AdForum Exclusive: 5 Questions with Di Wilkins, CEO of Critical Mass

"Coming from Calgary, rather than Madison Avenue, we had to prove something that many other agencies did not."

Critical Mass CEO Di Wilkins took some time to answer questions from AdForum’s James Thompson on how the agency’s Canadian roots influence its creative culture, the definition of “customer,” and the importance of honesty. Enjoy! 

AdForum: Critical Mass has a unique story. Born in the unlikely setting of Calgary, Alberta, nearly 20 years ago, Critical Mass has evolved into a premiere agency in the advertising and branding industries—realms typically dominated by flashy, Manhattan agencies with views of the Empire State Building. How does such an uncommon beginning influence the creative culture and business sensibility at Critical Mass?

DW: Coming from Calgary, rather than Madison Avenue, we had to prove something that many other agencies did not. We had to fly farther, try harder, and sleep a little less. But we embraced a kind of scrappy underdog culture and married it to our Canadian-bred inclination to be humble. We also have a sense of humor about those beginnings. In fact, we just whipped up a site called MoveToCanadaeh.com. After our research team noted huge spikes in searches for “moving to Canada” (right around Super Tuesday, naturally), we launched a self-parodying landing page that links to our open job listings in Toronto and Calgary—because, if you want to move to Canada, you’ll need a job, eh. What I love about that page was that it was fun, smart, creative and uniquely us. It’s one small glimpse of that way our Calgary roots propelled us in our mission to do extraordinary things with digital, and now that we can do extraordinary things, we find it more valuable than ever to stay connected to those roots.

AdForum: Being a global digital experience design agency, Critical Mass is at the forefront of technology, human psychology and how consumers interact with and consume information. As we humans continue to integrate technology deeper into our daily routines and behaviors, what challenges and opportunities does Critical Mass see in the future of creating meaningful digital experiences?

DW: Our biggest opportunity is the ever-broadening canvas upon which we can work: more devices, more touchpoints, more integration, more technologies, more ways to be creative—and a vastly improving infrastructure to manage data. But exploring new opportunities also means you could waste time pursuing something fruitless. Or you might encounter an unexpected roadblock that causes setbacks and frustration. My attitude is this: be smart, embrace change with dignity and enthusiasm, surround yourself with brilliant people who share your enthusiasm (I have 825 of them), and if your goal is to create meaningful digital experiences amid new and untested opportunities, then don’t lose focus on the most important part of the equation: the customer.

AdForum: In our industry the word “customer” is used in various ways and myriad types of context – to the point where the term has become muddled and hackneyed. A key objective at Critical Mass is to bring meaning, authenticity and value to the word “customer.” How does Critical Mass define “customer,” and how does the agency implement this understanding into its creative work and business strategies?

DW: The simple answer is that the customer is the “end user.” As an agency that’s grown up with a User Experience discipline, we use Customer Experience and User Experience interchangeably. The term itself may very well be muddled and hackneyed, but I don’t think the problem is a semantic one—the problem might be that our industry too often pays lip service to customer-centricity without understanding why they should care about customers in the first place. Caring about making the lives of customers a little better forces you to be at your best. Your best thinking, your best work, your best results, and your ethical best—everything. We believe that if you satisfy the end user, or the customer, you will create work that boosts sales, reduces abandonment, increases brand affinity, and hopefully makes life a little better for people.

AdForum: Talented work begins with talented people. How has Critical Mass been able to attract top talent in the industry, and what about the creative culture at Critical Mass appeals to individuals who are passionate about generating meaningful work and experiences in the digital space?

DW: We look for people who are among the best at what they do, but we also look for the best fit—people who seem to feel at home the moment they walk through our door. We’re definitely not into arrogant, turf-war types. We work really hard to foster a culture that attracts open-minded, collaborative, passionate people. We also like people who bring unique perspectives and want to encounter other unique perspectives in turn. A diverse range of views always builds a stronger organization, and that’s what we have: a diverse group of people who bring unique ideas and have a passion to deliver something truly excellent.

AdForum: Critical Mass places great emphasis on honesty and “being real.” On the surface, these principles are easily grasped, yet many brands struggle with conveying a sense of authenticity and earnestness. Furthermore, today’s consumer is more wary of advertising – and perhaps even more cynical – than ever. How does Critical Mass approach engaging and creating authentic relationships with a new generation of increasingly informed, and increasingly guarded, consumers?

DW: Honesty and being real are two of our five core values. In fact, as I write this, there’s a poster behind me that says “honest, inspired, driven, passionate, real.” Sure—those terms are easy grasp and easy to say, but the simplest values are often the hardest ones to live up to. That’s why we work really hard to make sure we stay authentically and consciously connected with our values and sense of mission.

For the 825 people who work here, things like “honesty” and “being real” are about how we work with our clients and relate to each other. But the client work we produce has to do with how our clients want to present themselves to their customers. For that very reason, we strive to appeal to our clients’ better natures, encouraging them to be more transparent, to be themselves, to build their business and brand by improving their customer experience. And yes, customers are wary these days, maybe even cynical, but they reward brands that treat them well. If we can help a brand be real, or authentic, or honest in its own way, then we have a chance to help that brand form a meaningful connection with new customers, and deepen its connection with current ones.