2005: Every agency needs an in-house legal counsel

At the end of 2004, I took my first real vacation since starting the company; two weeks in Cuba for the wedding of two close friends and some needed rest. I was prepared to check in on the team regularly, but the only computer in the hotel could barely connect to the internet (at 1993 speeds). When I realized I would have no contact with the office, I’ll be honest, it was pretty liberating.

Over the trip I found myself digging into some deep conversation with Allen Mendelsohn, exploring where Plank had gotten to over the last five years and where I wanted to take it over the next five. Allen was a friend and someone I respected professionally: he was a lawyer at a major law firm and had somehow also managed to earn an MBA.

During one of our chats, Allen surprised me by suggesting he join the Plank team. I’d never considered that a high-falutin’ lawyer would leave that career path to join some ragtag little design agency. To bring him on board meant adding an entirely new capacity to the team. It felt like bringing a “real adult” into the room.

Allen Mendelsohn
"Real Adult" Allen Mendelsohn

By the spring of 2005, we worked out a deal making Allen Mendelsohn our Vice President of Marketing and Business Development. I was both excited and scared by how this may change the company. He was overqualified in every way, but for some crazy reason he still wanted to join us.

Thanks Mike!

Our ongoing work with Michael Moore was starting to have a direct impact on the company. Our profile was growing stronger and we were being considered for larger projects. Attention was growing in and outside of our home base of Montreal.

Both the English and French media had picked up on some of the chatter about our work and published profiles on us. In both cases, they wanted to understand how such a small company like ours was able to get the work that we were doing. On May 18th, the Montreal Gazette published an article on us in the business section of the paper. The feature titled “Michael Moore pushes small firm into big leagues” led quite a few phone calls and emails over the next week, as well as two new clients. That was followed by a feature in L’Actualité Magazine titled “Michael Moore se ‘plank’ à Montréal!” (The only reaction I got for that one was being recognized in a local depanneur.)

While Airborne Entertainment and Michael Moore continued to be our largest clients, we were developing two new sources for work. One was with Redknee, an IT company, headquartered outside of Toronto. When they contacted us I had no clue who they were or how big they were. Since they weren’t consumer focused, they had a limited profile with the general public.

We also entered partnerships with more traditional marketing and PR companies. Our digital expertise was increasingly important for their clients, and it was a good source of steady work for us. With a growing client base in Toronto, I found myself visiting the city a couple of times a year to deepen our relationships.

An Event Apart

Geoff and Rachel
Geoff and Rachel

While I had attended events like SXSW a few times, I hadn’t yet sent the team to any conferences. I had only started to learn about the concept of “professional development.” I figured if we keep up to date and research what’s going on, online, we would keep up, no problem!

When I heard that Jeffrey Zeldman was putting on a conference in Philadelphia all about building for the web, I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to send a few members of my team. I was happy Geoff and Rachel could attend the first An Event Apart in Philadelphia in 2005. In hindsight, I made a major logistical and social mistake: I booked Geoff and Rachel to share a hotel room together! I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that it wasn’t a great idea. I also don’t know why Rachel or Geoff didn’t call me out on it.

Momentum

By the end of the summer, our pipeline was almost 40% fuller than at the beginning of the year and the team was growing quickly to handle it. While myself, Steve and Geoff had been working mainly as generalists, we brought on three new additions as experts in their respective areas.

The success of the second half of the year was the result of a lot of things going right, at the right time. The addition of solid team members and a growing profile meant we could enjoy change and growth that was unsustainable before. We’d learnt some early lessons from our tougher years, we were starting to apply them a little more each day.

We had developed more administrative heft to get things done. As the sole owner of Plank, I was learning to trust the people in the room to create a momentum of their own and I did my best to empower them to move forward. I still micromanaged some clients and there were still too many clients who came on board because of my initial effort. My job was now to get them to buy into everyone else just as much.

2005 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • YouTube launches so millions of cat videos can be shared with the world
  • George Lucas thankfully completes his second Star Wars trilogy with the release of Episode III Revenge of the Sith
  • Michaëlle Jean becomes Governor General of Canada
  • David Tennant debuts as the newest Doctor Who
  • Canada legalizes same-sex marriage, only the fourth country in the world
The team as of December 2005

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Geoff Weeks — Allen Mendelsohn — Rachel Starr — Jennifer McIntyre — Lawrence Tenuta — Mateo Murphy — Tim White

2006: An original band member returns

Jenn came back!
Jenn came back!

After a few years with little contact, I found myself in an email exchange with our friend Jennifer Lamb who had been teaching in Taiwan. As the months wore on, it was increasingly clear she was considering moving back home. I told her if she came back, I would certainly have a job for her. I was happy we could find space for her in our expanding family and that she would accept coming back to a slightly different place.

In the 3+ years since she left, not only had Plank changed, but the tools and technology of the internet had changed. If it were someone else, I may have questioned bringing on someone with three years of rust on their professional skills, but not with Jenn. She was (and still is!) dedicated, hard working and always willing to challenge herself. When she first came to work at Plank she had a strong design background, but less so when it came to technology. That didn’t matter, she picked things up quickly and I was sure she would again.

After learning our Creative Director, Jennifer McIntyre, was moving on to re-focus on her true passion, print design, we were in search of a new creative lead. It was a few months until we were able to bring Gary Brazier on board. I had been aware of his design skills for quite a few years and was honoured he wanted to join our team. Until he started, everyone pitched in on design.

Rideau Hall calling

Still searching for design help, we secured a new, high profile project we were all very excited about. We were chosen to work with the Governor General’s office on the development of Citizen Voices, a digital platform to reach Canadian youth and start an online dialogue about four key themes; Youth, Women, Culture, and Belonging. The Governor General, Michaëlle Jean was personally engaged with the project and passionate about its success.

Two aspects of our work on this project stood out to me. First, while Rachel Starr had done solid design work for us before, this was leaps and bounds beyond. She managed to pull off an edgier, youth-focused design that somehow still managed to be sensible in the context of Rideau Hall. Second, Mateo Murphy put together an in-browser live chat application that was cutting edge for the time, though it may seem run of the mill now. The whole time we were developing this project there was always the looming sense something would fail but, somehow, there was something inherently exciting about that.

Plank as Agency Of Record

Month by month we steadily found ourselves handling more and more work for our friends at Redknee. What started as some help to refresh their website led to a complete overhaul, the development of their newsletter platform and all their digital presentation materials. Once we were being called on to handle their physical design items like their brochures and trade show booths, it was clear we had become something we’d never been before, a client’s Agency of Record. We really enjoyed working with them and it was a challenge I was happy to take on.

Black Eye Design departs

We’d shared our office space evenly with Black Eye Design since we’d moved in. Despite our personnel ups and downs, the 3000 square foot space always felt vibrant with them there. The first week they moved out, the office energy was low, way too low. We would need to add a few more people to the team to keep the energy up in a space this big. Lucky for us, things were heading in that direction.

While I was excited to have an office completely in our hands to shape and fill up, I was also sad they were leaving. They had become special friends and partners in all kinds of shenanigans.

Plank Appreciation Day

Thanks to Allen’s love of organized fun, we added a new company event to our calendar. At the end of the summer, we debuted Plank Appreciation Day, a day to leave work early and do a fun activity followed by dinner and drinks. For our first edition, Allen knew of a mini-golf course on Nun’s Island that was also connected to a good restaurant with a large outdoor patio. It’s been a summer staple ever since.

Geoff departs, kinda

After two years working full-time at Plank, Geoff let us know he was moving to Washington, DC as his wife got a position with an international news channel. On one hand, I was happy for both of them as they embarked on an exciting new chapter. On the other hand, I was worried that our remote arrangement might not work out. We hadn’t had much success with remote team members as our culture revolved around office hijinx.

Lucky for all of us, Geoff seemed to thrive in the peace and quiet of solo work. He was also very good at communicating and went out of his way to collaborate with the team. Of his ten years at Plank, eight of them were remote and he stayed an integral part of our company and culture.

2006 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • The Walt Disney Company buys Pixar for $7.4 billion and makes Steve Jobs and even richer gentleman
  • Google buys YouTube for $1.65 billion, less than two years since it’s launch. That was quick.
  • The Wii is released in North America and becomes an instant hit
  • Pluto ceases to be a planet
  • Stephen Harper becomes the Prime Minister of Canada. Pasty white people everywhere rejoice!
  • Wikileaks is launched by Julian Assange
The team, as of December 2006

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Geoff Weeks — Allen Mendelsohn — Jennifer Lamb — Gary Brazier — Rachel Starr — Lawrence Tenuta — Mateo Murphy — Tim White

2007: Balancing the divide

Sarah Bagnall and Nancy Beaton
Sarah Bagnall and Nancy Beaton

As the year began some members of the team left to pursue different careers and go back to school and, as a result, we were left with a pretty serious male / female imbalance in the office. At one point Jenn was the only women in an office full of dudes. While I knew this wasn’t a problem I would be able to fix overnight, it was something I became mindful of, and would continue to keep in the back of my mind. I knew we would need to make the effort to maintain gender parity in our team.

In May, one of the most infamous Plank team members, Nancy Beaton, applied for a job as a Front-End Developer. On top of spelling my name wrong on her cover letter, in her first interview she blamed me for gentrifying her neighbourhood. I let the snide comment slide — mainly because I’d been living in “her” neighbourhood for ten years — but also because she had actually gone through the code of some of our sites. I figured anyone who would take the time to do that before their first interview couldn’t be half bad. I also liked that she used the ladybug from our website as a flourish on her resumé.

When I first revealed to Nancy that, like her, I had Newfoundlander roots in my family, she was suspicious. It took a few months to accept that maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t lying.

In the fall, we decided we needed some project management help. We had met Sarah Bagnall a few years earlier, while working on a campaign to Save the Shriners Hospital. Over the course of the project, we got to know each other well and kept in touch after the project’s end. It took a few months of courting, but we finally won her over. She knew we would be a good team for her personality wise but she was sceptical about her interest in digital project management. I did what I could to give her some interesting projects to tackle that would be challenging from a content and design perspective, while she got more comfortable with the technology aspect of our work.

People Like Us

Since Black Eye Design had left the office, we still had more space than we needed. We invited our friend Romina Esquenazi to move her freelance company out of her house and into our office. Over the next few years, Romina and her husband Elbert, grew PLU into an impressive company of their own, with a sizeable team doing work with major companies and international brands.

Learning how to build relationships

As I reviewed the work over the year, I noticed a trend to be proud of. Most of it was with clients that had been with us for several years, working on multiple projects. Our strength was emerging as not only delivering quality work, but developing relationships built on loyalty, trust, and personal dynamics.

Early in the year, we received an RFP from a magazine I had never heard of. Initially, it seemed so out of left field I didn’t think much of it. As Allen and I dug more into what they were about, I could see that they were an organization I wanted to work with and I thought would be a great challenge for our team.

When I determined The Sun Magazine was seriously considering us, I decided to do something we had never done before and travel to “pitch” for the project. They weren’t exactly corporate types, and we had to find a way to show our strength as relationship builders and trusted partners. We decided the only way we could do that was for myself and Steve to visit Chapel Hill, North Carolina and see if we actually were a good match for The Sun.

In the end, they thought so, especially given some of the personal connections between Steve and their editor, Sy Safransky. They connected on their mutual background and history. We established that our two organizations melded well from both a personal and values perspective.

2007 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • At the beginning of the year, Apple announces the iPhone
  • Michael Moore’s Sicko debuts at the Cannes Film Festival
  • AMC Network begins broadcasting Mad Men
  • Barry Bonds hits his 756th home run to become the all-time MLB leader
The team, as of December 2007

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Sarah Bagnall — Nancy Beaton — Mike Ekoka — Allen Mendelsohn — Lawrence Tenuta — Mitch Amihod — Stephane Daury — Geoffrey Weeks — Tim White

2008: Our tenth anniversary

The team at Else's
The Team at Else's, aka Conference Room B

While the world economy was threatening to completely collapse, Plank was heading towards a key milestone, our 10th anniversary.

Our own McFern

When we’d first started working with Airborne, one of our key contacts was their CTO, Dennis McFern. I always quite liked Dennis as he was a perfect blend of directness, professionalism, and affability. I always knew if he was going to be involved in a project, it would have momentum.

So when a C.V. ended up in my inbox with the last name McFern on it, it was a sign I should consider this candidate seriously. When I figured out Patrick McFern was the son of Dennis, I said to myself at the time “we have to hire him. McFerns are good people”.

Narrowing our focus

Like many other digital studios, we typically took on whatever projects came our way. While I was conscious of making sure the scope of work and people were a good match for our team, I wasn’t yet intentional about the types of projects we wanted to work on. Our portfolio and case studies would have certainly influenced some organizations to contact us and not others, but we wanted to get more specific about our target clients.

A large part of our work was with non-profits, like the UNFPA and Canada Tibet Committee, mainly dealing with social justice issues. It was rewarding that we could have a major effect on their digital presence, and that we could feel good about our work on projects that were making the world a better place.

With a love for the Arts and Entertainment, we decided to actively promote and invest in working on these types of digital projects. We were honored to get to work with the Gillette Entertainment Group and The Segal Centre, so we could build them platforms that would allow them to promote and sell the majority of show and event tickets in the Montreal area.

Conference Room B

Everyone has a favourite restaurant, coffee shop, or bar where they like to hang out. As soon as you get the “Norm from Cheers” treatment, it forever becomes a second home.

That place for me was a small resto-bar, on a side street off St. Laurent, called Else’s. While I first visited it in the late 1990’s with a girlfriend, it became an early Plank hangout, a place to go to blow off steam, think through an issue or even conduct job interviews. By the end of the 2000’s, it had also become the team’s preferred spot to decompress at the end of the week. We started to refer to it as Conference Room B.

Concerned, but prepared

As the year came to an end, I had every reason to worry about the future of our little company. As the western economy headed into the deepest recession in over 70 years, thanks to the banking and housing and stock market crisis rippling through our neighbour to the south, I needed to be acutely aware of any damage it would do to our clients and their willingness to invest into work with us. I had to also make sure I was able to line up work for the coming year to keep the team busy.;

I had been through hard times before and I was ready to tackle them head-on, if they hit us.

2008 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • Spotify launches in Sweden. Everyone else continues to pirate MP3’s
  • Microsoft tried to buy Yahoo for $44 billion, lucky for them, it didn’t happen
  • Marvel’s "Iron Man" is released. Robert Downey Jr. becomes a very rich man.
  • The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is powered up. No black holes form to swallow our planet.
The team as of December 2008

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Gary Brazier — Geoffrey Weeks — Joel Perras — Patrick McFern — Mitch Amihod — Tim White — Nancy Beaton — Sarah Bagnall

2009: Steady as she goes

As the economic crisis finally bottomed out at the beginning of the year, we were firing on all cylinders. In addition to the long-term relationships we had, we established some new and important ones early on in the year.

Thanks to an introduction by a local documentary filmmaker friend, we found ourselves working on something totally new to us, a funded startup with bases in New York City and Los Angeles. It was a lot of challenging, custom work that saw our most senior and junior team members learn and collaborate together. While in the end, Eguiders didn’t end up becoming what had been envisioned (a celebrity-curated video site), I am still proud of the work we did, and that the site is still live.

While our direct relationship with Airborne Mobile had come to an end, the relationships that we forged with many of their team members lived on. In fact, one of those team members had moved on to be the Director of Marketing at a Montreal-based Robotics and Toy company called WowWee. I always enjoyed my time collaborating with Steve Hardy, so I was humbled when he thought to consider us when moving over to WowWee. Over the next few years, we would work with them on at least six different web projects and countless digital marketing initiatives.

A humbling evening

I was at the office a bit late one snowy evening in February, and dying to get home to have a quiet night to myself. Elbert and Romina were there with me and asked me if I was interested in an after work drink at our favourite spot, Else’s. My answer was a definite no. For some reason, they were adamant we go, and that they really wanted to hang out. As usual, I caved in the end and we shuffled off for a drink.

What I didn’t know was there were other plans and schemes afoot.

When we got there, I was surprised to see some other people from the office, and then I noticed everyone from the office was there, and other friends. I had no clue what was going on since there was no reason at all for this larger gathering. It dawned on me what was going on when I saw the signs. The team had gotten together to thank me, to appreciate me. I don’t think anyone there that day knew how much it meant to me.

We love Warren!
Oh, shucks, you guys.

SXSW Redux

Now that most of my team had the opportunity to attend SXSW over the past few years, I wanted to go back to get a good dose of inspiration and see for myself how the event had changed over the past six years. While the crowds were huge, the panels inspirational and the extra time with the team important, there was one outcome of the trip that was most important.

What I didn’t know at the time is that Sarah was struggling with her role. She wasn’t feeling confident in her understanding of technology and didn’t feel connected to the digital agency world in general. She felt isolated and didn’t know where to turn to understand her job better. Attending SXSW changed things as she found a community of like-minded people who were doing similar things.

It was a good learning moment to realize we needed to invest in giving maximum clarity and support to new team members doing something outside of their comfort zone. This is still an ongoing struggle that we are working on getting better at.

Thank you Michael

In the fall, I made a decision that was contentious at the office, and I know Allen disagreed with. It was time to discuss moving on from working Michael Moore. As our highest profile client, it was a risky move but one I thought made sense for a number of reasons.

First, we were closing in on a decade of working with them and I was feeling like we weren’t offering them our most inspired work anymore. I was worried our ability to offer new, inventive ideas was just about spent. Second, the growing impact of social media was changing how Michael Moore was communicating online. He was definitely enjoying the direct impact he was having on social media. Finally, I had to admit I was struggling. I was still the main project manager on all things related to Michael Moore and the main contact on all projects. In fact, in some cases, I was still doing some design and basic coding on the sites, which was becoming a growing problem. My job had evolved into leading the company and not working on the day to day execution of projects. I came to recognize my role with these projects was distracting from my main focus on the company, and also wasn’t allowing me to dedicate myself properly to Michael.

Michael’s team thanked us for everything we had done, and wished us well. Now we had to see if we could move forward as a company and define ourselves separately from Michael Moore. It was a bit scary to start what I was referring to at the time Plank’s “post-Michael Moore era”. While Allen was right from a business point of view this wasn’t the best decision, it was one I needed to make to invest in building my confidence in myself and our company.

2009 Facts (Sources are this, this, and this)

  • Dow Jones Industrial Average bottoms out about 7,000 in late February, after peaking at 14,000 in October 2007.
  • James Cameron's Avatar is released and goes on to become the highest grossing movie of all time
  • Barack Obama is inaugurated as the first African-American president of the United States
The team as of December 2009

Warren Wilansky — Steve Bissonnette — Jennifer Lamb — Gary Brazier — Geoffrey Weeks — Allen Mendelsohn — Joel Perras — Mitch Amihod — Nancy Beaton — Patrick McFern — Sarah Bagnall