New Talent: Thomas Wilkins
Thomas Wilkins spent his childhood days in Hamilton, Ontario on family fishing trips and playing with his dogs in his backyard. Inspired by his leafy surroundings and love for the outdoors he saw an opportunity to make some cash by starting a lawn cutting business. Whilst setting up operations in his bedroom office he came up with his first ever sales strategy when he realised he could generate more business more quickly by offering his first wave of clients a special cheaper deal.
Thomas’ successful business experience motivated him to seek a career in strategy. Straight out of college he jumped at the offer of a three-month internship at agency Cosette, where he was made UX strategy intern. It was there that he learnt that working in strategy on ad campaigns was becoming increasingly digital, that it could impact society in an incredibly positive way and that it was the path that he wanted to take.
Thomas is now a senior strategist at FCB/SIX. Similar to his lawn cutting days he is still motivated to make people happy and make projects with the aims to mow down any potential issues that he may encounter on the way. LBB’s Jason Caines sat down with Thomas to get to know him.
LBB> What were you like as a kid growing up in Canada?
Thomas Wilkins> Growing up in Canada is a dream I got to live. It all started in Stoney Creek—a quiet suburb of Hamilton, Ontario. A typical night from my childhood was a warm summer evening, my little sister and I playing fetch in the backyard with our two mini dachshunds and a barbeque. My mom (my hero) was a single parent and basically taught me—and still teaches me—everything I know about life. We lived with our grandparents, who live on in my memory as the wisest people I have ever known.
As a kid growing up in Canada, fishing was my first love. My grandpa taught me how to fish from the time I could start casting a line, and our days spent on the Kawartha lakes remain as the cornerstone of my life’s passion. Summed up, my childhood involved laughter, family and always some dirt on my clothes and hands. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. When I got a little older, we moved to Peterborough, Ontario, where my career started to take shape.
LBB> You started with an internship UX strategy at Cossette. Could you tell us more about your experience there?
TW> The internship at Cossette was really what catapulted me into the ad world. Coming out of college, like many other marketing grads, my heart was set on being a brand strategist. However, on my first day I found out I would be part of the UX strategy team. From that point on my story turned to digital. Getting into advertising is a bit like jumping into a cold Canadian lake; there’s an initial shock but you power through and soon you’re swimming. My commute to Cossette was two hours each way. I used my internship at as a three-month-long job interview. On my train rides home, my mind would race: “did I say the right thing,” “do they like me,” “what’s on tomorrow?”
I think that’s the magic of internships. It’s an opportunity to prove yourself every single minute. I had a team that opened doors for me and gave me the opportunity to swim on my own with some amazing clients. The work I did as an intern afforded me the chance to build a relationship with the SickKids Foundation, which ultimately led to me working on the VS platform.
My internship at Cossette was a roller coaster, a party and sometimes a panic attack all rolled into one amazing experience that has shaped the way I act in the industry today.
LBB> You studied Business Administration with Marketing at Fleming College. What was that experience like?
TW> Fleming College is nestled in Peterborough, a small city in Ontario that’s surrounded by trees and home to some of the best people I know. Going to business school in this city provided a look into its entrepreneurial and creative economy. It was a great place to learn the ropes.
Throughout high school, I was focused on being university-bound, and the common stigma of College being a lesser choice than university certainly was persistent in conversations as I was deciding what I wanted to do. However, one of the keys to success in advertising is hands-on, real-life experience, and I certainly saw the opportunity for that at Fleming. The deciding factor was taking a tour and speaking with the professors. The care and attention they paid to my individual situation and goals was unparalleled by any other college or university I explored. Going to Fleming was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
LBB> When did you decide to pursue a career as a strategist in advertising?
TW> When I was twelve, I started a lawn cutting business. I made a flyer with a special offer for the first ten people who called. I made a logo, had a client contract and basically set up an office in my bedroom. I think this is really when I started being a strategist.
Growing up, my career goals changed a lot. At some points, I wanted to be a teacher, at others I wanted to be an animator at Disney. The list goes on. One thing remained constant though: I wanted a job that gave me the opportunity to make people happy. This is still my mission every day. Some say it’s too ambitious for marketing and advertising, but I think it’s the perfect mission to wake up to in the morning. We have the gift of reach like no other industry in the world.
I was quiet in high school, but really found my voice in my business class. Going on to pursue this in college and then meeting with industry leaders in the ad world is really what formalised the decision to become a strategist. I always say, though, that I’ve been a strategist since I cut lawns as a kid.
LBB> What’s your day to day like as a senior strategist at FCB/SIX?
TW> I laugh more at FCB/SIX than at any other job I’ve had. Our team is world class and consists of a group of egoless people who show up to do great work. I couldn’t ask for a better team.
We support each other when the chips are down and celebrate each other’s wins, both big and small. I think the agency is really unique for this reason and it affects my day-to-day. Every morning, I arrive to a different challenge. Being a strategist, I work on a cross-functional team of CRM, brand, UX, media and data specialists. Our agency’s mission is no human ever experiencing a brand the same way, and because of this we cross-pollinate with other teams to create data-driven, individualised experiences at scale. We kind of have a scrum mentality where it’s not unlikely to see top execs, coordinators, creatives, tech folks and strategists all in a room together solving business problems. You can usually find me by the candy jars writing a brief, messing up the whiteboards with a customer journey, or presenting something to someone.
LBB> You’ve worked on strategy for campaigns for clients like Honda, Johnson & Johnson and BMW. Please tell us about more about your role working on these projects.
TW> I love the clients I’ve had the opportunity to, and still, work on. Keeping with the fact that every day is different, every client opportunity I work on in a day is also unique.
The client work I do can span brand briefs to on-to-one tactics to holistic customer journey mapping exercises. The way I see it, the job of the strategist is becoming less about writing briefs and more about being the boat that keeps everything afloat as clients work to lead their business upstream.
I take a holistic approach, which usually means starting with a ton of research. Everything I propose to clients is rooted in something. I think that’s really important for new-age strategists. It’s sticking a balance between creative thinking and fact finding. My work on Honda, BMW and Johnson & Johnson is all quite unique, but each of these projects is rooted in the art of mapping the truest journey possible, holding the digital and physical pieces together and creating sticky experiences that improve the lives of our client’s target.
LBB> What are some of your favourite campaign strategies of all time?
TW> There’s some really great work going on right before my eyes. When I look at The Canadian Down Syndrome Society ‘Down Syndrome Answers’ campaign coming from our friends at FCB Toronto, or ‘Destination Pride’ created by my colleagues at FCB/SIX, these are campaigns that are strategically different and have changed the game of how people perceive advertising.
SickKids VS is really special and something I got to work on that was aligned with my mission. It has broken new ground in the not-for-profit space and will forever be a favourite.
I have also always followed Disney. I kind of view it as the north star of organisations when it comes to customer experience. When you look at the whole connected magic brand experience they have created, they have really built an ecosystem like no other and that is certainly what I think will be the future of marketing.
LBB> What are you into outside of advertising?
TW> I still fish in the Kawarthas every chance I get. That is my “outside of work” passion, for sure. I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by trees and walking by the water with my dogs. I love paddling, barbecuing new recipes and playing my acoustic guitar by campfires. Family time is extremely important to me, so I try to be with them as much as I can. I also love live music. In my spare time, I mentor entrepreneurs in my home town and help them with their own strategic plans.
LBB> What’s the advice you’d give to someone who wanted to work in strategy?
TW> Leave your ego at the door. Have an open mind to anything. I wouldn’t say UX is what I wanted to do at all when I got out of school, but that experience has led me to where I am. I think having a greater personal mission is really important too. Use mine if you want; just have the notion of making people happy in your back pocket every day. This grounds you when your head hits the pillow at night. Advertising is fun, no doubt. However, it also requires laser sharp focus and drive to accelerate quickly. I’ve never had a day that is a walk in the park. There’s always a boulder that is in your way that you have to figure out how to move. But that’s what makes this industry amazing. It’s a puzzle.
I think the final bit of advice is have relentless respect for those who have been doing this longer than you. It’s really easy to do something great then feel like you’re on top of the world, and advertising is, in all honesty, a bit of a “self-congratulatory” industry. It’s really easy to get caught up in that. Be humble, and always remember that you can learn from anyone.
LBB> Do you have any plans for the future that you would like the world out there to know about?
TW> You know, in this world the future is tomorrow. No day is the same, and the work we are doing and the new tech that can be injected into our business breaks new ground every moment. I think it’s unrealistic to plan too far ahead. I know I want to make people happy and make strides in digital. I’d also like to act as a change agent for the industry. I think that there is a lot of work to be done when we think about male and female equality and I’d like to be on the front lines of that charge. What the future holds could pivot many times, but I’m excited for whatever it has in store.