Say Hello to THEY
Although it has been somewhat under the radar for much of its tenure, THEY Integrated, a branding and digital agency will be marking its 20th anniversary in 2018, and it’s been two decades of innovative communications, marketing and advertising excellence that has garnered the firm accolades and an impressively broad base of clients throughout North America and beyond.
Originally founded as quite a traditional, but full-service ad agency by Shawn Patriquin, THEY has shown itself to not only be a firm that possesses excellent in all aspects of marketing and advertising, but perhaps its most impressive quality has been the ability for Patriquin and his team to adapt to the vicissitudes and major paradigm shifts created by the rapid onset of web-based marketing, news and communications platforms, the proliferation of mobile devices and social media.
A Vision is Born
Patriquin was teaching advertising at Loyalist College in Belleville when he realized there was an opportunity to create what would become THEY – a local one-stop shop for branding, marketing and advertising programs and services.
“As I was teaching there looking at the community and the region, I saw there was really no full-service agency to be found at the time, literally between Toronto and Ottawa. So part of why I started was an opportunity to fill a huge gap in the market. There were lots of businesses at that time and continue to be today that needed the services of what we call a full-service agency, but there was nothing around. So that was the practical, logical reason,” said Patriquin.
“The more passionate and emotional reason was while I was teaching at the college I sat on the advisory board of the advertising program which brought me to Toronto maybe four times a year for meetings with other agencies. What blew me away was just the sheer ego that came out of the Toronto market, one that pretty much said if you’re not in Toronto, you’re not doing anything in the world of advertising. And that underlying passion has been fueling THEY since the beginning. Essentially I have been driven to prove that great work can come from anywhere.”
Using Technology to Expand
For the first eight years or so, because of the limits of technology, THEY’s client base was primarily the Bay of Quinte Region, as well as nearby Peterborough and Kingston, but the company was always busy and sort of flew under the radar, garnering its client base through referrals.
“We created an end-to-end solution for a client. We would work with them on their brand development, their marketing strategy, and integrated marketing plan and work with them on their media planning and buying, the sales promotions their signage and environmental graphics throughout their retail or office locations. We would really manage their marketing plan from beginning to end,” Patriquin said.
THEY grew to be a substantial firm and was hitting its stride when the economy went from boom to bust in 2008 – at just the same time as the social media revolution and the expansion of broadband internet changed the way businesses, consumers and the media communicated, purchased and lived their lives.
“We’re actually doing better now than we ever have, but at that time it was a real tough situation. We had about 12 to 15 major clients on retainer to handle all their monthly marketing and advertising and we also had control of their media dollars. A lot of those clients were in the financial and insurance sectors and when the bottom fell out of the economy in 2008 they pulled up stakes and shuttered their businesses and stopped advertising. It was a huge blow to our company and was actually quite scary,” he said.
“But I have since called it the perfect storm. You had this huge recession, one of the biggest that I had ever experienced. And at the same time was the rise of social media, which has reinvented the role of marketing and advertising. Those two things came together in that moment to forever change the agency world.”
“It changed how the business model works, what clients want and how you make your money. After some serious soul searching I had to completely reinvent myself, because I was a traditional ad guy through and through, in order to reinvent the company and get us on a new course. So today we still have those traditional retainer clients that are full service, but it’s only 20 percent of what we do. The other 80 percent is digital branding and marketing, which means the web and social media primarily.”
Innovate or Die
By 2009, THEY have pivoted and Patriquin hired a talented intern from Loyalist College, a ‘Twintern’ to leverage social media to its utmost to develop conversations with businesses, build relationships and eventually build a new team that would focus on meeting the needs and challenges of companies looking to take advantage of the new marketing and communications milieu.
“Every company has what I call TSN Turning Points [based on the sports channel’s most significant moment of a game]. One of the things we have always done is tried to be the first movers on a new thing. I tried this experiment and had my intern go on Twitter and other social media platforms to become the social voice for the agency and engage people, reach out, share contacts, start conversations and connect with people around the world,” he said.
One of those contacts turned out to be a gentleman out of New York City who ran tech-based conferences and was looking to expand to Canada and needed a lead to do some of the branding and marketing. The conference was a smash and THEY became known as a player for the excellent work they did for the conference. That success led to the true turning point for THEY – an introduction to award-winning photographer Tim Hetherington and Vanity Fair editor Sebastian Junger.
“They had just come back after being embedded with U.S. troops in the Korangel Valley in Afghanistan and needed a website for the movie. We had a conference call and they ended up hiring us to do that. We created all that for the movie, which was called Restrepo, and it ended up being nominated for an Academy Award [in 2010]. That gave us street cred, and once you have that street cred then it’s what you do with it. After this one, we started putting our name in the footer of every website that we did.” Patriquin explained.
“And all the growth that we have had since then has been 100 percent organic. We have never had an outbound sales strategy, it’s all been referral based and people finding our name at the bottom of other sites and seeking us out.”
The second major turning point was when THEY did the digital brand alignment and a website for Kris Carr, a U.S. –based health and wellness guru who has a social media following numbering more than three million followers.
“That kind of spun us off in doing a lot more personal branding in the health & wellness, thought-leadership genre. We were recently contacted by a woman out of Houston who is starting up a mentorship program for Latino women. Every day it is like this. We have an intake form on our website and every day at least one solid lead comes in off that and it’s coming from places in the U.K., Sweden, Mexico City, Costa Rica and all over the U.S.,” he said.
“The technology has got to the point where doing business globally is seamless now, and it’s expected. We have clients from all over the world and not once have I ever been on a plane or met them face to face.”
Always Striving to Be Better
Ultimately none of this would matter if THEY didn’t do exceptional work, doing it on time, on budget and will superior support and follow-up service.
“There are four core values that we live and die by: do what you say, finish what you start, be on time and say please and thank you. That’s how we approach doing business.”
“That, combined with a very flat management style, is key for us. There is no real hierarchy here. Everybody has a job, and some people have multiple jobs, but it’s a collective approach to work. And I think because of that we crank out the amount of work in the amount of time that it would take a traditional 30-person agency to do, and we have 11. We are lean and mean, and we get s*** done and we work hard. Clients are blown away by how responsive our team is. They can reach out at practically any time of day and someone will get back to them usually within five minutes. It’s a huge ‘wow’ factor,” Patriquin said.
“It really helps with the referral thing. All of our clients have had really good experiences with us and they are referring others to us. People are excited when they see our work and they are 90 percent sold on working with us before we even meet.”