founder, yeah. He He parted ways and built his own firm. And it's been about or agency, I should say, parted ways with work, he was at taxi. So he had, he had a prominent position, you know, a great role at taxi. And he decided that he wanted to go out and do his own thing about 14 years ago. And he did just that. And Zulu is it's a beautiful place. Obviously, the core of what we do is, is a creative agency. So for some people, that means advertising. For others, it means other things. But I always like to speak in my own way, like what it means to me. And Zulu, to me is a beautiful patchwork blanket of creative people with unique disciplines and lived experience coming together and creating this wicked work that we do. Some is really funny, some is really meaningful. But at the end of the day, it's to really support our clients and their growth and their vision. And we just believe that there should be more creativity in this world. And so that's what Zulu does.

Qasim Virjee 2:36
I'm just going to do this real quick. And then I think that they'll pick you up a little bit better. Yeah, no problem. And so wait, okay, so that sounds beautiful. Right, you describe your very well, you work at the best place to work in the world. But yeah, so like, what does Zulu Alpha kilo specifically do? Says? Is it an agency?

Sylvia Smiley 3:03
It is an advertising agency? Like if I just feel like when we prefer to be a creative agency,

Qasim Virjee 3:12
right, right. Yeah, nobody uses that word advertising anymore, right?

Creativity, strategy, and growth at a creative agency

Sylvia Smiley 3:16
I don't know. Like some, some people find it icky. I, I could go either way. I'm pretty flexible. But But yeah, I think the basis of what we do is creativity. But it's obviously through strategy through digital through media, through the creative aspect. And that could be like copy and art, direction to design and, and production and post production. So we have all of those capabilities. And what's the

Qasim Virjee 3:48
I mean, how big is this? Creative Agency? Yeah.

Sylvia Smiley 3:52
So we spent the first 14 years here in Canada only. And this year was a very exciting year. And the reason I was joining is, we opened up a Vancouver office. And we also opened up an office in New York City. So it's been really incredible year for Zulu, both from that perspective, but also from the perspective of just doing some incredible work that got recognized on a global basis. Congratulations.

Qasim Virjee 4:24
Thank you, um, example campaigns from that, like anything that that you like, particularly, let's say, yeah,

Sylvia Smiley 4:30
like the there's one that's come out right now. And, you know, I'm going to hopefully do it justice. But Remembrance Day is coming up. Yes. And we worked with home equity. And I guess the basis behind this campaign was that there are soldiers that have been in war World War One World War Two and they've lived across you know, our our country. And we created this campaign where original letters by the soldiers were delivered to the neighborhoods of, you know, the soldiers across Canada, and who

Qasim Virjee 5:15
might have totally different, you know, yeah, like habitants now who don't really know the history of their neighbors, yeah, where the, there was a soldier that

Sylvia Smiley 5:24
lived in that neighborhood amazing. And you can you can donate to this campaign through a digital Poppy, which, you know, there's obviously a lot more strategy and conversation around, you know, how everything played out. But, but it's just a heartwarming, beautiful campaign to really demonstrate the importance of Remembrance Day, and a way to connect us all to our neighborhoods like that, you know, there was someone that lived in our neighborhood that fought for our country, maybe even lived in our own house, the house that we live in to that,

Qasim Virjee 6:00
I think that's amazing, that is a cool campaign to have seen happen at the place where you work, it's cool, it's always nice when the work that your company does, like has impact on society, right. And, and that's also something interesting, because in this day of like, you know, hybrid realities, and digital first, and people kind of being distributed. And we'll get into kind of what that means for you guys. You know, for the work to transcend that and bring stuff home. It's kind of an undercurrent theme. And some of the last few podcasts that we've we've done in the last couple of weeks, people really recommending in, in looking back on the success of their careers, on camera on Mike here in the studio, a lot of people have been telling me about their success was or they think, I guess, relying on old school tech is what people say, over and over again, you know, for success, and it's like, connect people, it always comes back to community and people. And that's also why you know, so in the backdrop of the series, so growth coming out of the pandemic for the organization, 100 plus people 150, or both 150 People across Canada with a footprint in New York appear to tear in Manhattan. That's really cool. And it's interesting, because some of the teams that we've been talking to are globally distributed, you know, some of the teams are very kind of like local, but distributed across the city, right in our Greater Toronto area that is so large. So let's talk a little bit about this kind of like, as the team has grown, how you how has that impacted the work or responsibilities on you for facilitating that and managing, sticking them together connecting these people?

Sylvia Smiley 7:44
Yeah, like, for me, I'm the head of talent attraction. So you know, coming here, I've almost been with with Zulu for a year, this month. So thank you. And in the first seven, eight months of joining here, I helped to build, you know, foot feet on the ground in Vancouver, New York City, as well as just like, onboarding myself as a leader and getting my feet on the ground myself, right. So I would say like, I was doing multiple things at the same time, helping the company like establish the the basic, the basis that you need in order to be successful and scalable, right. But also, you know, getting the word out that, you know, Zulu is growing, and we're looking at talent in different markets and, and quite frankly, looking at talent from around the world, like, not just places that that we have the best people. Of course we do. And they're everywhere. They are everywhere. And so you know, that's, that's an everyday thing in my life is how can I get more people to learn about Zulu to think we're wickedly cool. To want to bring their beautiful being and craft to our, to our essence to our building? Whether it's a virtual building or in our office, and yeah, and to do to do great work. Yeah,

Attracting talent and creativity in the advertising industry

Qasim Virjee 9:15
you get the best job. You get to advertise the advertising company. Yes. For the advertisers. Yes. To do the advertise. It's all very meta. Yeah. And circular. Yeah, I'm out there. But it's an interesting thing. How do you how do you attract talent? I mean, isn't outbound? Is it a mixture of things, is it you're trying to position the content and places that people pick it up at say, Wow, that's a cool agency. Oh, I'm gonna see if I could work there. Is it Yeah. What how do you do your job in terms of attract talent?

Sylvia Smiley 9:48
That's such a great question here. I'm going to tell you the secret. Oh, you talk to people. You know, it's like, yeah, I feel like yes, there's lots of chance Nalls to attract talent, you can, you can post your your jobs, you can, you know, have really great career pages, you can show up at events, I mean, there's so many ways to, to bring people to your attention. And vice versa and but at the end of the day, it's about talking to people and being present and being available for them when when they, you know, when they want to tell you their story, like why they want to join Zulu, and how their craft is, you know, what their what they're really good at. And, and so I think like, trying to take the scariness out of recruitment. At the end of the day, I just tell recruiters to talk to as many people as you can, you know, and make that your daily habit. And that's not just like, externally, that's also internally, there's so many great people you already have in your organization. And you could just say, Hey, tell me about your favorite boss, or tell me about the best copywriter you've ever worked with. Right? So it

Qasim Virjee 11:11
because creatives typically have their network of influence, and peers. Yeah. And tapping into that also to build. I mean, this is a great dream, right, is that every company is kind of made up of your best friends in some way. Yes, yes. fun every day, right? Yeah. And so yeah, it's funny how, like, a lot of companies set up these sort of, like, curtains and walls, barriers, ultimately, like forms of bureaucracy to get people in the door. And then most people are like, I don't want to do that work. Like I'm not gonna do the work. I'll do the work when I have the job, you know, I'm not gonna do the work to get the job.

Sylvia Smiley 11:51
Well, well. Zulu doesn't believe in spec.

Qasim Virjee 11:55
Or they're gonna say work. Yeah, at least here in Canada,

Sylvia Smiley 11:58
we don't do spec work. So when it comes to like, I'll give you a great example, when you are part of our employee ship program. So you come in for the day, you you show your stuff, you know, you're it's, it's not. It's competitive, I guess, because there's usually 20 students or, you know, a group of students, and they're trying to get their first job. And so, like internship, yeah, it's kinda call it employment. Because they get it they actually get a job. You don't they're not like, like, a three month contract. Yeah.

Qasim Virjee 12:31
This is like, graduates, not people at school. Yes. Okay. Yes.

Sylvia Smiley 12:35
And so even them, you know, they're, they're paid for their time when they show up for those eight hours that day. Yeah.

Qasim Virjee 12:42
Yeah, I think it's super interesting, because I think the the, what I would say is that the potentiality, for creationism through commercial means is greater than ever before, in the sense that we have larger a larger palette of media to work with. So the industry is exciting to participate in young graduates, new graduates coming into the workforce for the first time are probably surprised to find organizations like Zulu Alpha kilo that are kind of like, wicked, let's do some cool stuff. And we want to see what you can do. And we want to see how enjoy you know how you enjoy doing it. As opposed to this kind of like, you know, task based interview process, kind of Scrum, that like conventional industry has. I can't even imagine what it takes to you know, get a job at WPP or something. But anyway,

Sylvia Smiley 13:42
don't talk about them here. Yeah, who are those people's big network agencies,

Qasim Virjee 13:47
the amalgams all the global amalgams of like 50,000 staff, we've had interactions with some of maybe not WPP, but some other like super large, globally distributed agencies that are part of these, you know, amalgamated federated, whatever he did, overrated, massive agencies. And, and, you know, the, the one thing that always happens when we're dealing with them as start well, not hiring these people, but typically trying to facilitate their coming together, you know, like booking meeting space and stuff for them, is the people that reach out to us from these organizations are so not empowered to be contacting us about even booking a meeting room. You know, and it's just bureaucracy doesn't matter, like what industry you're in. It's the same thing in every industry. So empowerment is super important, because it means that people then can do good for each other, you know, and that's at least from our lens.

Employee experience and talent attraction at Zulu agency

Sylvia Smiley 14:44
That's one of the reasons I love Zulu, actually. And I mean that in the truest purest way, that being an an independent agency. You really have the ability to put your fingerprint On the organization like that independence that entrepreneurship is part of our everyday DNA at Zulu. And so whether you're a new joiner, like early in your career to the most experienced people at Zulu, you have the opportunity to really make a difference there. And I think that's, they noticed that right from the employee ship, like what, when they're when they're doing that employee ship, everyone walks away, not one, everyone walks away, going, Oh, my gosh, that really taught me something about how I'm going to have to show up in the interviews ahead of me, right. And I think, in any case, in any case, I think they walk away, going, now I want to be at Zoo. Like if they didn't feel that before, which many do. And I don't want to come across as arrogant, but they do follow us at school. They know about us before they come there. But when they come and have that experience, they know like this is going to make a difference in the career.

Qasim Virjee 16:07
Yeah, it's like us downstairs and grabbing a cappuccino from the barista she

Sylvia Smiley 16:11
bought like, oh my gosh, it was amazing.

Qasim Virjee 16:15
We want people right when they walk in the door to be like, This is awesome. I'm gonna have a great day.

Sylvia Smiley 16:20
Yes, I felt it.

Qasim Virjee 16:25
Yeah, so three physical locations. Yes. Make up the kind of like, offices. What are the offices like, of your agency?

Sylvia Smiley 16:35
Well, I've joined during the pandemic. And Zack did this really cool thing and bought a building and Leslieville Oh, yes. And actually, this past week or the week before it's being renovated. Okay, so we're in a, in a spot where, you know, places like yours, come in handy come in very, very handy. Because we are about to have probably several months ahead of us where it won't be a place where we can work, but we need places to work. So

Qasim Virjee 17:08
we'll talk off camera about that. There we go. That sales pitch. But this is really interesting. If if the agency is kind of developing its own physical footprint, and it's like design SPECT. I'm so intrigued to know what the experience of the employees is that's being, you know, taken

Sylvia Smiley 17:26
into consideration. Yeah, I mean, designing employee experiences is really important in attracting talent, right? So it goes from every touchpoint from the moment they're in school, like, do they hear about you? Do they know you to the moment they talk to a recruiter for the first time, right, to meeting the team? Like, how does that all flow? How does it feel to the first day walking in the office? How do How does that feel, to onboarding and that experience? Do they learn enough about your organization that they could sell your, your company, right, right up to their, their manager and every touchpoint through that, that lived experience as a colleague, and it doesn't end there. Because your exit interview process should just be as flawless as as your recruitment process. And I think the best companies take it a little bit further, and use the exit process as a way to learn, right? So how am I going to learn from what this employee has shared good or bad? And either capitalize on it, or have action? Right? Because what if they hear something bad? You know, and, and then, if I were to plus, plus that, you would go back to that employee and say, Hey, here's what we did with your feedback. And I welcome you coming back and visiting us again, you know, becoming a colleague, we have so many boomerangs, add, add Zulu. So, you know, when when the whole employee experience is valued from, you know, college or even earlier, to to the time that they're a part of your alumni. You've got magic, you've you've earned the right to, to attract people and to entertain them for sure.

Qasim Virjee 19:27
How do the different cities that you're in relate to each other in terms of the kind of talent experience employee experience?

Sylvia Smiley 19:36
Well, I'm the one that's probably pretty consistent. But as far as like, what, what the employee experience would be like for each one of them? I would say that, you know, there's different possibilities of benefits and just translation of like, what the employee might get from up payroll standpoint might be different because different countries are different. Yeah.

Office locations and neighborhoods

Qasim Virjee 20:03
Because Because each each city is dealing with local clients. Yes, the idea. Yeah. But as an employee of like, if I'm in Toronto, and I work at Zach, I work for Zack and Zack. And I'm like, You know what? I would love to

Sylvia Smiley 20:17
go to Vancouver for six months. That's possible.

Qasim Virjee 20:21
And so they could work out of the Vancouver office, right? You can work anywhere in the world, right?

Sylvia Smiley 20:27
But if you want to go to the Vancouver office, or if you want to go to New York City, that's a yes.

Qasim Virjee 20:33
How do the offices work? Or what's the plan? I know you're in renovation for this Toronto, what but like, how will the offices work as talent attraction sites? Is that something that has a specific function? I

Sylvia Smiley 20:45
think so. Because, you know, these are major sites, right? Like Vancouver kind of gets the West Coast. New York City helps us to build our international presence, right. We had it before, but it's just it does help it. It's a major market. So So yeah, I think when people when people join, it excites them at the idea that they might be working on a new york City client, but they're in Toronto, right? Or it excites them that they might be in Vancouver and get to work on a Toronto client or New York City. So yeah, it really helps with your talent, attraction.

Qasim Virjee 21:24
Now, you said Leslieville, here in Toronto, which for our international or out of Toronto listeners and viewers, let's break down the neighborhood because I think it's interesting to have a creative office in a residential or mixed use neighborhood. Or you guys on Queen Street.

Sylvia Smiley 21:39
Yeah. Right, like right at the corner of Queen and Logan, practically. So that's

Qasim Virjee 21:42
a major east west kind of artery that is typically ground floor commercial residential upstairs. Classic, Old Street in Toronto, beautiful. A really nice little pocket neighborhood that's super close to the core financial core, because in Toronto, the downtown typically has just been relevant to law firms. And banks, unfortunately, but yeah, when nancial district, the financial district, yeah, we don't call it downtown. We're all downtown downtown, but they're in the financial district. So it's a cool place to actually rock up with an agency because historically, and the counterbalances the history of this organization, which is taxi agencies typically have been in the West, downtown West, right? Yes.

Sylvia Smiley 22:26
Yeah, I feel like well, you know, we have a lot of the team that lives towards there. So I know that that might have taken a play in it. But really, ultimately, Leslieville is a beautiful up and coming place has a mix of like, boutique shops and restaurants all nearby. The building itself is gorgeous. I love it. It's a two storey building, very high ceilings, big windows. And although I haven't seen the specs on like, what it's going to look like posted. I haven't seen them yet. I'm probably going to get those shared shortly, I hope but I imagine well, what I know is going to happen is we worked with Deloitte and we've worked with great designers and and such to make the experience of coming to come into the office much like yours, right? Yeah. Fun, fun and enjoyable. Like, yeah, like if you want to just sit at your desk and work, you can do that at home. We all know that. Like we just did it for the past two and a half years. So if you're coming to the office, it's got to be fun, creative collaborative. It has to have big spaces where you can have big groups and strategy so it will be fun. I can't wait to see it. I really can't.

Qasim Virjee 23:44
Yeah, I think it's really cool. Especially this idea of like, like being in a kind of comfy neighborhood sets the context for when you walk in the door. And having retail access as well. I mean for us for start. Well, it's always been the thing. The first start well no one knows about. Although I keep saying this like on the mic so people who watch and listen we'll know about it. Start well was originally in 2017. I started as a ground floor retail shop next to in St. Clair West which is right where I live down the road from my house. And it was a retail storefront communal neighborhood co working was the idea ahead of its time for Toronto. If maybe we had continued building these shops out post pandemic it would have been replaced all the Starbucks locations that closed down. But I was so adamant that I have been so adamant that you know we have this connection to the neighborhood that that first location which only lasted two years at least was up close it moved down here to King Street but I got a check for like 20 grand as a seed investment from the butcher next door just so that we would have like, you know skin in the game in the neighborhood. That's awesome. When we close it I paid him back, you know. And it was all good vibes. But it was really cool that the like the butcher own part of the co working space. That's amazing. Yeah. Shout out to Ben Latchford. Thanks, man. Hi, fan. Best butcher in the city roasts, if anyone's looking for a butcher, I know it's not you know, it's going to be talking about meat these days. But

Sylvia Smiley 25:20
I am a vegetarian, just so you know, see, but I have meat eaters in my family. I love them.

Creativity, inspiration, and online content creation

Qasim Virjee 25:27
There you go. But yeah, okay, so we're back. So retail and and this idea of pedestrian flow, super important for me for the creative process for inspiring people when they come into a building. Yes. And neighborhood vibes. So the other two offices in New York and in Vancouver, what's the setup? Are they?

Sylvia Smiley 25:46
Yeah, so the Vancouver one is kind of like, we share like that kind of environment. So we we rent a space, we've outgrown this space. So we'll probably have an actual office, I'm assuming in the very new near future. Our colleagues in New York are our virtual more on a virtual basis right now. But those discussions are also in place. So we'll, we'll be sharing those that news as it arises. But But yeah, like you have to have place like in these places, Vancouver, New York, you you actually have to have an office. So we'll, we'll be having, you know, offices in the future as well.

Qasim Virjee 26:28
It's interesting, because in New York, speaking specifically about New York right now, it's such an exciting time for anyone looking for space, because there's so many options available. I've heard that yeah, the pricing is great. And so it's really kind of exciting. I would say for anyone in creative, you know, creative fields to be able to choose where they want to be you actually have the choice. You didn't have it four years ago now. There's like 30% vacancy rate 40% vacancy rate and office space, Manhattan.

Sylvia Smiley 26:55
Maybe we'll save a little money too. Oh, yeah.

Qasim Virjee 26:58
Absolutely. I hope so. Absolutely. You can, ya know, there's so much like so many papered up windows that like tons of retails available been in a while,

Sylvia Smiley 27:07
so I haven't seen it. Yeah, it's gonna be sad.

Qasim Virjee 27:12
I don't know. Like, look, I lived in New York in 2004. Yeah, 2004 or five, post 911 Pretty close. So it was still kind of they had that like dark vibe. And then Laurie side and stuff, people were a little bit bummed out. But at the same time, it was still like, like, I DJ that twilo before it closed down, and all these kind of like really interesting spots that don't exist anymore. And saw a slice of that old New York of still gritty. Like, there were very few white people in Harlem when I lived in Harlem. You know, it hadn't quote unquote, gentrified. People were throwing stones in the Starbucks window on 1/25 Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. And I was shocked once to see Fab Five Freddy walk in there and come out with a big latte. So it was still that like old school, new school, you know, sitting on the fence, New York. So when I go back these days, I mean, there is I always have this like, Oh, I was there at a time and it's not it doesn't feel like there's a time in New York right now. But I think coming out of the pandemic, there's definitely something happening. Yeah, lots you know, and for the like the youtubers who might be watching this. Of course, they'll know about Casey Neistat. Do you know this chap is no.

Sylvia Smiley 28:29
Not cool. Well, I don't know. I watch news. I'm just that type of person. No,

Qasim Virjee 28:34
but like, this is the cool thing about the internet, you know, internet days, right? So Casey Neistat is a filmmaker who's very like, inspired by DIY ethos, right? Skater skate kind of skateboard culture and, and all this stuff, I think inspired a lot of his creativity. But since he was young, he and his brother basically were making films with whatever they could grab his equipment. And then that landed them a show on HBO. And it is a very like, I don't think many people know about this show, but they had a show and they made all these cool like pastiche whatever films and and that made up a show of all these little like vignettes and little scenarios that they made. And then when YouTube came out, he basically was one of the first people to say wow, this is not just plays for like putting clips on which YouTube was originally right Yes, a little clip by shot he was making little videos and they were just as like, Hey, I'm doing this thing I'm going there and there's a there's a guy walked in my office let me talk to him. And he got really like he kind of almost formed the vernacular for what a vlog is and and gain great notoriety on YouTube as it attracted filmmaker and di wires and vloggers as a kind of class of creator. So he was kind of like ahead of the Creator capital C revolution, you know, the online creator revolution, pre social network. Essentially, but kept vlogging and got, you know, famous as like 12 million followers, and all sorts of different I only

Sylvia Smiley 30:08
have two buttons on my on my remote control. It's it's Netflix and YouTube are they're gonna

Qasim Virjee 30:13
say forward and backward. I don't even have the double, double four. But to remember that I remember this on VHS or even on tapes, like it was very, very special. If you had the double fours, you know, super fast, fast forward. And then you had to rewind the tape before you took it back to Blockbuster, otherwise they would charge you. They charge you a rewind, actually,

Sylvia Smiley 30:35
just remember that I remember that because I actually did get charged. I remember that war my parents

Urban culture, remote work, and time zones

Qasim Virjee 30:42
did like a bill that you never paid. And now you owe the government $10,000. But I bring I brought what I bring up, Casey nice. Oh, yeah. You know, one of the things that I've been picking up on is the guy. Okay, so he basically his career trajectory is interesting, right? So he did all this film stuff. And then, you know, at a certain point is is aesthetic was very much about New York, because it was based in New York, and all the videos that he was making were very Manhattan centric. I mean, the bar was a little bit. But he moved in his family moved, I guess, out to the left coast. And that didn't last too long. And then the recent videos that God has been posting are all about like, Okay, we're going back to New York, we're in New York. And it's really cool. Because you could see the energy that he has for being back in the city. Yeah, is obviously great. Because he's like, back in the city he loves right in the same studio that he used to have. And, and, and so he's out there doing stuff and everyone in the in Manhattan knows him. So when this guy rolls down the street on like, famous, he's famous he is he's like vlogging on like men, or whatever, Broadway, and people are like turning around. I don't know how he hasn't been hit by a car. It's crazy. But so through those videos, I'm definitely seeing an interesting thing happening. I'm seeing like Casey Neistat fits into this old school or YouTube culture, the old school or, or original, the OG creator class of YouTubers. And what I'm seeing is that there's almost like a new youth culture in New York, where people are kind of like reclaiming the city because of the economic detritus, which I also saw, you know, when I was there, 20 years ago, or whatever, not quite, but like 2004, or five, the post 911. Because post 911, you had a lot of people like not come back from Connecticut. They were like, Fuck, this is not gonna get blown up, I'm staying where it's safe, we got a pool, I'll spend time with my wife, because, you know, otherwise, she'll divorce me, and this is the third one I need to make it work. You

Sylvia Smiley 32:44
know, what I do think that has happened is I've seen more youth being able to live into the city, right. So when, when the pandemic happened, and they were, you know, exiting out of the city, maybe going to live with their parents or someone nearby, or maybe maybe just getting out of the city because they've lost their job, and it's just too hard to be on their own. But through the pandemic, you know, that change, and probably around April last year, where all of a sudden, people were like a hot commodity, you know, there, there was a need for talent, there was a need for them. And all of a sudden, their salaries were increasing, because they were able to demand more. And that has brought them back into the city because now they can afford it. So you talk about you know, and I don't know 100% But, you know, the, the change in the cost of renting and the vacancies in places probably like Toronto and in New York, but what it what it has created as opportunity for youth to come into these places. And, and live in work close by where I remember for me like most of my I'm from Hamilton, okay. The hammer from my hammer folks out there. I've lived in Oakville for a long time now. But I'm from the hammer. And I had to work in Toronto, and that was a long commute.

Qasim Virjee 34:15
I'm not coming in from the hammer. Yes. Every day back and forth. Yes, of course. That's what an hour, hour and a half.

Sylvia Smiley 34:22
At least yeah, sometimes it just depends on Well, if if you took the GO train versus your car, but I mean, even from Oakville these days to come to Toronto is on average, like Leslieville is an hour and 15 minutes for me. Wow. So, you know, I think that that's an opportunity for people out there to really understand that the demographics in the cities are changing. Yeah. And what that what that could mean, you know, who knows, but I think that is something that companies and brands do need to think about when they're marketing In advertising, to folks in the city, are

Qasim Virjee 35:03
you seeing are there any trends that you're seeing in the talent pool that you're attracting and having conversations with him? In terms of this, like, I want to be in an urban context near my coworkers versus I just want to focus and do my thing in my own world? Is, is there a dichotomy? Or they distribute identities? Or?

Sylvia Smiley 35:23
I would say that I'm, I'm hearing like this quite a bit, that like people want to work where they want to work. Right. So that might be at their home? That might be in Mexico. Right. Right. That that might be with their family in Barcelona. And I think the hardest thing that, that companies, you know, face because of this is, is the timezone thing, right? So if someone is, you know, in a five hour time difference to your office that they reside for do work for client work for, you know, what's their flexibility? Like, will they work on Eastern Standard Time, or, you know, when they shut down at five, that might be seven o'clock, seven, eight.

Designing workspaces for collaboration and privacy

Qasim Virjee 36:11
So it's like, okay, you want to surf in Croatia, as your like lifestyle? does great, but you can only do it at night.

Sylvia Smiley 36:20
That won't happen. But I feel like going back to designing experiences, yeah, for our colleagues, I feel like we have to think about that a lot more today than we did five years ago, two years ago, even. So this is something that is on the top of minds of leaders, HR people, 100 person and, of course, talent, people, because we need to tell the story of why you want to be here. Yeah.

Qasim Virjee 36:51
And then there's workflow things to that, right, like how how you, especially technology, how you're utilizing technology to enable your distributed workforce to be able to communicate, work together. Yeah. For creatives is obviously like amazing cloud based tools these days, not just for like chatting with each other, but even like working off the same. Like, I don't know, some of our listeners may may may see this, because if they're part of the Google atmosphere, or otherwise, now, I think, given Microsoft has adopted this kind of thing. But like the idea of collaborating on a document together, and you could see the other person working on it at the same time, you could do that with video editing, like we use DaVinci Resolve, you could get DaVinci Resolve on prem or like cloud based server stuff, and be editing a film clip together, distributed. And you could do that, of course, with I think, with Adobe's Creative Suite, as well. But the idea that like people can kind of jam on the same thing, no matter what medium it is, is really, really powerful for this. Yeah, we

Sylvia Smiley 37:53
use teams, you know, and, and you have the same kind of capability, you can see someone's in there and typing while you are. But when you're designing experiences for your colleagues, you're looking at the physical, like, when you go to an office, what does it feel like? What, you know, how, how do employees interact? What's the code of conduct? You know, you're thinking about all of that, right? But then there's the cultural like, Why? Why do people show up here? You know, what's so awesome about this place? How do I feel? Do I belong? To the technological, right? So does my systems and all of the things that I use all the tools I use? Does it make my job enjoyable, fun, fast, because I, I want to get out at five I want to go surf surf in Vancouver? So So yeah, like you. When you're designing experiences and offices and everything, you have to think about all all of those things.

Qasim Virjee 38:49
In on that meta note, like, especially dealing with distributed or hybrid teams, people that might be coming together in offices, different offices, different cities, or not at all. Are you guys thinking forward in terms of like gathering the whole team once a year somewhere ideal or doing team based off sites in particular cities? A lot of our clients are kind of like, obviously come here for that in Toronto when they're gathering in the city. And or otherwise, like, people like Shopify, you have teams that are basically they have set budgets for their off sites, and they all choose together. They're like, You know what? We've never none of us have been to, I don't know, anywhere, wherever, when Osiris let's go lovely, right? You'll have like a team from like, I don't know, Wales go to Buenos itis. So, yeah, they, they're a special example of maybe their budgets are higher than others, but

Sylvia Smiley 39:46
I think 100% Like we've, we've thought about like Christmas parties or what we call moments that matter. You know, when can we be together for those moments that matter. And that's that's why our offices are going to be designed. With that in mind. Like, you know, this is a moment that matters. You're here. You're doing a rehearsal, you're meeting a client, you're doing a big strategy session. You're cuddling together closer than to your team meetings rather than being on camera.

Qasim Virjee 40:20
Take the cubicles out of the washrooms.

Sylvia Smiley 40:22
Yeah, we have washrooms, too.

Qasim Virjee 40:27
There's no cubicles and no, what I meant is the dividers is like, a room full of open toilets. Yeah. Share that moment, I think, for going down that design. People are not that free. And it's not the 70s. Yeah. Did

Sylvia Smiley 40:42
they do that in the 70s? Or

Qasim Virjee 40:44
60s? There you go really hippies pulling together? I

Sylvia Smiley 40:48
don't think so. Unless they were, you know, Woodstock. But no, I think I think we're going to what you were talking about the design of offices? Sure. Yeah. So I think like the the spaces will suit the needs of, of who were in moments of matter. That's moments that matter. Yeah. So the Yeah, that's right. Moments of matter, like the needs for those moments that matter. So we'll probably have variety of different size spaces. You know, one sec can hold really large teams or really large groups, to maybe really intimate little spots. Like we have these really cool egg chairs, I hope they don't get rid of them. Otherwise, Zach, I want to buy one. But like, they're just like this little capsule that you sit in and you feel like you're in your own little world, but you can still see everybody hustling. Alright, experience, I love those actors. So I hope we don't get rid of them. But, but we'll have those kinds of soft seating and all sorts of, but

Qasim Virjee 41:47
I do there's actually an important one, you know, something that we're pretty focused on in society of variable privacy. And like, Is privacy in different contexts privacy that you need for whatever you need, it may be auditory, it may be visual. It might be it's like MultiSense, oral, this idea of privacy, you might not want to smell people's lunch, but be in the lunchroom, you know, like I want to see I want to eat but I don't wanna smell your food. Let's use a random example. Know,

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace

Sylvia Smiley 42:16
if we've designed. But that's a cool idea.

Qasim Virjee 42:20
Honestly, these are the things I think about. But it's very cool to hear that the agency is growing. And that, you know, you're able to attract global talent, especially to a Canadian company, I think is really cool. Is there anything that you'd say to that note? You know, the, the brand of Canada and does it play into your process?

Sylvia Smiley 42:46
You know, what I, when I think about Toronto, and here in our founding office, you know, Toronto is one of the most diverse countries or sorry, cities and in the country, country state. Oh my goodness, sorry, West Coast, bad. But, ya know, the country, ethnic

Qasim Virjee 43:09
diversity per capita in Toronto, the city that feels like a country because it's so big, is it's almost barn on in the world, like, you know, it's true. But,

Sylvia Smiley 43:21
but the great thing of Otranto is the diversity, right? And, and that world stage, those worldviews are all right here. So I feel like that's, that's wonderful, we have that here. I don't know if we have it in every office. So um, you know, making sure that when we are recruiting no matter where we are, whether it is Toronto, Vancouver, you know, New York City, or, or someone totally remote, it's, it's bringing those different perspectives, those different lived experiences to our organization, and that diversity matters. But even more importantly, is that we create an environment where they're heard and seen and feel like they belong. So that's, that's the harder, you know, it's quick, you know, in Toronto, you know, there are a lot of places you can look around and say, Hey, there, there's a lot of really diverse talent out here. But attracting them to our industry first, first and foremost, right? Because that's, that's a historical thing. And then attracting them to Zoo. And then once you have folks joining, that everyone feels like they belong. Yeah.

Qasim Virjee 44:42
A place for the people. And a place where every person's voices is authentically welcome. You know, and I think, right and like this is a great paradox. You know, it's that's why it's funny to use the word advertising because I think in today's age, it's especially with mediums that play a It's easier than ever to encourage authentic narrative and communication with customers for brands, right, this is the whole thing brands can be living breathing things. Finally, it's not just cigarette ads in the back of the magazine.

Sylvia Smiley 45:14
Yeah, I mean, you know, the one that the one brand that I've had my eye on for a while, but was most proud of was Patagonia. And what I saw what they did, and when they had put out that narrative, that the earth the world is their new shareholder, right? I like my mouth dropped, like, and when I read the Vons message, and I was reading through it, immediately, in my mind, I was like, not only is this the coolest thing, like they're in the business of purpose, I think, is the language he used. But imagine what that did for their company that day. Like, if you were in the mood for a new hoodie, I bet you went to Patagonia's website, right? If you were thinking about, I'm ready to make a change. And I want, I want to be at a place that, Matt that my values are mattered, I bet you if your values aligned to Patagonia, you looked at their job site that day, like, that was such a monumental change in how brands can show up. And how the how what your brand message means, and how that translates into every aspect of your business, whether it's the joy in the work and the products that you're delivering to the joy that you bring by having someone join your company that shares your values. It's just, you know, that's one example of many that have kind of come up and said, hey, you know, I also believe in us like Lululemon, I think they bought like a piece of land or have a piece of land in Vancouver. And they're really protect trying to for conservation, trying to protect it. Yeah, like trying to protect this land for future generations. And those are all really important. And Lululemon is a Canadian brand. So I really respect that.

Branding, sustainability, and community connection

Qasim Virjee 47:17
Oh, yeah, no, I think there's there's definitely an undercard in Canada, of people. You know, hopefully because of our connection to land, given that this country is so large, so we traverse it often, as urban dwellers visiting other cities. But But yeah, I think the idea of our connection, connectivity to land is an important one, because I think, not only in the sense of stewardship, but in the acceptance of change as a natural phenomenon. And then shared space. You know, for us, your struggle is something I think about the idea that though this is an internal atmosphere, this is inside of a building experience that we offer, right. And unfortunately, I pay a pound of flesh every month to rent it, to offer it then other people. And this is also goes back to your idea of or the story of you guys owning your own office is really interesting, right? Because it gives the organization so much more power to utilize that asset, that real estate in so many different ways. Yeah, it's

Sylvia Smiley 48:20
it, it adds to our independence.

Qasim Virjee 48:23
Absolutely. And so, so I think that's interesting. I think, definitely, I've heard of Canadian companies, a number of them that are doing this. I think it's part of our culture, to respect nature to celebrate diversity and lift people up. And I hope that, you know, a lot of our audiences is traditionally with start well, it comes from the startup community and tech community, I think, the pandemic and the recession that we're going through, and there's like a lack of fluidity in capital sources for, for VC backed companies is kind of a reckoning for people to go back to this like Bootstrap mentality of understanding what cash flow is, and focusing on sustainability. And so if sustainability is a core principle in business, then it can naturally support the people that make the business and, and hopefully positively impact their sense of empowerment.

Sylvia Smiley 49:18
And going back to what you said about you know, the having a building that you're proud of, you know, when when I think about walking down streets of Toronto, and I see like someone paints the outside of their building, someone decorates you know, with lights or a sign I think of that interconnectedness of ourselves and our brands and even just value. So when when brands like start well, you know when you want when you like joked about I would have loved to appear in your window and see what it looks like at night or or sad. Yeah. But like, you're really what you're really saying is that I'm happy to be here. I'm happy to be part of this community, I want to show you because I'm going to, I'm going to, you know, clean this building up, I'm going to decorate the front, you're going to be proud to walk down the street, because I care. And I think that's what good brands do. They, they care not only about their brand, their people, how they show up for their customers, but they also care about their communities and how they show up for their community. So kudos to you. I love the front of your building I loved walking in. And I'm sure that your your customers feel it, too.

Qasim Virjee 50:38
We hope so. That's been the experience so far. That's the feedback we get. And it only gets better. Like every year our patio gets better in the summer. And it's more welcoming to the neighbors and we enjoy seeing people come even if they're not our customers to sit on our picnic tables and like enjoy the evening, watch the sun go down and stuff. So yeah, well, thank you for coming in. It was such a nice time talking. I'm sure there's lots in our conversation that our audience will enjoy. And, and let's welcome them to contact us. If you if you have any questions, and you're watching this or listening to this, feel free to jump over to start well.co and use the contact form to drop us a line. If there's anything that listeners or viewers want to ask about, what would you recommend for them to contact you directly or contact?

Sylvia Smiley 51:31
Well, I would say you know, there's this big network called LinkedIn. And you'll find me there. Sylvia smiley, so please go check it out. And and, you know, reach out to me if if you wish to talk more.

Qasim Virjee 51:48
Awesome. Yeah, we'll put the link in the show page for this one. Thank you. Awesome. Absolutely.

Sylvia Smiley 51:54
It was so nice. Thank you so much.

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