Brand expert extraordinaire Phil Otto has a simple message for everyone in these tough times: Be brave, be kind, and take no B.S.
On this late-summer afternoon, when the light glides through the window of Phil Otto’s office like it belongs in the company of a man who could sell shine to the sun, not even the lousy video connection clouds this branding wunderkind’s point. “So, what I’m saying…uh…saying,” he’s saying between bouts of screen snow, “is step up.”
After 35 years at the helm of Halifax’s Revolve Branding and Marketing, and some 10 years after winning an Atlantic Business Magazine Top 50 CEO Hall of Fame award, all of his many words of wisdom now boil down to this two-word invocation. “Step up” for local businesses. “Step up” for your community. Most of all, perhaps, “step up” for yourself. Like all good brands, it’s pithy. Timely.
“With the pandemic, we’ve taken the opportunity to recalibrate ourselves as a company,” he explains. “Early on, we developed a campaign that said, ‘Step Up Not Out’. It went national. Then, in May, we pivoted to say, ‘Step Up For Local’, which was and continues to be about the need for supporting the local economy.”
When he launched it in March, the The Step Up Not Out campaign received over 22 million impressions nation-wide through a robust social media campaign using Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. It earned support from local, regional and national media vendors with pro bono television, radio, magazine, newspaper and digital advertising. That was enough to set him thinking.
“In this increasingly homogenized world, indie businesses give communities texture, colour, shape, taste and social capital,” Otto wrote on one of his many web platforms this spring. “The very fabric of our country is woven together by the personalities, innovation and entrepreneurship of small business—which comprises 99.8 per cent of all businesses and represents the largest employee base in Canada.”
At the time, Patrick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce, offered his endorsement. “Step up for Local is exactly what small businesses need right now,” the website quoted. “We have to remind Nova Scotians how important it is to support our local businesses. Eighty-seven per cent of our members are small businesses, and Halifax added over 8,000 jobs last year, most coming from small businesses. We can ensure those jobs remain by stepping up for local businesses.”
Otto likes to call this public service announcement campaign—which he’s delivering, like its predecessor, pro bono—a grassroots movement involving small business associations and chambers of commerce, as well as his own local, regional and national partners. “Right now, I’m focussed on the community and on small businesses and helping them survive,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that a lot has changed in recent times.”
Then again, change is no stranger to Otto and neither is adversity. In a speech he gave not too many years ago to a Halifax social enterprise, he was frank. “I had a relatively tough childhood,” he said. “My parents divorced when I was two, and my mom, older brother and I moved around a lot for the first few years, finally ending up in a mobile home park while mom went back to school.
“When I was five years old, things were so tough financially that our Christmas presents came from the local Kiwanis Club and some were suggesting mom put my brother and I up for adoption or in foster care. Mom persevered, got an education, and a decent job. She remarried when I was seven. But even after that, life was not without turmoil. I was bullied, and I saw parents and grandparents struggling with a lot of issues, including mental health, alcohol and at times an absence of loyalty to each other.”
Still, he also credits his parents with forging in him a sense of independence and self-determination. “I come from an entrepreneurial background,” he says. “When I was in my teens, the question was never ‘if’ but ‘when’ I would own my own business. When you grow up in a family where your parents and stepparents own their own businesses, you don’t have the makeup of a company man. Entrepreneurship is in my DNA. To have control over my own destiny has always been important to me.”
That it’s worked out for him might be understating things just a bit. Having survived the tumultuous Halifax “ad” wars of the 1990s and 2000s, Otto and company—whose 35-member staff serve clients across Canada and in the United States—remain. “The landscape has changed a lot in 10 years,” he says. “There are only a couple of firms, let alone 30, that are still around. We have some of the same clients that we did 32 years ago. Good stickiness with clients leads to good stickiness with staff.”
The real point of differentiation may be their determination to brand, and only to brand. “I consider us the only brand strategy firm in Atlantic Canada,” he says. “There are a lot of advertising agencies that speak of branding, but they are really ‘creative’ first, where we are ‘strategy’ first.”
You get a taste of that distinction after reading what he describes as his “Revolve 3.0”, a manifesto he developed just as the company encountered the pandemic, along with his increasingly rattled clients, earlier this year.
Under the subject heading, “Caring”, it says: “We care for, respect and invest in each other and our community. Extraordinary attention to detail comes from our pride in our work and our love for the brands we help steward.” Fine, but how? Under “Uncomplicated”, it says: “Few layers. No drama. No bullshit.” You know…in case you were wondering.
This concision (for lack of a better word) is likely Revolve’s own brand, and Otto capitalizes it in every public way he can. At that speaking engagement a few years ago, he told the audience: “Life is short. Live in the moment. Be inquisitive. Try new things. It’s ok to be silly. Laugh every day. Be brave. Slow down. Say yes to new adventures. Set goals that both excite you and terrify you. Do what is right, not what is easy. Say I’m sorry. Say I love you. Be vulnerable. Be real.”
Today, through crappy video reception, he’s not that touchy-feely. Still, you do get the impression that this is not a man who lets much get in his way when there’s a point to be made. “What I’m saying,” he’s saying as the connection freezes again is…well…pretty clear in this anxious, hopeful province on this fleeting, sun-dappled afternoon.
Row, row, rowing his boat
Otto loves the water…really loves the water. “I live on Mahone Bay. There are 365 islands, one for every day of the year. I love taking friends and family out to them.”
Vroom, vroom, vrooming his bike
Otto rides an Indian Scout Motorcycle because, he says, it’s the real deal: “Harley Davidson tries very hard to make its brand a heritage icon. Indian just is.”
More mettle for the pedals
Otto’s having no trouble keeping in shape during the pandemic: “I did a long (bicycle) ride with my friend. I thought he said Chester to Tantallon was 30 kilometres. He meant miles.”
He’s learning to fry
“I’m a foodie,” Otto says. “I’m learning to cook.” It’s unclear how that’s going. But, as his brand says, “creativity is at the very core of what we do.”
The kids are more than alright
Ultimately, Otto relishes most being Dad to Riley (28), Alex (20), Kristen (14), and Greg (12). He calls them “rock stars”. •