Why this high-tech PR firm insists its staff meet face to face

North Strategic encourages its staff to travel frequently to meet their colleagues and clients face to face


North Strategic founders Justin Creally and Mia Pearson. (North Strategic)

You’d think that with so many good and cheap video teleconferencing options available, there’d be no reason for any company—much less a mid-sized public relations firm—to maintain offices around the country.

Not so, according to Justin Creally, co-founder of Toronto-based North Strategic. The 5-year-old, award-winning company has found that face-to-face interaction with clients and the flow of staff between satellite offices in Montreal and Calgary are key to its growth and success.

“We’re constantly trying to mix and mingle because of the collaborative nature of our business,” Creally says. “It’s people-driven. It’s not a number-crunching thing or an accounting firm. The more you can get together and share ideas and sparks of creativity, the better.”

Add North Strategic to the growing list of firms to discover that, while email and Skype are integral to every-day operations, the best ideas tend to bubble up when people gather in one place.

To that end, the company’s staff—about 60 total, with eight each in Montreal and Calgary—are encouraged to travel between North’s three outposts as much as possible, to get the collaborative juices flowing on marketing and PR campaigns for clients including Samsung, Canadian Tire and Canada Goose.

The company also holds a retreat each summer in different locations and an annual holiday party in Toronto in December, with all employees brought in for both.

“We don’t hold those purse strings too tightly,” Creally says.

The pro-travel and anti-centralization attitudes spring from the company’s history.

North traces its roots back to High Road Communications, a PR agency started by Mia Pearson and Rick Doyon in 1996, also in Toronto. Specializing in technology, the company counted the likes of Microsoft, Lucent and Pitney-Bowes as clients.

Creally came on board in 1997 as an intern. By 2008, he had risen through the ranks to the role of president, but not before Pearson and Doyon had sold High Road to St. Louis-based FleishmanHillard in 2000.

The sale was the result of the founders wanting to make further in-roads to the U.S. technology scene, but by 2010, it was obvious the PR landscape was shifting. Social media had come along and changed the way that consumers interacted with brands, which required a rethink in corporate marketing strategies.

Pearson and Creally decided it would be best to start from scratch, rather than to try to rework the larger parent company into the new paradigm. The duo left to start North Strategic in 2011, initially operating out of Pearson’s home living room with a handful of interns.

Their reputations followed them and they landed tent pole clients Samsung and Canadian Tire, both giant accounts, in early 2012. Growth came fast and the company was soon hiring up.

At first, North tried to work through local partners outside of Ontario, but Pearson and Creally discovered the approach was costing them potential new clients.

They realized they would need on-the-ground operations if they were going to deal with national brands, especially in Quebec, where language and cultural differences necessitated tailored approaches.

In 2013, the company hired Wendie Godbout, then head of PR for Montreal-based shoe retailer Aldo, as senior account director, who then built up the office further.

“Brands always want to know that you have wholly owned, full-time employees in those markets. They look more skeptically at those local market partnerships,” Creally says. “They want to see commitment.”

Through the Montreal office, North was able to design Quebec-centric campaigns including its July 1 “moving day” campaign for Canadian Tire. Leases traditionally expire on June 30 in the province resulting in a dramatic spike of people requiring everything from trolleys to trucks on July 1. It’s a phenomenon that’s largely unknown in the rest of Canada and a marketing opportunity that could have easily been missed without local expertise.

“They have different problems and different challenges. Our people know the culture and know the market,” he says.

While the Western Canadian market isn’t as different from central Canada, the thinking behind setting up the Calgary office later in 2013 was similar. Canadian Tire in particular was expanding its business in the West through subsidiaries such as Sport Chek, and was looking for proverbial boots on the ground.

The end result of the cross-country strategy for North, Creally believes, is a next-generation marketing company that is tuned into both the Internet and its people.

“As much as social media is global and important, a lot of the sparks for it are local,” he says.