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Keeping the Craft Sharp with Michael Katzikowski


The Commonwealth//McCann vice president creative director on why he likes to put his focus on one brand, the joys of mountain biking, and why design can be found in every aspect of the working process, writes LBB’s Josh Neufeldt

Keeping the Craft Sharp with Michael Katzikowski

"Great creative has no boundaries. The best work can come from anywhere. Meet some of Canada’s best creative thinkers. The work is world-class and consistent."

Canadian production company FRANK Content is a proud supporter of Little Black Book as its partner for the Canadian market.

With 19 years of experience, Michael Katzikowski (A.K.A ‘Katz’), is an industry-recognised creative on both a global and national level. With a background in art direction, design and illustration, he is currently leading the creative department at Commonwealth//McCann as vice president creative director, and most recently the creative and production department of 6Degrees Integrated Communications as ECD, now DonerNorth.

Thankful to have worked with some of the finest creatives in the industry, Michael has had the opportunity to not only work on, but win the business of some of the largest brands nationally and globally, including Nike, Gain Laundry Detergent Global, Chevrolet Canada, Citi Bank, Tim Hortons, Loblaws, Gillette Global, Labatt, Canopy Growth Canada & US (Tweed, DNA, LBS, Tokyo Smoke, Quatreau) TD Canada Trust, Infiniti Motors, Can AM Global, Spyder Global, and Nissan Canada.

And, when he’s not focused on creativity, you can find Michael fulfilling his need for speed mountain biking the best trails in the world.

To chat about all this and more, LBB’s Josh Neufeldt sat down with Michael, discussing everything from a love of design, to why his experience as a Canadian Marketing Association judge impacts the way he attempts to produce work. 

LBB> How did you get started in advertising? Tell us about your story! 

Michael> It's funny, I feel like I’ve been in advertising my entire life. It all started back when I was about 10. I appeared in my first commercial, for Towers, and I remember wearing a ‘New Kids on the Block’ pyjama set. I fell in love with the industry from then onward, and not because of the pyjamas. I landed more commercials as the years passed, eventually getting my full Actra credits, leading to even more jobs. The more time I spent on sets, the more curious I was about how ads were built, the techniques photographers and videographers used to get their end results, and of course, how the ideas were manifested. All avenues pointed back to ad agencies. I knew then, that at some point in life, I wanted to be on the other side of the camera - wherever that might be.  
That curiosity, coupled with my passion for creating any kind of art from drawing, sculpting, playing music and producing electronic tracks, led me to pursue a career as a graphic designer. I attended York University and Seneca College of Applied Arts, and really can say without a doubt that two professors pushed me to realise my true potential; Joanne Daoust, a brilliant artist that taught us how to think strategically about our solutions; and Paul Shecter, a typography guru who taught me the profound impact type has on the world around us, and design. Probably two of the most influential people that led me to where I am today, with timeless tools at my disposal.

I started working as a graphic designer while I was still in college studying. I broke into the Toronto nightlife scene designing flyers, naming bars, clubs, and restaurants, and then designing their identities (in some cases, their interior design also). Getting to be super loose creatively, and having the freedom to explore so many different design styles on extremely fast timelines made this the perfect introduction to the industry. I learned about production hands-on, and managed my own clients which gave me insight into the business side of the industry. I went from this into my first role as an art director at the Hive Strategic Marketing. 


LBB> Michael, you’re rapidly approaching 20 years in the industry. What has your experience been like during this time? How has the industry developed and changed, and what keeps things fresh and exciting? 

Michael> I’ve seen the industry change quite dramatically over the years, but my nickname, ‘Katz’, hasn’t. When I started out, the industry was notorious for long hours and seven-day work weeks, but we all loved it and bragged about how much sleep we were missing. Rad ideas won - without any strategy at times - and there was one social media platform that would dictate how and where you would show up. Big agencies dominated the world of advertising.  
Fast forward to today, the landscape is incredibly competitive with the introduction of smaller capable agencies, and the abundance of data available at the click of a button, not to mention the rise of AI. With so much competition, so many tools, and the increased popularity of influencers, the vibe is different. It’s become faster-paced and hyper-focused. Trends are changing and the measure of great work has pivoted from just cool or evocative ideas to ideas that make an impact, or change the way we live our lives, or the world around us. 
I also think that is exactly what makes the industry fresh. Brands are willing to change, take risks and think more inclusively, with a focus on culture. This gives every single creative person in this industry the chance to literally change a life… or the world. And that’s something that keeps me coming back for more. 

LBB> What are your main aims and ambitions at Commonwealth//McCann Canada?  

Michael> At Commonwealth//McCann, our sole client is Chevrolet. Chevrolet has a long and successful history in Canada going back over 100 years. It’s an amazing brand with so much potential, particularly as we advance toward an EV future. In my view, this is the most exciting time in the history of the company and automotive category! 

During my time here, I want to build on Chevrolet’s heritage and help expand reach into new audiences, to include more Canadians across all facets of life. I want to help inject more youthfulness, diversity, and vibrancy into the brand, so it resonates with more Canadians. We are already accomplishing some of these goals by launching our Silverado ZR2 winter campaign, where we put the first female driver behind the wheel of a Chevrolet truck spot in Canada and revealed to Canadians some magical parts of our beautiful country.  
But beyond that, I would love for us as a team to propel Chevrolet back on top as one of the best marketers and leading culture brands in Canada. 

LBB> Speaking of Commonwealth//McCann Canada you’re coming up on a year and a half working there. How’ve you found it during that time, and what compelled you to join in the first place?  

Michael> Wow, time flies! I feel like I’ve only just started. The vibe over here is infectious. Everyone at Commonwealth//McCann moves to the same beat, with a common goal. This helps each day be as productive as possible, while still maintaining a great work-life balance. 
In the past, I worked with Joshua Stein at Proximity BBDO. We made a great team back then, so that was a huge factor as to why I made the move to come to Commonwealth//McCann. He has a true passion to create exceptional work and even though he’s the CCO, he still gets in the weeds with teams to produce stellar, strategic creative.  
Kevin Pfuhl also made a great impression, and our goals were aligned from day one. His drive to push for smarter everything, while having a beat on strategy and creativity, just makes the team that much stronger.   
Finally, my passion for automotive was the clincher. I’ve worked on brands like Infiniti, Nissan, BMW, BRP and Mercedes Benz. When I heard CW//McCann was looking for a creative director to join the team and focus primarily on Chevrolet, I jumped at the opportunity. Most creatives like the opportunity to work on multiple accounts, for variety and awards. I'm rare - I like putting my focus on one brand when I can; you can really see and feel the impact the teams can make over time. And what better way to become an expert at something than to put the time in at it?  

LBB> You mentioned having experience launching brands. Do you have a regular approach for undertaking tasks like this? 

Michael> It's always a good idea to start by reviewing consumer trends in the category. Map out the space to get an understanding of the competition. Equally important is to understand the business objectives. This means collaboration sessions with clients to get some initial conversations started, and creative territories flowing. Depending on the brand, it’s a great idea to immerse yourself - and your team - in/with the product. From there, we can start designing and developing the brand ethos while exploring what inspires us. From typography to photography, colours to tone and emotion, I look at everything. All this exploration leads to strong, relevant brand building.  

LBB> You were previously a judge for the Canadian Marketing Association. Please tell us about this! What does great work look like to you, and did you pick up any skills during that time that you apply to your work today? 

Michael> It's always an honour to be chosen to judge work from peers in the industry. Every year, there’s such a great collection of ideas, but some stand out more than others. When scoring the work, I’m looking for ideas that translate easily - ones that are unique but relevant, and that have some kind of impact. They need to introduce something new to the world: a new way of thinking or interacting, or even viewing and converting. 

I'm also less focused on the results. Almost every campaign I judge has the impressions these days, and enormous numbers. Those stats are table stakes. Ideas that provide an experience - emotionally or physically - stand out. I try to bring these same qualities to all the work I produce with my team.  

LBB> And building on this, how would you define your leadership style, and what factors have played the biggest influence on this style? 

Michael> I try to lead with empathy and inspiration, while allowing my teams to have creative freedom. Everyone has diverse ways of solving problems and interacting, so almost everyone requires a different type of leader. Depending on my team and the project, I modify my leadership approach. I may guide more with one team or get my hands dirty more with another. I believe for all CDs, it's important to keep your craft sharp to guide effectively. With a background in design and working close to 20 years with exceptional writers, I’m able to help my teams out of a jam if needed.  
I’ve also had the good fortune to work with some of the best creative directors in Canada. Much of my creative leadership style would be influenced by them, but I think I’ve learned the most about how to be an empathetic and inclusive leader from strategists.  

LBB> Michael, earlier you expressed a passion for all design. How does this factor into your working process? 

Michael> Everything we do in this industry is a product of design. From the brief to the final execution, it all deserves some design thinking, and I don’t necessarily mean visually. If the brief is designed to be clearly articulated, the solutions will be designed much smarter. If solutions are designed to be the best they can be, the message will be clearer to the end recipient. If a brainstorming session was designed with structure, it's more effective. At its core, marketing is communication, and communication is the core function of design. So, for me, it's part of every aspect of our working process, not just the end product.  

LBB> What are your thoughts on the Canadian ad industry in general at the moment? What are the main factors affecting conversations with clients?  

Michael> We are all coming out of a game-changer few years, and new ways of working are now comfortable at most agencies. With hybrid work weeks and teams back in the office with purpose, collaboration is becoming better and better. This is all reflected in the work across the country. After the pandemic, innovation in the digital space is driving many conversations with clients across the board, and ways to connect on a cultural level with its consumers.  
Beyond that, Canada is being recognised on a global scale increasingly, which proves that Canadian thinking is unique and setting trends. The work north of the border is getting smarter, more competitive, and more creative thanks to such a diverse and talented range of partners and colleagues we all collaborate with daily. Canada has and continues to grow great talent.   


LBB> What helps you destress after a long day at work? 

Michael> A few things. Dinner with my family and playing Hot Wheels with my son. I love that he gives me the excuse to buy toys and play again! And I cannot leave out mountain biking - a passion of mine for the last 27 years. On the trails, my mind detaches from the rest of the world, and it also exposes me to areas of our city, community, country, and nature I would otherwise never experience. It taught me how resilient and capable we humans are. Everyone should give it a go… just keep the rubber side down.  

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Frank Content, Fri, 24 Mar 2023 16:43:06 GMT