Once Upon a Time in Canada - Nymblesmith
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Once Upon a Time in Canada

Once Upon a Time in Canada

There were two things I had in mind to write about this week. Two stories I thought were very important, but then, something really interesting, tragic and angering happened to a friend and former colleague of mine. Something that made me think it was a story worth telling to as large an audience as I could muster.

Now it’s possible that this is just a Canadian story. But it’s an agency story, too. A digital creative story. And last week, it emerged very clearly as a heartless big business story.

But then, something curious happened. Something unexpected. Something a little bit inspiring.

Once upon a time…

A small, independent publisher of newsletters became something.

Founded in 1989 in Toronto, Canada, Ariad Communications began as a custom publisher that eventually grew into a 70+ employee, award-winning agency they described as “a strategy-led creative agency that specializes in content, digital communications and consumer activations.”

Nearly 30 years in business. Evolving from one, specific specialty into a full-service provider of digital creative services. A leader in virtually all senses of the word. Ariad attracted great clients like Unilever, Degree, Johnson & Johnson, Colliers, Becel and Visa and if what I know about my friend is any indication, attracted a tremendously talented staff as well.

Barbarians @ the gates

But like so many agencies, in July 2015, Ariad was acquired by High Road Capital Partners, a New York City-based private equity firm. The public story as told through a series of press releases was a jointly-beneficial partnership between the Canadian agency and American agency Bluespire, also under the High Road umbrella.

The two companies were to combine into a collaborative international effort.

Michael Beckerman, who became CEO of the joint effort said at the time, “Many of our Canadian clients who have a presence in the U.S. have been interested in Ariad doing more business in the U.S.”

Bluespire president Tyler Norenberg, described the effort as a “combination exciting on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.”

And as these things often do, everything looked rosy. For a time.

Taking the low road

This week, however, it came to light that the ironically named High Road, less than three years after the acquisition, took the low road and closed Ariad’s doors for good. There was no announcement from Murad Velani, the latest Bluespire CEO. There was no notice to the 70 now former employees. No notice to the agency’s clients. No plan. No severance. No direction on how freelancers would be paid for their work, clients already billed for work to be done.

It seemed like a prototypical private equity play. “Vulture” capital. Take over a company. Optimize the bottom line. Then “harvest” the profit or jettison the dead weight. But this seemed a bridge too far. A bit more than most.

Maybe through these American eyes, we expect more of our friendly neighbors to the north. To so many of us, they always seemed a bit nicer. Funnier. Better. But, High Road is a New York City owner. So maybe it’s not that surprising after all.

The Letter

So the day all this went down, my friend and former colleague, Jeff Moores wrote a letter. We all say we’ll write something when something happens and we’re unfairly treated. We like to think it’ll make a difference, but most of the time, we don’t. And most of the time it doesn’t.

But Jeff posted his open letter on LinkedIn. Addressed to Murad Velani, the leader of the now defunct enterprise. He called Velani out for casting people aside. For a failure of leadership. For an abandonment of trust. All those things we all like to say when something like this happens.

In the end, he simply closed with “I hope one day you realize that it’s not always about numbers. Kindness matters.”

I don’t imagine Jeff expected a reply from Velani. But what he did get was replies and comments from dozens of fellow Araidites, friends, colleagues, industry professionals. To an individual, they were all supportive, sympathetic, empathetic, and kind.

And then…

What seemed like out of nowhere, help arrived in the form of “family” offers of help, guidance, assistance and support in finding places to land from people in a position to help. People like Jed Schneiderman, Baron Manett, Geoff Linton, Jaqueline Court and the Toronto Ad Jobs Network, Rob Rathke, Greg Cormier, Paige Freeborn, Diana Luu.

Ariadite, Travis Doughty created hireariad.com to help consolidate information and profile everyone on the Ariad team.

LinkedIn even offered their services directly to the former Ariad family with their LinkedIn profiles and associated visibility.

Except for working with Jeff for a short time at another company, I don’t know any of these people. But I wish I did. I even find myself wishing that I could become an adopted Canadian.

The injustice is not that the company closed. It’s not bankruptcy that’s the problem. It’s how it was done. How these good, talented people were just cast aside like old, outdated, valueless hardware.

The response to this injustice is not hundreds of thousands marching in the streets. It’s not a worldwide hashtag campaign. What it is, though, is unique and human and ongoing.

It is inspiring to see how these professionals are reaching out to help each other and if this little article can do anything to help raise awareness of their situation or help others going through a similar situation, I truly hope it can.

I wish all my friends from Ariad the best of everything. And having followed this story this week, I confidently call them friends.

We’ve all had difficulties along each of our roads and encountered variations of unfairness, arrogance and disheartening behavior from our leaders and fellow humans from time to time. But this little story is still playing out and being driven by good people who care about their friends and colleagues. It reminds me—should remind us all—that we humans are pack creatures and we need to always look out for each other.

One of Jeff’s colleagues and commenters, Paige Freeborn, said in her post “We move in one direction. Forward.”

Let us work hard to move forward together.


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