John St.

Silver — John St.

Office: Toronto
Staff: 100
New Business: ING Direct, Ivanhoé Cambridge, Mitsubishi (digital), Tata Beverages U.S., Family Channel, Great Gulf Homes

After John St.'s viral "Catvertising" video, the agency started receiving some strange phone calls.

The spoof video, debuted at last year's AOY award show, predicted the importance of cats in advertising, and announced a new division at the Toronto-based agency dedicated to cat-centric ads. Despite being tongue-in-cheek (and very clearly a joke), animal handlers and cat lovers wanted in on the Catvertising action (the video had more than 1.9 million views at press time), with folks wanting to work (or volunteer their cat to work) at the agency.

"The internet's a weird place," says Angus Tucker, partner and co-CD, John St.

But it wasn't only the feline-friendly approaching the agency - Mississauga's Dixie Mall and Great Gulf Homes hired the shop as a direct result of "Catvertising," while John St. fielded several international calls from potential clients who loved the video.

"[This] just shows we're very comfortable in the digital space," says Tucker. "We get it. We live in this world and we're still trying to keep our head above water because it's changing daily. I can't imagine what it's like for clients who have so much else on their plates."

John St.'s uber-digital focus stems from its birth around the time of the internet revolution in 2001. Brands were just beginning to explore what the net could do, and the agency's founders - Tucker, co-CD Stephen Jurisic, president Arthur Fleischmann, director of strategic planning Emily Bain and managing director Jane Tucker, who are also all partners - made the decision to bring digital directly into the agency and educate themselves on the space, rather than simply hiring a bunch of gurus and creating a structure that separated all the digi-know-how into one office.

The result, Fleischmann says, is a media-agnostic approach to advertising, which builds all campaigns from insight into the best ways to communicate with consumers.

He attributes this to the agency's un-siloed structured. For years, the heads of digital and television production sat side-by-side, next to the creative team, allowing the pair to take the ideas and determine the best way to tell the stories on each medium. Three months ago, John St. solidified its media-neutral approach by collapsing the division between TV, digital and other types of production entirely.

"Production is really thought of as part of the creative team," says Fleischmann, further adding, "We don't have separate digital creative guys, we have great creative guys who can think across all platforms."

Now, 11 years later in today's digital-heavy world, is it any wonder that four of its five AOY cases were digitally focused campaigns, three of which also propelled the agency to second place in DAOY?

The winning cases include Loblaw and World Wildlife Fund's online "Sweater Day: Granny Call Centre," Zellers' "Festive Finale" Facebook campaign, Mitsubishi's all-digital "Electriphobia" work, Rethink Breast Cancer's "Your Man Reminder" app and YouTube video, as well as ING's more traditional mass-focused "Forward Banking."

While all the cases submitted this year have a humorous tone, Fleischmann is quick to point out that John St. isn't defined by all things laugh-filled - much of its reel, such as work for Tata's Tetley and the Bay, isn't funny by nature.

"It's funny because that's what people notice and remember," he says of the work that goes that route. "Humour is inherently noticeable [and] breaks down the defensiveness that naturally arises in a buy-sell relationship. It's hard to be cynical about a brand when you're laughing at them."

But humour has driven much of the agency's viral success: between "Catvertising," "Your Man Reminder" and Zeller's "Festive Finale" videos, John St. has amassed almost five million hits in the past year alone.

"There's no such thing as planning a viral video. You plan a great piece of content, and if the content is really exciting for someone, you pass it on," says Fleischmann. "Our audience will only watch and share stuff that they think their friends are going to love."

As a result, much of the agency's work is light on selling brand messages, Fleischmann says. Rather they focus on creating a strong idea that engages audiences and then subtly weaves the brandís story throughout, resulting in creative that is entertaining to watch.

So what's next for the independent shop?

Jurisic says they'd love to get more top-to-bottom AOR clients, managing both traditional and digital creative, that are willing to experiment, such as Mitsubishi. They also plan to release self-commissioned software meant to measure its integrated model and offer clients more precise metrics.

Oh, and Jurisic adds, "World domination." We expect cats will be heavily involved in that plan.