It all started one fateful October morning, when Shirley Xu Wang and Marly Dichter arrived for orientation at Toronto’s Miami Ad School. Realising Shirley, who had just arrived from Montreal, was in need of a notebook, Marly - a Toronto native - volunteered to lead her to the Eaton Centre. So, with Google Maps in hand, she readied her best tour guide impression, and led them downtown.
As it happened, their route took them down John Street, and given that they were students of advertising, it was imperative that Marly point out john st. (the agency). However, this seemed to cause some confusion. In fact, Shirley was puzzled, because to the best of her knowledge, john st. was in the opposite direction. She was correct.
But venturing onward, undaunted despite Shirley outsmarting her Google Maps skills, Marly confidently continued to call out landmarks. And that’s when it happened again. Marly pointed out ‘Ryerson’, and once more, Shirley diplomatically objected. She was right… it was OCAD.
It was at this point that Marly realised maybe being a tour guide wasn’t the side hustle for her, and for the duration of the walk back to school, rather than point out landmarks, she listened to Shirley explain the law of attraction - a skill which she claims she used herself, “secretly manifesting” that one day, they would duo up. As it turns out, the universe did answer, although it took a few years before the two ended up working together, and claiming the name they now go by: ‘Shmarly’.
To this end, despite the memorable first adventure leading to a great friendship, they didn't immediately collaborate. While it made sense initially - seeing as they were both in the copywriting program - for some inexplicable reason, even when Shirley made the switch to art direction, they still didn’t become a team!
“[After making the switch], for some odd reason, we still didn’t partner up together, but then we thought, we get along so well as friends, so why not try this out,” Shirley says. “So, after a few internships apart, where we’d longingly stare at each other, wondering why we weren’t together, we finally joined forces at john st., where we had decided to intern. As of now, we’ve known each other for four years, and been working together for two.”
In that two year span, though the duo have collaborated countless times, they can still vividly remember their first projects together - both academically and professionally. In the case of the former, Shirley has memories of working on a student award brief for Brooks Running - an experience which helped them discover their mutual willingness to share ideas and thoughts with each other.
Yet, she adds, this may have been a double-edged sword. “We might have overshared ideas to the point where we didn’t know which idea we should pick, which ended in us procrastinating and only deciding on an idea at the last minute. It was low-key chaos, because we sat there doing a lot of talking, and not a lot of deciding!”
While Shirley also admits that this process has repeated itself a few times since graduation, she and Marly have also since learned that even though it’s great to keep ideating and pushing for the best idea, it’s always for the best when procrastination is avoided; a lesson which proved useful when they found themselves thrown - during their very first internship - right into the brief for a 30-second TV spot.
“Have you seen those TikToks of babies being thrown in water to learn how to float on their own? OK, maybe that’s just my TikTok ‘For You’ page, but that’s the best way I could describe our first professional project together,” Marly says. “As interns, you’d expect to get the social asks and the banner ads at first, but no, we got briefed by the CCO, and told it was due the next morning. No accounts people, no ACDs, no seniors… just us.”
Had anyone spectated the pair, the situation would have seemed dire. Marly was pacing back and forth, and Shirley found herself repeating ‘You’ve got this’, and ‘We’ve got this’ over and over and over. But before either of them knew it, the blank document was suddenly filled with script options, ready to go for the next morning’s meeting. “The CCO called us the next morning, we read through our options, and then I blacked out,” she continues. “But the next thing I knew, it was on TV. We were thrown into calls with editors and audio houses and clients, but just like those TikTok babies in the water, we stayed afloat. It wasn’t revolutionary, but for us, it was. We still have a screenshot from a letter the client wrote to us - reminding us to this day that ‘We’ve got this.’”
And got this they have. Since trading advertising for PR with a joint move to Citizen Relations in December 2021, the dynamic duo have been involved in a number of projects of which they are both immensely proud. In Marly’s case, as an avid enjoyer of ‘Emily in Paris’ , her favourite collaboration is the one that feels closest to the show, which she affectionately calls ‘Shmarly in NYC’. “We were interning in NYC (in the same agency, but with different partners), and we stayed in the office until like three in the morning, determined to crack this brief for harnessing your dogs,” she recalls. “We submitted it blurry-eyed and brained, and we were just happy that we did it. And then a few weeks later, Shirley, from across the intern table, was like ‘Marly! Refresh your email!’. We both just laughed in shock. We had won! It just kind of felt like a movie moment for whatever reason. The whole saga now lives rent free in my head.”
Meanwhile, Shirley’s favourite project is also the one both partners call the most difficult: the ‘Cheetle Hand Statue’. Their first project at Citizen, the two found themselves forced to rewire what they thought they knew about the industry, as up until that point, they had only experienced making ads. However, seeking creative challenges was the very reason why they made the swap in the first place, and with the help of the leadership team at Citizen, they found themselves experiencing the benefits of, as Marly puts it, “what happens when an agency replaces department walls with doors.”
“With a little magic Cheetle dust, Citizen’s earned-first thinking, solution-oriented clients, and our right-hand producers, we pushed the boundaries and found a solution that would fit the scope and explode the KPIs,” Marly says. “What started as a quick call to the town reeve of Cheadle ended up on late night television. Now that’s a story for the grandchildren!”
Continuing, Shirley adds that building a 17-foot Cheeto statue in Cheadle, Alberta was something neither was truly prepared for, but due to great production partners and strong collaboration, it felt like they were in good hands the entire time. “Where previously, most of our projects were more traditional ads, this was the first project that really got media attention on a large scale,” she says. “Being able to see our project be talked about on social media, news outlets, and even late night shows like Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Kimmel (featuring Don Cheadle) was a feeling like no other. I had a friend who lived in Calgary for a bit, and he would send me pictures of his friends visiting it. As someone who loves pop culture, it really felt like we made a cultural moment.”
When looking at the partnership, another facet which undoubtedly helps facilitate consistently strong outcomes is the fact that when it comes to disagreements, they hardly ever have them. Both Marly and Shirley agree that the pair are very judgement free, emphasising vibes over rules, and focusing on being ‘yes, and?’ people to reframe or build ideas in the case they aren’t aligned.
“We generally agree on most things,” says Shirley. “We know that our creative thinking is still being built, so when we disagree, it’s a great way to learn what the other person is thinking, if our gut is right or if their gut is right, and why. We’re not the type of team to shut down the other person’s idea if they feel passionately about it. So, when it comes to ideas that maybe one of us loves more than the other, we’ll present it to our creative director to get their take. If the CD loves it, we learn why it’s working, and if they don’t, we learn why it’s not working. We like to think of ourselves as sponges, and this allows us to keep building our creative thinking.”
In fact, the sole point of frustration in their relationship is Marly’s colour-coding system. While Shirley proclaims that she herself does love good organisation, she admits that Marly’s tendency to highlight things in very harsh colours sometimes hurts her eyes, and leaves her a little lost while looking at it. (But given that it works, she notes that can’t really complain beyond that!).
This consistent synergy, according to Marly, can also be attributed to the fact that the duo are just in touch with each other’s vibes, and - having been together through not only thick and thin, but the microcurrents of energy and emotion throughout the past four years - are able to perfectly balance each other out. “If one of us is stressed, the other will be chill. If one of us is drained, the other will bring the energy. We just fill in for each other emotionally every day if that makes sense.”
But beyond the balancing, the two also prove consistent sources of joy and inspiration in each other’s lives. “My first impression of Marly was that she felt like a ray of sunshine,” Shirley says. “It’s very cheesy but very true. She was bubbly, friendly, and didn’t take herself too seriously. None of that has changed, and it’s also a reason why we go so well together.”
To this end, Shirley is in constant admiration of Marly’s unwillingness to take ‘no’ for an answer. “Whenever she’s asked what her advice is, she always says ‘start somewhere’,” Shirley notes. “Although we laugh about it because it’s kind of funny, I think she truly embodies it. She’s solution-oriented, and that’s something I’m learning from her - to look for more solutions no matter the problem, and to just start doing something.”
Marly returns the praise, adding that Shirley has altered her brain chemistry forever, in the best way possible. “Shirley has taught me to see the good in every idea, person, place, and feeling. She’s taught me that anything can be reframed into a positive, and to find the laugh and the light in everything. There is not a single positive characteristic that wouldn’t describe her. She's been my inspo since day one.”
In fact, Marly would even go so far as to call Shirley family. “If sisters are built in best friends, then creative partners are built in sisters. I don’t have a sister, so Shirley is like the sister I never had,” she continues. “She’s my inspo, my therapist, and my extra set of eyes and ears. We bounce work ideas off each other, business ideas off each other, and dumb ideas off each other. Often when we work together, we make ‘Google Brain Dump Docs’. We are basically that to each other in human form. We can just brain dump on each other nonstop without judgement. It’s very therapeutic.”
Shirley can’t help but agree with Marly’s analysis of their relationship, adding that the pair are so similar that they sometimes finish each other’s sentences, or send the exact same gifs in chats at the exact same time - both of which make the fun of hanging out in their free time truly outstanding. Whether they’re going shopping (sales only, Marly notes), walking, venting, ordering bubble tea, meeting Netflix reality stars in random bars or having multiple dinners in one night, ‘Shmarly’ are always up for some, as Shirley says, “shenanigans”.
“We’ve flirted with the idea of opening Airbnbs, investing in properties, moving to NYC together, opening bakeries together, and many other business ideas that maybe we will manifest one day,” Marly continues, which Shirley finishes with: “Any time is a good time when we have each other!”