All in the York family – a branding exercise driven by proud grads

Ron Baxter Smith photographing York's president for the "this is my time" campaign

From initiating to conceptualizing, from photography to market research, a coincidence of York alumni brought talent and passion to developing a University brand – and translating that brand into a student campaign, launched with great fanfare Wednesday.

It all began with a recognition by Susan Webb (BA ’87), executive director of Communications & Public Affairs, and President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri that York needed to strengthen and refresh its image – who we are, what we stand for and what our aspirations are. With help from her lieutenant Robin Edmison, associate director, Marketing & Creative Services, Webb enlisted doug & serge, a brand-building communications and design agency that is York’s agency of record.

headshot of Susan WebbSusan Webb

The agency then assigned Jason Buback (BA Hons. ’94) as lead copywriter to help develop the creative concept, commissioned Leslie Perkins (MA ’88) to conduct focus groups, then hired world-renowned photographer Ron Baxter Smith (BFA/BEd ’76) to take the stunning black and white portraits of students whose faces and testimonials will appear in banners, on buses, in cinema and newspaper ads.

“It’s a happy coincidence that talented alumni ended up working on this branding campaign,” says Webb. But, she adds, “it’s no coincidence that wherever you turn in the world, you will find a fantastic pool of York talent.”

Susan Webb (BA ’87 Glendon)

When Susan Webb joined York less than two years ago, she looked at her name tacked to the door – S.Webb. It prompted her to ask what the tone, manner and personality of York was and requested a brandguide. She discovered that York had clear guidelines on its visual identity, but it had not yet articulated its overall brand. Almost two years later, Webb, as executive director of Communications & Public Affairs, can proudly report she has helped the University develop a clear brand that “captures who we are and where we’re going.” That brand, developed in collaboration with doug & serge and embraced by the president, drives a new campaign, launched yesterday, to champion York’s spirit and its essence through the voice of students.

“Being a grad and being an employee of this University, I am fiercely proud of York and want to shine the light on its amazing strengths and differences.” She discovered those strengths and differences first-hand when she transferred from the University of Victoria in 1984. York was the only university that recognized all her UVic credits, offered a bilingual environment (close to home) and provided the opportunity to study abroad (in Nice, France). What York stood for in the past – “it was always passionate, spirited and willing to take risks” – may translate differently today, says Webb, but still marks it as a place that helps make positive change.

Jason Buback (BA Hons. ’94)

When Doug Robinson, chief creative officer of doug & serge, invited him to work on York’s branding campaign, Jason Buback leapt at the chance.

“As a York alumnus, I really, really wanted to work on this campaign,” says the English literature major. headshot of Jason Buback“York has changed the way I look at the world. I see things differently now, everything from song lyrics to foreign policy. I was honoured to be part of this campaign and to celebrate the impact York has on its students, and the impact these students have on the world.”

Jason Buback

You can hear him say these words in the launch video that is circulating around York about the branding campaign.

As senior copywriter and associate creative director, Buback helped come up with a winning concept for the campaign – Make Tomorrow Yours – that clearly excited focus groups. The agency team brainstormed about how to translate the concept into compelling testimonials and came up with the idea of a time machine – if students could look into the future, where would they hope to be? It was memorable and clever, and resonated emotionally with all who saw their presentation, says Buback.

“It is wonderful because it is rooted in truth, real truths and insights about York,” says Buback. Truths like: York is innovative, progressive, has global partnerships and great professors, and offers experiential learning.

Buback studied what he loved at York, made the Dean’s List and by his late 20s was working in an ad agency. Advertising is concept driven and he found that skills he learned at York came in handy. “York taught me to think critically, it sharpened my logical skills and certainly my thinking skills.” He credits his professor, Heather Ross, for teaching him how to parse poetry and discovering that changing the syntax of a sentence can change meaning in subtle, powerful ways. “I would not trade my education for anything. It moulded who I am.”

To this campaign, Buback brought an appreciation of York “as a great school whose reputation doesn’t live up to the truth of the school.” His belief in York fueled his passion to amend that perception; it made him and his team ambitious, he says. “We want to change that perception.” When science student Isaac De Souza said he wanted to put a man on Mars, Buback and his team knew the campaign concept was rooted in truth. “Students could dream their dreams and York would help them get there.”

Ron Baxter Smith (BFA/BEd Hons. ’76)

“Doug Robinson didn’t know when he asked me to do the York University ad campaign that I was a grad,” says Ron Baxter Smith, who took the compelling black and white photos of the students. Grad or not, Baxter Smith treated this job with the same artistry and commitment that has won him countless international awards and accolades. He’s worked with Robinson before on many corporate advertising accounts – Grolsch and President’s Choice, to name just two – but this time the creative director fingered Baxter Smith as the one for this project because of his reputation for producing dramatic black and white portraits, something he learned to do at York.

Ron Baxter Smith photographing York's president for the "this is my time" campaignRon Baxter Smith photographing York’s president for the “this is my time” campaign

The trick to a good portrait is capturing the glint in someone’s eyes, says Baxter Smith. And that’s what this campaign is all about – “students visualizing the possibilities of their own future”. How do you capture that magic? “I talk to people. I’ve directed TV commercials for 18 years. I’ve shot portraits for 30 years. I try very hard to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera.”

“They were all totally into it,” says Baxter Smith of the 12 students featured on banners and buses, in cinemas and newspaper ads. “That guy Isaac [De Souza] who believes in putting a man on Mars? That’s totally amazing! It’s in his eyes, it’s in his heart, it’s in his mind. It’s going to be a reality. Most of the things people dream, if they don’t dream them they can’t come true. I think Doug [Robinson] was really astute, working with his team to find the spirit of what a student’s life is – their tiny moment on this blue ball when you either do something with it or you don’t.”

“I think you guys [York] are in an incredible place with this,” says Baxter Smith. He sees extending the branding campaign, with the tagline “this is my time”, to faculty and staff.

Baxter Smith was one of the first to finish a fine arts degree consecutively with an education degree at York. A highlight of his undergraduate experience was getting a grant to assist a York professor teaching art history in Florence. But he credits an introduction by his photography professor Michael Semak to Lorraine Monk at the National Film Board with launching his career. Monk bought 100 of his photographs for a sum that enabled him to study art in Florence for the summer. When I returned she bought all the photos that I had shot in Italy. “That introduction made a decision in my life. Photography chooses you, you don’t choose it.”

“I had a great time at York. I met a lot of incredible people. It is the time of your life when you are really searching and wondering whether to go forward with something. The encouragement I had was extraordinary.”

Leslie Perkins (MA ’88)

Since she graduated from York, Leslie Perkins has earned her living as a market researcher. For this branding campaign, doug & serge hired her to conduct focus groups of high school students who were seriously considering York, and their parents, to choose which of several concepts of York impressed them the most. The overwhelming favourite, “Make Tomorrow Yours”, underscored York’s focus on putting theory into practice – students graduate with the ability to make a difference and have an impact on the world.

Perkins couldn’t be more invested in the success of this branding campaign. A transplant from Alberta, she chose to come to York for graduate studies in sociology based on the calibre of the program. After talking to professors over the phone, she felt York was “fresh and friendly, serious and interesting, and everything I wanted. I felt so proud and excited to come to York,” she remembers. While she had a really positive view of York, she was mystified to discover that  many others don’t know about the great things happening on its campuses. She hopes this branding campaign will change that. “I really love the fact that it takes what I loved most about York and helps bring to life a place where you can get where you’re going to go and do what you want to do. Just getting that story out – and it’s the right story to be told – I hope it finds enough of an audience. Now the challenge is breaking through.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer