A Winnipeg-based firm captured one of the biggest prizes at this summer’s Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) National Conference – and two University of Winnipeg alumni played integral roles in the agency’s success.
Alongside their team at Brandish Agency, UWinnipeg graduates Derek Elliott and Alexandra Martin won gold in Agency Team of the Year (Medium) at CPRS’s Awards of Excellence Gala. Elliott, who graduated from UWinnipeg in 2016 with a Bachelor of Business Administration, is partner and co-founder of Brandish. A graduate of UWinnipeg’s Joint Communications degree/diploma program, which is run in cooperation with RRC Polytech, Martin is the agency’s director of brand.
The honour marked the first national award win for the agency and came following a year in which Brandish worked on campaigns for high-profile clients such as Wawanesa Insurance and Tune Financial. For Elliott, a direct path to this recognition can be traced through the halls of UWinnipeg, where he not only arrived with his sights set on a career in marketing, but which provided him with one of his earliest big breaks.
The ability to take time and learn slowly and with curiosity at university really helped me to at least have the foundation to think critically when approaching some different problems creatively at the agency
“About three years through business school, I got an opportunity at a local agency here that turned into a job, and then while I was in school, I actually represented UWinnipeg at a contest called Canada’s Next Top Ad Exec,” Elliott said. That opportunity paved the way to an internship at McCann Canada in Toronto, during which time Elliott and fellow co-founder Lee Waltham began to lay the groundwork for Brandish. Throughout his final year at UWinnipeg, Elliott was balancing his academic responsibilities with his budding agency.
Elliott said some of the most valuable lessons learned at UWinnipeg, however, weren’t necessarily those learned in the classroom. Rather, it was life at a downtown campus, the experience of community at UWinnipeg, and the connections he learned to make that proved most valuable. It provided Elliott with tangible experiences he could take into the field.
But if it was the context that was most valuable to Elliott, it was the diversity of educational experiences that most helped shape Martin into a catalyst for the award-winning organization’s operations. In her role, Martin is consistently searching for ways to strategize with clients, understand their needs, and discover new methods and avenues for storytelling. Those skills are innate, she said, to a university education.
“I studied psychology, was able to study communications theory, to ask big questions and solve big problems, and really think critically,” she explained. “It taught me how to research, to know a lot about different interpersonal communication styles, and you have to know about different levels of social psychology and sociology to be an effective, people-first marketer. The ability to take time and learn slowly and with curiosity at university really helped me to at least have the foundation to think critically when approaching some different problems creatively at the agency.”
Elliott and Martin cited a number of those who left lasting impressions on them during their time at UWinnipeg, including Dr. Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, Chair of the Department of Rhetoric, Writing, and Communications, and Dr. Sylvie Albert, Professor in the Department of Business and Administration. Martin noted the way in which UWinnipeg’s community and collaborative environment allowed for important dialogue to take place and enrich the educational experience.
“The familiarity of the campus, the familiarity of the classroom, the comfort – it’s a comfortable learning environment,” Martin said, adding it allowed the space to ask questions, get to know faculty, and form meaningful bonds.
Looking back on his time at UWinnipeg now, Elliott’s advice to anyone with designs on entrepreneurship is to take what they are learning and build what he often refers to as “context.”
“The most important thing for a young person to do is not just take for granted that what they’re reading in a textbook is the reality of the world,” Elliott said. “Go out, meet people. Anyone can start a marketing company or an ad agency, but not anyone can start a good one. That takes a lot of work, great people, a community, connections, context – they need to go out and get that.”