Written by Colin Withers on July 28, 2015
in News

As you may have heard through the grapevine, Ariad has recently partnered with Bluespire Marketing in a U.S. expansion. As part of that partnership, Ariad’s founder Hugh Furneaux is officially exiting the business. Although he had taken a hands-off approach to the business for the past 7 years, his fingerprints are all over Ariad’s values, core competencies, and culture. We’d like to share his parting letter which serves as a reflection on Ariad’s remarkable journey from 1989 to today.

Just before 5:30pm the day before Canada Day 2015, I received a short email.

It read “Team – we are officially, officially closed. Thanks and speak with you soon.”

It was from Mike Petsky, who’d managed the sale of my shares in Ariad Communications to new owners. The extended process was over. The deal was finally done.

For me it was the end of a happy journey with the company I founded on November 9, 1989.

On Ariad’s first day back then, there was just me and one other employee. I’d resigned as president of Hume Publishing earlier that year, deciding I wanted to start a business because I had an idea that I thought had a solid future. As well, I was at a point in my life where I felt this would be more satisfying and financially rewarding for me than continuing as a corporate executive.

My plan was to have Ariad produce customer newsletters full of “useful and helpful content” (those words became a mantra at Ariad) for companies to distribute as a value-added service. The term “branded content” hadn’t yet entered the marketing lexicon. Our first clients were CIBC, Royal Trust and Canada Post.

Now, here I was 26 years later. Ariad had grown dramatically to more than 140 employees, just moved into a space 17-times larger than its first office, recently been awarded its fifth Best Places to Work in Canada award in a row, and had been transformed into a sophisticated marketing agency.

At the beginning, I don’t recall being nervous or doubtful whether Ariad would be successful. I knew I could run a company, because of my executive experience with several educational publishing companies. More than that, I was totally convinced there was a market for high quality, innovative editorial content services like Ariad offered and that the resulting product could be an integral part of the marketing mix of large companies (particularly in the financial services area).

I was right. Through the 90’s, Ariad developed a reputation as the best agency for financial content and design for newsletters, brochures, special reports, annual reports and slide presentations (pre-PowerPoint) for new product launches. And we did it in multiple languages.

People tell me that I must be proud of building such a successful company. And I am.

I got huge satisfaction from managing Ariad’s steady growth for its first 18 years, building its foundational elements and work culture, and leading its success.

However, credit for Ariad’s dramatic growth and expansion over the past 7 years belongs to its president Michael Beckerman – he’s responsible and deserves all the credit for that part. He built on the foundation I constructed – big time. He did it by having Ariad offer more business strategy solutions to its clients, setting up a health care division, expanding and deepening our creative services, project management and financial systems, and strengthening how staff interacted with clients. With each of Mike’s changes, revenues climbed. Most of all Mike has been a strong motivator, coach and leader of Ariad’s talented team – one of the best I’ve ever observed.

Of course, at times like this, lots of memories flood in – some trivial, some momentous.

I loved it when a U.S. marketing consultant in 1997 referred to Ariad’s work as the “Gold Standard” and our staff took satisfaction from the feedback of one major bank client who told us that “Ariad’s first draft of work is better than the 13th draft of our major ad agency”. I also considered it a positive when an early bank client rejected one of our proposals because it was too bold.

Ariad’s monthly tradition of recognizing the work anniversary of each employee with a tangible gift originated on an American Airlines flight in 1993. From an in-flight magazine ad, I decided to order wristwatches that were imprinted with Ariad logos. For the next few years these were given out at monthly staff meetings where we recognized employee work anniversaries. When the inventory management of this award became too much, we moved to a much simpler recognition that still exists today –a $100 bill.

I remember the day in August 1994 when I got a telephone call from the VP of Marketing at Investors Group. He called to say that Ariad had won the competition to supply personalized newsletters to their 3000 investment advisors. After I hung up I let out a celebratory whoop at my desk that was heard over the entire office floor – I was ecstatic. This was going to take Ariad to a whole new level of sales revenue, staffing, and organizational sophistication. It was the most exciting sales news I ever received.

Then there was our first office at 119 Spadina in the handsome 1929 art deco building on the corner of Adelaide and Spadina. Ariad became one of its first non- garment-manufacturing tenants. Our first neighbours on the 11th floor were Jak’s Leather Goods, House of Appel Furs, and Broadway Video (producers of Kids in the Hall).

We started with just 1500 square feet along with one of the best views of Toronto’s financial business district at the time – long before the current invasion of massive condos. Being mindful of keeping costs low for office décor , we lucked onto a solution thanks to a young student who was selling door-to-door. She was flogging surplus high quality black and white framed photographs from the City of Toronto Archives for $20 each. We bought 8 of them and it gave our simple brick and beam premises a much classier feel. Eventually we took over the entire floor.

The philanthropic part of Ariad’s culture started in earnest in 1993 when we entered a team in the Becel Ride for Heart. For the next decade Ariad annually entered teams of up to 30 cyclists and leaned on suppliers to sponsor us. The result was tens of thousands that we raised over that period for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. For a couple of those years Ariad even won the award for highest employee participation rate for a small company. It’s been gratifying for me to see today’s Ariad staff and management continue this philanthropic tradition.

Things became more challenging towards the end of the 90’s. The internet was in its early days, but was coming on strong and Ariad at the time had no technical expertise on staff.

A pivotal moment came when I attended an Internet Marketing conference in New York in October 1999. At an afternoon session called Email Isn’t Big – It’s Huge, lights went on and bells rang as I realized email was simply an alternative and better messaging medium for customer communications for our clients – that Ariad could replicate its content expertise and marketing smarts in print over to this electronic channel.

Returning to Toronto, given that things were moving so quickly and in retrospect being overly cautious, I retained an internet consultant to provide an opinion about whether email marketing was a passing fad.

Needless to say his opinion was just the opposite, and Ariad became an email pioneer in 2000. Since then, the breadth and depth of Ariad’s email marketing expertise has grown such that I can also now say that at Ariad email isn’t big, it’s huge.

I’m happy about many things regarding Ariad’s new direction and ownership. I’m pleased it’s going to provide considerable career growth opportunity for existing management and staff. And I’m pleased that Mike Beckerman will be heading up its enlarged North American operation. Among other things, this is good because I know he’ll continue pushing for the Ariad values and work culture that he and I believe in and that we agreed upon when he first joined the company.

I’m also happy the brand name Ariad is continuing – it was created to combine the names of my daughters Arielle and Adrienne. I like that as a legacy.

Hugh Furneaux is the Founder of Ariad Communications, and Colin Withers is the Brand & Communications Manager at Ariad Communications.

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