I’ve known of ad agency Top Drawer Creative for years now and have always wanted to talk them up in Local. It was their recent move from Carlaw to Queen East into the once Stoneworks building that added urgency for me – they had now literally spanned one end of Local’s reach to the other! I was always amazed that so few of our readers realized this hub of creative talent was in our midst. However, there was a lot about Top Drawer that I didn’t know and learned while pulling the story together. Owner Howard Chang has earned some fantastic national and international accolades with his agency of late – so our timing couldn’t have been better as far as introducing you to Top Drawer.
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The Creative House That Howard Built
Top Drawer Creative is an innovative, unique and highly awarded ad agency that has always called Toronto’s east end home.
I met Howard and learned about Top Drawer Creative when the advertising agency was located on Carlaw south of Dundas. Way ahead of the curve, Howard had moved his agency into the large industrial loft in Leslieville in 1997, at a time when there were a couple of abandoned floors in his building and few other tenants. Even then Howard was riding his bike to work every day. In speaking with Howard at length about the evolution of Top Drawer, cycling interestingly figures frequently in the agency’s evolution.
Back in 1989, Howard was running his bicycle retail store, Bikenergy, a business he started ten years earlier. He built up three stores from scratch and did all the marketing, all the operations, everything, himself. When circumstances forced him to close the store, he thought about what he loved most about it and decided that it was the marketing and dealing with people. He decided to turn his attention to sports marketing and pulled a semi-pro cycling team together bringing on clients like Toshiba, BMW and Rogers. After two years, these companies observied that Howard knew a lot about marketing and started hiring him to complete other marketing projects on their behalf.
“I call myself the accidental tourist,” Howard says, “I didn’t know what I was building at the time.” But building he was. In 1992, Howard titled what was clearly turning into an agency and Top Drawer Creative was born. Named in homage to his quarter-British roots using the English expression, “top drawer” (meaning top notch), the name is also a tip of the hat to the illustration that Howard was doing at the time, suggesting a “top draw-er”.
Not only an illustrator but also an accomplished photographer, Howard built his client base by focusing on sports and wellness clients as well as a few photography accounts. “Choosing clients was never done out of ‘I want to make money here’,” Howard explains, “It was based on my interests and the feeling that ‘this is what I want to do.'” He says that any time he has moved away from following his passions, the client relationships have not worked out. Consequently, Howard picks clients very carefully and says Top Drawer vets clients as much as clients vet the agency.
The approach seems to be paying off. In 1996, Top Drawer landed their first Agency of Record account when they were hired by Fitness Depot. Eighteen years later, the relationship is still going strong. Fitness Depot has grown from five stores in Ontario to 45 stores across Canada. Top Drawer has grown from five employees working out of Howard’s house, to 40 or so working on Queen Street East. Howard is proud that Top Drawer’s average client tenure is 10 years – a long time in a business that tends to take a “get in, make as much money as possible, and get out approach” to client relationships. So what’s the secret?
Top Drawer adheres to a triple bottom line philosophy when bringing on clients. First they look at the quality of the relationship. They make sure they have mutual respect and also like to have a little bit of fun along the way. Secondly, they make sure that there is some alignment of values. As Howard says, if the client has a “Profit at any cost” attitude the relationship is not going to work out. Third, Top Drawer practices “sustainable profitability.” Howard believes in fair billing and says they want to work with clients over the long term, not gouge them in the short term.
As holistic as Top Drawer’s approach to clients is, it is their relationship with staff and the world at large that has won the agency some very prestigious awards and accolades. Last month, Howard Chang was named one of Canada’s Clean 50 – list that recognizes Canada’s most responsible and progressive citizens, or as Delta Management’s Gavin Pitchford, who oversees the award, describes it “those who have done the most to advance the cause of sustainability and clean capitalism in Canada”.
Last year, Top Drawer became the first full-service ad agency in Canada certified as a B Corporation. B Corp certification is based on a company’s commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility. In Top Drawer’s case, some of the criteria that qualified them included their use of 100% green energy, and a transfer of $20 million in client media buys from paper to electronic. B Corp also acknowledged Top Drawer’s choice of clients in the health, nutrition, adventure sports, fitness and active lifestyle categories. Another factor dates back to 2003. “We started something radical,” Howard says, ” We put together a program that pays our employees who ride their bikes to work.” Top Drawer has built on this program adding indoor showers, bike storage, tools, spare parts, workshops, safety training and carpooling. In 2012 they won the City of Toronto’s Smart Commute Employer of the Year Award.
This year, B Corp put Top Drawer on it’s list of 80 global companies that are “Best for the World for Worker Impact”. This recognized, amongst other things, Top Drawer’s RRSP matching program (made up of 100% green funds) and financial compensation program that ensures employees in even the most junior positions can be bonused based on performance as well as those in senior positions. B Corp reviewed the ratio between the lowest- and highest-paid employees and deemed that Top Drawer shares wealth as equally as possible with employees of all levels.
It’s an amazing list of accomplishments for a small advertising agency. “We don’t ever want to be a big agency. We want to be a great agency,” Howard tells me. To keep himself on track with that goal, Howard says he regularly asks himself, “What can we do in the world that is going to enhance people’s lives and how they live them?”
Top Drawer has answered this question in part by taking a unique approach to the consumers their carefully chosen clients are typically trying to reach. Top Drawer has identified a consumer group they describe as AHAA. “What is unique about the AHAA group,” Howard explains, “is that they are not a demographic but a psychographic.” Typically agencies go out and try to become experts in certain categories – automotive for example. Howard had his own ‘ah-ha’ moment at an international cycling event with hundreds of people aged from 18 to 64. The group ate meals together, rode together and relaxed together. “We couldn’t get away from each other,” Howard says. “What was striking was that we all spoke the same language. We were in the same place in terms of values, wanting to challenge ourselves and having a heightened sense of social and environmental awareness.”
Howard believes that by studying this AHAA – active, healthy, affluent and aware – group of people, Top Drawer can contribute to conscious consumerism.” People can buy the right thing from the right place and can invest in the things they are passionate about.” He points out that in the case of AHAA, affluent does not mean rich. Affluent refers to investing in the things that a person is passionate about. Howard gives me a great example, once again from the world of cycling. “So often I go to bike races and see a $15,000 bike strapped to a $3000 car.” That is what the team means by affluence.
AHAA was applied to the campaign Top Drawer created for Bullfrog Power in 2012/13, showing Bullfrog Power customers as personally powerful superheroes for choosing green energy. The “Be Powerful” campaign worked and Bullfrog saw their highest growth in residential sales to date.
Howard explains that Top Drawer is “extremely results focused” and says, “We are a very competitive group of people in here and we love to win but what turns us on more is to win on behalf of our clients.” He says what he loves about Top Drawer is “we have an incredibly entrepreneurial culture in here. We are agile and nimble and not burdened by bureaucracy.” His team is an interesting mix of illustrators, poets, film makers and comic book publishers – and these are just the arts they practice on the side. The agency is setting up a website that will feature all their staff’s side projects and pursuits as a way of encouraging staff creativity.
In 2011, Howard moved the agency to Queen Street East in the Beaches. It was a bit risky since most agencies are located in the west end of the city but Howard reports that a wonderful thing happened: “our staff fell in love with the Beach”. Top Drawer has since played a big part in the neighbourhood, conducting beach clean ups and recently helping the Beach BIA with a rebrand project worth about $75,000 for which they only charged ten cents on the dollar and donated those funds to Community Centre 55. “We want to be good neighbours,” Howard says. Next on the agenda is a completely green reno of the building that will give Top Drawer a third floor, a TV studio and a green roof. The latest chapter in the house that Howard built.
To learn more about Top Drawer’s approach, visit www.topdrawercreative.com.