Starting our own agency meant more than we ever imagined.
When we started our design and communication agency Fish out of Water Design Inc. (now the Fish Agency) over 20 years ago, we really didn’t know how unique our place would be in the creative agency space.
Back then in Toronto, there were no other women around us starting their own agencies. It turned out that it wasn’t just a trend of our city, or of that time. Today across North America, only 1% of creative agencies have been founded by women.
While we’re proud to be part of this exception, we wish there were more women founders like us. More women should know the joys of forging independent journeys in our industry. The challenges – while never easy – have been exhilarating. In the past two decades we have weathered a lot of change – dynamic business cycles, new industry competitors and customer ups and downs – but the experience has helped us grow multi-dimensionally: as creative professionals, as owners and as leaders.
Why has owning our own agency worked so well for us? We think it has a lot to do with the priorities we set years ago when we first started the Fish Agency. We had clear intentions about what kind of company we wanted to build. We have always worked towards a mission to deliver category-leading work that drives results. But we also knew what kind of workplace we wanted to make. Were our priorities unique to women leaders? Maybe – but what is truly gratifying is how many of them we have been able to keep:
The longevity and loyalty of our customer relationships have been as important a metric to us as our annual sales. We have many multi-year clients, including clients that have been with us since we started. And today we have clients that once left us and then came back, as well as clients that moved to roles in new businesses and returned to seek us out.
We always make the health of the client relationship a priority always – in both good times and bad. Recognizing that what lies between us is a partnership, there’s always give and take. Sometimes we might ask for more time on a project, or a client might need a different payment arrangement. We see beyond the basic terms of a retainer or project to much further down the road: to their results, to the next year, to completing long term strategic goals together.
A Female Perspective
Most of our clients are from the world of consumer-packaged goods and in this industry, according to Nielsen, women still make over 80% of the buying decisions.
The customer experience, no matter how it showed up in the client brief, became an instinctual and integral part of our work. For every product design and package made, we asked ourselves about how it could stand out, explain, intrigue, or create curiosity or cravings. For every retail environment we have designed, we made sure that it inspired and made shopping easier. We have always thought about our own female reactions to a project: what does this need to say so that I trust it? Or that I want it? How does it work? Would I buy it?
For everything we do, we are the strategists and designers. But more importantly, as women we have unique insight into the primary retail target audience.
A Place of Belonging
From the outset, we wanted to make a creative home for ourselves and the people who worked for us. That means that our agency worked for women: a place where we could all experience equality, flexibility, and community. Like our clients, many of them have stayed with us for years. And of those who have left, some have also come back.
A 2021 U.S. Women in the Workplace report suggests that women display different leadership styles than men, and that 60% believe that women leaders show more empathy and compassion. At the Fish Agency, we have always made space for conversations with our employees and made time to celebrate our successes.
It’s so important that studios mentor young talent. We have always felt a special responsibility to help young creative professionals, especially women, grow their careers. With low female leadership and ownership in many creative industries, young women especially aren’t seeing role models. A recent industry poll noted 70% of young female creatives say they have never worked with a female creative director or executive creative director. In today’s world, inclusion and equity in the in the workplace have never been more important: and we’re planning to continue to build on the culture we’ve created.
We came from two sides of the agency: Charlene from creative and Rebecca from client management. As equal partners of the Fish Agency we have created foundational strength in the agency but have also kept the two parts of the business as strategic equals as well. Our creative solutions have never eclipsed the needs of the client, and the business needs of running the agency have never overshadowed the expression of our best ideas.
All relationships experience their ups and downs, but we’re really proud of the balance we have maintained between ourselves and our colleagues: it has informed a strong culture of respect for the roles of all our teammates.
Starting our own agency has meant more than we ever imagined. It’s been a journey filled with challenges, but also with rewards. We’ve been able to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and grow as individuals and as a company. It’s been a journey of self-discovery and personal growth, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
The company we’ve created aligns with our values and we’ve been able to make a difference in the industry. We hope that our story inspires other women to start their own agencies and to know that it’s possible to create a successful and fulfilling career on their own terms.