Benjamin Gibson, Creative Director/President of Toronto Creatives tells us about video production.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Benjamin Gibson: I’m grateful to be able to say that we’ve been fortunate throughout this knock-on-wood. My partner, myself, and my family are being very careful and have suffered little more than boredom and a generally elevated sense of anxiety.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Toronto Creatives.
Benjamin Gibson: I was first hired as a Graphic Designer at the age of sixteen by Metroland Publishing. I worked as a designer for the company until I attended post-secondary for design. It was fine, but I had learned more by actually working. I spent some years working as a freelance designer, working mostly in commercial real estate, hospitality, and entertainment. I was the Senior Designer at Liberty Entertainment Group for a few years, and they are still one of our regular clients ten years later.
Although I didn’t start there, my career pushed me into web design and development, and a lot of my job went online. Clients started asking me about video at some point, and I started experimenting with video production and filmmaking.
Ultimately the work got bigger than I could handle alone; my partner Christopher Burke had joined me as a business partner also by this point – he’s a photographer and a filmmaker in his own right.
Later we met our other business partner Jesse Read, through a questionable startup we all found ourselves working with.
Jesse is an incredible filmmaker, musician, and marketer. He’s one of those all-around insightful and creative people, and we were happy to have him on-board. We’ve hired several part-time, full-time, and freelance staff since we started operating as an agency “officially” in 2016. We just incorporated the company this year, and we’ve had some incredibly lucky opportunities to work with some wonderful people and great companies.
We maintained a lot of the same client verticals – hospitality, commercial real estate, and entertainment – which resulted in a very sudden and very drastic slow-down in revenue and work. It also required additional ad revenue spend on our part to get our name and experience out there to other verticals that were still active.
How does Toronto Creatives innovate?
Benjamin Gibson: Ha. That seems like a loaded question to me. I don’t think we would be innovative if I could name a specific thing we did. I think we try to innovate all the time. I suppose the best answer I can give is that as a digital advertising agency, as designers and filmmakers, we approach situations and challenges by trying to let go of whatever preconceptions we have about that situation or challenge. Then we work forward. We often come to similar conclusions as other people, and sometimes we don’t. The point is to understand what it is we’re dealing with end-to-end before we create a strategy to execute it.
We have several tools we use, sometimes separately and sometimes together. Video, articles, live-streaming, websites, and eCommerce have all played a big role for our clients this year.
In the case of COVID-19 and social isolation, we took on some unique challenges throughout 2020, and we’re continuing to evolve those solutions for 2021.
While we helped several companies deal with their challenges, including the Toronto Fred Victor, who we helped pivot some of their annual fundraisers in 2020 to a Livestream format. We helped a retail tea client, Tea Squared grow its online sales. We also felt it was important to diversify, so we focused more of our spare time on our Canadian music editorial website – DropoutEntertainment.ca. With the sudden stop to live music performances – a usual topic of conversation, we got a SOCAN license. We launched an internet radio station, a video Livestream series, and an independent music podcast. This expanded our entertainment portfolio, which was an unofficial goal for 2020 anyways.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Benjamin Gibson: It hurt us like it did everyone. We had just wrapped one of the biggest video projects we had worked on up to that date as a company. We had a good momentum going, some promising prospects on the near horizon, and we were on the hunt for a bigger studio space. Then March 2020 came, and everything dried up.
With major clients in commercial real estate and hospitality, we noticed a slow down overnight. I actually had two phone calls in one day renegotiating hosting rates for websites. These are big companies, and they were asking us for a break on elementary things like web hosting until we know what was what. It was unprecedented but not surprising, and everyone was freaked right out in the beginning.
I suppose the other way it affected us on a financial level – certainly not a negative – is we ended up donating $10,000 to Toronto’s Fred Victor organization to help fight homelessness in Toronto during this time.
We helped the organization pivot three of its annual fundraising events in 2020, and the work they do is so important it inspired us to give something back. Again, I really believe companies can do good in the world if they want to, and they should.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Benjamin Gibson: I’m grateful we didn’t. As I mentioned, we were on the hunt for a new office, and our lease was up on the old one, so we just ended up setting ourselves up virtually from our homes, which made the coming months a bit easier.
I would say the most unfortunate thing we faced was our full-time Senior Designer had very little to do and ended up getting poached by an NFP as their Marketing Manager, so not too shabby, really.
I say that all with a grain of salt. I guess we’re a small company with a very lean model, so while it was stressful to make sure everyone was getting paid, it was doable.
I see the company as an entity that needs to provide for the people that work for it, including myself. It’s not there to make endless money and grow relentlessly – we’ve seen countless times that models like that are, in the long run, are not sustainable. Companies should be there to support people, or what is the point? Companies don’t have feelings, and without people working there and people as customers, they are nothing anyways.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Benjamin Gibson: Speaking strictly in the sense of business management, this has been one of the most difficult adjustments we’ve made. We enjoy meeting with clients casually, doing location visits with them before the shooting, collaboration on-set, etc. A number of our clients are our friends also, and we haven’t been able to connect in-person in over a year. Other clients are international, which is a different story as we’ve never met them in-person in the first place.
Yes, we use Zoom almost religiously now. We used Zoom before it was cool for those international clients I mentioned. We worked for a Danish company on a testimonial video from a client they had here in very rural Ontario. We also work with several companies in the United States, so, yes, Zoom is the way to go.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Benjamin Gibson: We have not received any government grants; however, we have benefited from the initial Federal Small Business Loan that was offered early on. The support was invaluable to us, and I know businesses and individuals out there are in harder circumstances than us. I think we can do more as a Country. It’s a little shocking when you look at the amount of federal COVID relief that provincial governments – Ontario included – are just hoarding.
Your final thoughts?
Benjamin Gibson: We have and have had an opportunity to take stock of what is important to us as people. Overall I think we all have a more systemic view of the world we live in. That alone can be overwhelming when you consider all the things that need to be addressed. Sexism, racism, poverty, government, and corporate transparency – these things are no longer ignorable. I think now that we see and understand those systemic problems more clearly, it would be clinically insane to move forward without dealing with them.
Most entrepreneurs I know and respect and that are successful don’t just think outside the box; they innovate without considering the box at all and deal with the box later. It is a bit like how Uber just started operating without considering local laws of any kind: that might be a bad example. I mean that successful innovation can be made outside of the existing system, it can even lead to alternatives, and I think more people need to take that to heart. Google started somewhere.
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