By Chris Powell
It’s human nature to want to cling to the familiar. After all, it’s comfortable and safe. But Jill Nykoliation, CEO of ad agency Juniper Park\TBWA in Toronto, is acutely aware that everything inevitably reaches a conclusion. Perhaps more importantly, she’s content to let it happen. “Don’t use up energy trying to hold onto something that maybe is done,” she says.
It’s how Jill knew when to call time on what had been a hugely successful early career with Kraft Foods and step into the unknown world of advertising—first as one of the partners of the agency Grip Limited, and then two years later as a founding partner of Juniper Park, now part of the global TBWA network, headquartered in New York City.
Nearly two decades and multiple professional and personal accolades later, her decision appears prescient. But she remembers her colleagues at Kraft being mystified. She had attained so much success, they said, and was highly regarded within the organization. She’d regret it, they warned.
But for Jill, the move into the Mad Men world of advertising after 10 highly successful years as a marketer represented an opportunity to again create her own path through what she calls the “tall grass”—the unmarked territory that presents both opportunities and maybe even the occasional pitfall.
“I spent five years in the tall grass at Kraft, and when it started to feel like it was coming over to the paved road, that’s when I knew it was time to go.”
There was still so much she didn’t know when she first set foot into this new environment in 2005. Yet that step into the unknown brought with it the frisson of excitement that had been missing as her previous role reached its natural conclusion. “I spent five years in the tall grass at Kraft (where she helped launch and oversee the company’s data-led CRM efforts, years before such things became fashionable), and when it started to feel like it was coming over to the paved road, that’s when I knew it was time to go,” she says. “The part I was uniquely good at was wrapping up, and that’s when I went to the agency side of the business.”
The tall grass is a concept that Jill keeps circling back to when describing her professional life. It isn’t for everyone, but she delights in metaphorically hacking her way through, uncovering new insights and approaches. “I’m very much a tall grass person, and we’re a tall grass agency,” she says. “We attract people that love to carve out new spaces.” It’s not for the timorous, but Jill is convinced she’ll find her way through to the other side, usually with a breakthrough idea. “I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll have something to show for it,’ ” she says. “I don’t know what it is yet, but I will.”
That willingness to intrepidly venture into uncharted territory has enabled Juniper Park\TBWA to thrive while creating high-profile work for major Canadian and global brands including Apple, CIBC, GoDaddy, Nissan and PepsiCo.
The agency has grown from six employees since its formation in 2007 to 150 today, while adding to its capabilities with new divisions. They include the design studio Le Parc; a precision marketing arm called Scalpel; and a content production division called Bolt Content. Most recently, it launched Trampoline, an incubator and accelerator for small BIPOC businesses and emerging creatives.
While many Canadian offices of global ad networks often find themselves relegated to repurposing work created in New York or Los Angeles, Juniper Park\TBWA prides itself on being at the forefront of its clients’ marketing plans. “A satellite office would be a paved road,” says Jill. “What’s the global standard? We’ll do the Canadian version of that. We say, ‘No, we’ll create and launch [our own ideas].’ ”
There’s perhaps no better embodiment of that approach than 2020’s “Signal For Help,” a simple yet highly effective creation developed for the Canadian Women’s Foundation. The secret communication device for abused women arose out of one of the agency’s regular Thursday staff meetings—known internally as “pirate huddles”—during the pandemic’s early days.
“I remember saying to the team, ‘I don’t know what I’m asking, but is there a way we can help, using our tools and our culture of generosity and kindness.’ ”
That day, the conversation circled around to the rise in domestic violence due to women being trapped at home with an abusive partner. “I remember saying to the team, ‘I don’t know what I’m asking, but is there a way we can help, using our tools and our culture of generosity and kindness,’ ” says Jill. The American Sign Language symbol for “help” was too obvious, and texts or phone calls could be spotted or leave a digital trail for the abuser.
Like so many of the best communications, the idea put forth by Juniper Park\TBWA’s chief creative officer Graham Lang—folding a thumb into the palm of a hand, and closing the fingers over top to silently convey the message “I’m trapped”—was simple and easy to comprehend. Buoyed by widespread sharing on social platforms like TikTok, Signal For Help eventually travelled around the world, leading to news stories such as one out of Kentucky late last year in which a missing 16-year-old girl was rescued after using the gesture to indicate to passing motorists that she was being held captive. (A 61-year-old man was arrested.)
Jill says it’s a powerful feeling to know something she had a hand in creating proved so impactful. “I woke up that morning to a message from a girlfriend that read ‘Isn’t this your work?’ and I cried,” she says. “I’m proud beyond words.” Along the way, Signal For Help joined a select few Canadian-made ad campaigns that have travelled beyond the country’s borders, joining the likes of Always’ powerful “#LikeAGirl” and “Dove Evolution.”
Two decades since taking her first steps into the agency world, Jill is a highly regarded and acclaimed agency leader and CEO, notable accomplishments in a male-dominant business such as advertising. She is fluent not only in the masculine language of business, which tends to prioritize things like performance and innovation, but has oriented her agency around softer traits like empathy, vulnerability and collaboration. “I’m really good at saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I need help.’ There’s no shame in that,” she says. “I can be as smart as I want, but if I show up [with an] authoritarian style, it doesn’t matter because I’m unintentionally shutting people down.”
She describes her leadership approach as “leading from the feminine.” Shifting the business to be more supportive and collaborative unlocked the dormant potential within the agency. “I’ve learned that you can be a high-performance and forward-leaning organization, and do it with kindness, generosity and gratitude,” she says. “Performance doesn’t have to be cutthroat, and kindness doesn’t have to be at the expense of performance.” That’s borne out by the fact that, during what has been an incredibly difficult two-year period for the advertising industry, Juniper Park\TBWA had its best years from both a revenue and an output perspective in 2020 and 2021.
Ken Wong, marketing professor at Smith, says Jill has consistently demonstrated that profitability and moral integrity aren’t mutually exclusive. And she’s done it while never losing sight of the fundamental role agencies play in furthering their clients’ business objectives. “She is constantly inventing new services and refining old ones to keep her clients on the leading edge of marketing practice,” says Wong. “It should come as no surprise that her agency has been performing at record-breaking levels.”
Last year, Jill was named one of Canada’s three most powerful CEOs by the Women’s Executive Network (WXN). The annual award recognizes three women leaders considered “trailblazers in their field, [who] advocate for workplace equality and display vision, strong foundational character, a sense of integrity and the ability to elicit public trust.” Jill calls the accolade “humbling,” but is quick to share credit with her staff and the people who influenced her. “It’s a team award for me because nobody does anything alone,” she says. “It’s an amalgamation of all the people who have been brave and generous and kind enough to work alongside me.”
A Queen’s family
While there was no specific moment that Jill decided to pursue a career in marketing and advertising, the roadmap was in place from an early age. She learned about business from her father, Dennis, a successful executive who came up through the marketing side and held president and/or CEO roles with companies including Black & Decker Canada and Cambridge Towel.
“It was almost like I was doing classes at the dinner table,” she says. “I learned about branding in service to business all through my childhood. It was all very natural.” The Jills are a Queen’s family, with all four children attending the university. Jill’s twin brothers Brent and Bryan earned Commerce degrees in 1992, followed by Jill in 1993. Her other brother Michael graduated with a degree in life sciences in 1994.
“My parents always said ‘Jill, you can be anything a boy can be,’ and I believed them,” she says now. “I did well [coming up] through masculine industries and organizations, but now I look back and say, ‘How come nobody says to a guy that he can be anything a girl can be?’ ” Jill says that leading from the feminine has unlocked so much untapped potential within the agency—from elevating the calibre of the work and the insights that fuel it, to the makeup of the agency’s staff.
“How come nobody says to a guy that he can be anything a girl can be?”
When agencies looked to achieve greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Juniper Park was already well ahead. “We’ve been ahead of the curve so many times,” says Jill with a hint of pride. Today, more than half (54 per cent) of Juniper Park\TBWA’s staff is made up of women, while 32 per cent are BIPOC and 47 per cent come from outside of Canada. Lang and executive creative director Jenny Glover both hail from South Africa, for example, while president David Toto is from France.
“We want the sharpest talent possible. Who cares where they come from?” says Jill. “Our culture is borderless, which brings the freshest minds and most creative ideas. It is borderless in hiring international talent and how we assemble our teams.”
As a CEO, Jill is acutely aware of the power she wields in inspiring the next generation of female leaders. Early in her career, she was granted weekly access to famed Kraft CEO Irene Rosenfeld. It would shape her approach to strategic thinking. “I remember thinking, I am going to learn so much in her presence,” says Jill. “This is going to be a transformative project, and I can’t believe nobody’s fighting me for this. It will change me and rocket forward my learning.”
Working alongside Rosenfeld shifted Jill’s opinion of what a mentor should be. Today, she urges staff to sign up for projects that she’s involved with and simply watch how she works. “I could sit down with you for half an hour, or, like with Irene, I just decided she was going to be my mentor,” she says. “I thought, I’m going to do this work, but I’m also going to study her.”
When Jill was a young girl, her mother taught her how to sew. Fabric was her first creative canvas, and the more she learned, the more curious she became about how things were put together.
In many ways, that curiosity became a guiding principle of her career. “You dismantle brands, and you say ‘Oh, we can get rid of this and that, and this new piece comes in and then we’re going to build it back,’ ” she says. “And that’s what we do for every brand that comes in.”
It’s an approach that has helped distinguish both Jill and Juniper Park\TBWA in a highly competitive and occasionally cutthroat industry. Even the best runs eventually come to an end, of course. By then, Jill will likely have already recognized and accepted that it’s ending, and grabbed her metaphorical machete in preparation for the tall grass of whatever comes next.