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Agency Profile: Grip Limited

Posted on May 17, 2011 and read 11,553 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: Grip LimitedBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

“Ah, it’ll never last!”

“I hear that each person who works there makes two million a year. Or is it three?”

“It’ll never last!”

“Arrogant creatives, think they can run an agency without account directors!”

“It’ll never last!”

“They strip-mined all of the best talent from other shops just to work on beer.”

“It’ll never last!”

“Hats off if they can pull it off, but can they pull it off?”

“It’ll never last!”

Such were the sorts of comments floating around the Toronto advertising community in the early months of 2002, when Grip Limited. showed up at the debutante’s ball. Nearly everybody had an opinion on this new shop – this new species of shop – and these opinions ranged from mild optimism to fire and brimstone vitriol.

And yet here we are, nearly a decade later, and the agency is still here. Much of the hostility against it in its early days is gone, leaving behind a respect for an agency that has outlasted its critics simply by doing great work.


For those who are unfamiliar with how Grip Ltd. came into being, it is a tale that turned a lot of heads and dropped a lot of jaws in the Canadian marketing and advertising scene, and surprisingly it goes back much, much farther than most people realize.

While Grip Ltd. the agency opened its doors in 2002, the name of the shop has a much longer history, stretching back to the late 19th century. Grip actually started out as a company that produced an eponymous weekly humour magazine back in the 1870s. Grip eventually turned into a printing and lithography shop, creating artwork and design for print advertising among other things. And while the Grip of today features some very big creative names, the old version of Grip employed the likes of Tom Thompson and members of the Group of Seven, legendary artists whose works are a major part of the Canadian identity.

Fast forward to in 2001, when iconic Canadian brewery Labatt, was becoming disenchanted with not only Ammirati Puris, its agency of record for the past eight years, but with the traditional advertising agency model in general. “I remember having lunch with some gentlemen from Labatt,” reminisces David Crichton, Founding Partner of Grip. “At the time I had an agency called The Crichton Kim-Kirkland Company, and we were trying to hold onto our Caffery’s Irish Ale account, a premium beer brand to which Labatt had recently acquired the distribution rights. I was told that Mike Robitaille, then the director marketing for Labatt, was looking to change things. I knew Mike, and when we eventually talked he told me he was getting out of Labatt and wanted really shake things up, as he felt that the kind of agency that Labatt needed didn’t really exist. One thing led to another, and soon we, along with a number of other people, were talking about creating this new kind of agency model.”

This model was truly unique: bring together the very best senior creatives in the country under one roof – ones who had excelled and had become renowned creative directors – and get them working on creative again, instead of simply managing it. This brought in the likes of award winning CDs Randy Stein, David Chiavegato, Rich Pryce-Jones. Scott Dube  and Crichton, all ready to get their hands good and dirty. And because everybody was so seasoned and experienced, the agency didn’t require an army of “suits” to manage relationships with clients; the creatives took care of it themselves. In addition, all of the original staff, both creative and business management, were made partners, giving them a vested interest in the success of the company. To top it off, the agency wasn’t going to chase after award show accolades; Grip was nearly seven years old before it even entered an award show, and even today only does shoe sporadically and judiciously. The truth is, all of the original crew had enough Lions to start a zoo before forming Grip, so validation of their talent wasn’t necessary.

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When Grip Ltd. hung out its shingle in 2002, this new model had plenty of naysayers. Of course many of them were critical of being granted the Labatt business, as well as of their ability to lure away the very best talent. Many prophesized that they would not be able to sustain the “creatives are the suits” concept, and today it’s apparent that they were right on that last note; today the agency functions a bit more like a more traditional agency, but only because it has grown so much in new business wins that it needs a lot more than the dozen or so original staff members – today Grip sits at around 180 employees – to handle it all.

One of the things that Grip prides itself on is the entrepreneurial spirit of its creatives. “Ownership is a huge key here,” explains Jacoub Bondre, Director of Innovation and Technology. “We are very, very particular about the caliber of people we hire, and that’s because regardless of what level you are at Grip, you own the projects you are assigned to. You are the one who will be coming up with the ideas, you’re the one presenting to the client, you’re the one following the project through right up to its launch and beyond. There’s no showing your ideas to an ACD, and having that person not only select what they like but also be the one selling it to the client. Here, you don’t even show your work to a single CD, but rather put it up for peer review so that everybody can weigh in on how you should move forward.”

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Because ownership is such a big thing here at Grip, with creatives being an important face of the brand when dealing with clients, creatives tend to work closely on a few particular brands in their stable. This seems surprising at first; most agencies today pride themselves on having everybody get an opportunity on every brand in the shop. The agency admits that this is not a hard and fast rule, and as creatives become more media agnostic there is more cross-pollination between projects, but for the most part, when you work on a brand, it’s yours to nurture.

Grip also believes in not only hiring the best, most entrepreneurial people, they also believe in developing their people. “If you come in and do a good job at filling the role you’re intended to fill, but we notice that you do something else really, really well, we’ll encourage you to do that and find someone else to fill your other role,” says Jacoub. “That way, you’re not just good, you’re awesome! I know from personal experience that some agencies actually discourage this and say it’s not your job to worry about these things before they even acknowledge if you are good or not. That’s really frustrating for a creative person. Here, if we see that you’re amazing at something that’s not necessarily your job, it can very much become your job.”

There seems to be no shortage of fun activities happening amongst the people at Grip, which is to be expected from an agency that has a slide and a fireman’s pole to get from one floor to the next (see photos below) “Our agency is pretty eclectic, and there are lots of little things going on outside of the office, implemented not by the management, but the people themselves,” says David Hamilton, Creative Partner. “There is a running club here, there’s a hockey team, a baseball team, a video game group started by an intern that lives on long after the internship was completed. There’s even a group of live jazz enthusiasts who go to the Rex after work. Whatever you like to do, there’s some organically grown group doing it here, and we really encourage it because inevitably the passion that people put into these little subcultures finds its way into the work.” Throw in a tradition of random PA messages and all-office emails of a most bizarre nature (our visit was preceded by an intense back-and-forth over the trade of a pack of saltine crackers)  and you can see that Grip likes to keep things light and fun. “One group we don’t have here is an accounting firm club,” David Hamilton jokes. “If that’s the sedate, sterile environment you are looking for, you might not find it here.”

So in closing, what’s the best way to describe Grip as it approaches its tenth year of existence? “Grip believes in people,” says David Crichton. “If you are talented and can contribute to this agency in a positive way, we will go out of our way to find the best possible way for you to contribute.”

Thanks to David Crichton, David Hamilton, Jacoub Bondre and everyone else at Grip Ltd. for their time and hospitality.

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