Influencers find true North

By Jennifer Horn

GIVE A MAN CONTENT FOR HIS YOUTUBE CHANNEL, and you feed him new fans for a day. Teach him to create his own, and he'll feed you new customers for a lifetime.

We wouldn't be surprised if North Strategic cross-stitches and frames the doctored adage for the walls of its downtown digs. The Toronto PR firm, with its proprietary network of 800 video creators, is already a bit of a content aficionado, and now it's taking on protégés through a new division.

Initially set up as a social agency in 2011, this year's Bronze PR Agency of the Year has morphed into a crossbreed of PR and advertising. Its current business model is the result of efforts to create a community of specialists, introducing services like Notch Video, Navigate and, now, Nfluence.

First, Notch was set up in 2013 for the shop to be able to tap into a national pool of independent content creators, who help ideate and execute on clients' social and digital projects.

Next, North looked into improving the ideation process, and partnered with Ten Thousand Coffees (a networking site that connects millennials with business leaders) to create Navigate, a millennial network that marketers can speak to about ideas for products and campaigns.

Now, the next phase of its evolution is coming from Nfluence, a new offering that's just as much about pairing clients with well-known influencers as it is with up-and-comers.

There's huge value in collaborating with the fan-friendly Lilly Singhs of the YouTube world, says North co-founder Mia Pearson. However, the same is true of investing in the tastemakers sitting on the front lines, those who have influence in the real world but little experience in the virtual.

"A lot of companies are saying it's expensive to go to the bigger names," says Pearson. "And while there is value in that, they're also asking how we can work with people who already have influence with their target group."

Co-founder Justin Creally uses Budweiser's recent beer ambassador program as an example of how Nfluence is working with clients to create social apprentices.

It's common practice for beer brands to have student "Campus Ambassadors" infiltrate universities to plan and promote events on their behalf. These promoters have strong relationships with fellow students on the ground, but many lack the skills to do the same online, says Creally.

So, instead of giving them a Bud ad to post on their Twitter account, North has been getting creators from its Notch network to teach 20 campus reps how to produce content that's more in line with their own interests.

It's even brought in Instagrammers to train them on how to compose shots and properly use social media. The idea is to make them more marketable by building their online fan base and then bringing the brand into the equation with more authentic Bud-related posts.

Through Nfluence and Notch, the 64-person shop is making content the engine of North's business, says Creally. "It is what separates us from our competitors and distinguishes us from advertising players. It's what the future of PR is about."

And it's this content expertise that's driving profit and leading the agency to land accounts outside the traditional public relations purview. In its first five years, combined revenues of North and Notch surpassed $12 million. The shop's revenue increased 52% (for the year ending March 2016), and North was recently named the social agency of record for Tim Hortons and Las Vegas, among others. It also grew its employee base by 25% across offices in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, bringing in new directors of social, including former GoodLife marketer Coralie Olson and former Travel Alberta social manager Nancy Smith.

"One of the things that I think is unique in our model is that we create communities of experts," says Pearson. "Having access to creators has enabled us to get better at thinking. We saw the power that these communities have to make an agency like ours that much more powerful and fresh, and be able to scale and execute on a level that some others aren't able to."