Channel 13

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First rule of being cool: don’t try so hard to be cool. How creative agency Channel 13 used curated branded content and tastemakers to engage with the hard-to-reach millennial audience

If the medium is the message, Channel 13’s experiential and social campaign for a new shopping app geared to Gen Y’ers was the perfect match-up.

Shop Bonsai, a Canadian shopping app for millennial males that partners with brands and content creators to sell product through editorial, charged Channel 13 with its marketing plan. The Vaughan, Ontario–based creative agency is headed by—you guessed it—a trio of millennial males.

“For us, a big thing is connecting on the same wavelength as our client as opposed to just producing a deliverable,” says Michael Gioffre, creative director at Channel 13. “We like to be hand-in-hand with our clients.”

The project has been collaborative from the get-go: Channel 13 worked closely with the Shop Bonsai team to establish its in-house strategic team and nail down the top-level user experience for the app, which was ultimately developed by Intellectsoft in California. Concrete Design Communications developed the brand identity, which Channel 13 rolled out through advertising, promotional collateral and a major launch event.

The joint effort is not unusual for the team at Channel 13. “The client needs to be heard and a part of the creative process,” says Gioffre. “Clients value that because they don’t do this every day. It may be the only time they update their brand or their website. If we don’t understand their business or product, then it’s going to be hard for us to come up with interesting creative solutions—so we become ingrained in their day-to-day operation.”

In an interview with Applied Arts, Gioffre, along with his Channel 13 co-creative directors Riel Sammy and Gianluca D’Acchille, shared their challenges and successes with the Shop Bonsai marketing campaign. An abridged recount of their experience follows.


Shop Bonsai™ is Canada’s first mobile retail marketplace curated for millennial males. Bonsai launched their anti-retail brand to the public by taking over Yonge-Dundas Square with an interactive design exhibit built from stacked shipping containers including a live art performance by Alec Monopoly. Channel 13 developed a campaign consisting of video, social, digital media and walk-throughs for social influencers and media. The launch night had crowds of industry professionals, increased downloads and product sales.


The objectives were two-fold: to increase the download acquisition rate, and to get people to Yonge-Dundas Square so that Bonsai’s internal brand ambassadors could engage with potential downloaders. The goal is for this app to become a cultural marketplace, like Instagram and Snapchat. All of the marketing materials were derived from the idea of curating content through the app, which is the starting point of engagement for the brand.


The demographic was millennial males, aged 18-35. Everything was based on the idea of shopping through editorial content rather than browsing product. We wanted to engage customers with interesting stories, using fashion as the baseline. We included things that we thought were interesting or cool, or that would capture our attention and relate to other millennial males. We did a lot of research by asking our colleagues, peers, friends and family what interests them.


Once the branding was set and internally agreed upon, it was our job to roll out all the other deliverables, as minute as shelf poppers to as large as the actual shipping container we used for the launch in December. We produced touch points including varsity jackets, flyers, email marketing, website development based on the design by Concrete, and the launch event at Yonge-Dundas Square.

In trying to attract the millennial audience to the launch, we tried to come up with standout pieces that would be interactive and engaging to people who were not necessarily at the actual event, but who may have just been walking by. Yonge-Dundas Square is the biggest intersection in Toronto, if not in the nation, and a big, blue shipping container that’s beautifully designed with lights is another attraction, too. We were able to build brand awareness while potentially building download acquisitions.

We had commercials running at Yonge-Dundas Square for 3.5 weeks prior to the event. Then, we took over another three or four screens to have more videos run during the event with live-motion graphic typography—this was to push messaging because there is no audio on those screens.

We reached out to graffiti artist Alec Monopoly, who is really big for the millennial generation. He has a huge social media following. He did a live art exhibit right on the shipping container, working around our design and creating an art piece within an art piece. That’s how we helped drive people to the square—a lot of people were just interested in seeing Alec Monopoly, but from there, they got to learn about the app.

We promoted it all through social influencers, media influencers, email marketing, social media campaigns on Instagram and Facebook and the outdoor media buy from Clear Channel in Yonge-Dundas Square.


Originally, we had secured the new Cadillac Fairview tower screens over the Eaton Centre as part of the rollout. But CF didn’t approve the ads that were running specifically for that location—in our opinion it was because [the ads] threatened the traditional retail marketplace. If we are trying to do this viral, pop-up, millennial-targeted campaign, it goes against everything they’ve traditionally done for years.

But we feel that by bringing small, boutique vendors (that are primarily Canadian) to the Canadian marketplace, we’re allowing them to be reachable when they would otherwise not be able to have a brick-and-mortar store downtown. [Bonsai] allows consumers to have a different choice, to have access to that. It’s a small Canadian company, and everyone is trying to get a little piece of the marketplace—we don’t think what we were doing would have affected Christmastime sales for Cadillac Fairview.

It still managed to work and capture the audience we were hoping for, but the whole idea of anti-retail may have scared off the potential to advertise on those screens. Our take on anti-retail is that at that age demographic, no one wants to be pushed what cool “is.”  It’s more about what’s culturally happening, and it’s up to you to determine what’s cool.

The weather was a big challenge, too. We had the coldest week of the year on the opening day and week of the event. But we still managed to get attention and get people out there.


Instagram ads over three weeks in December reached more than 260,000 users. The LED screens on Dundas Square’s Bay Tower ran for two weeks, pulling in an estimated reach of 146,200 people per day. Those tower screens then ran concurrently with LED screens at street level for another two weeks and, combined, they reached about 292,000 people per day.

In a four- to five-day span, it was about 35,000-40,000 reach alone on just the social stream. Even some of the people we didn’t contact about the event told us they saw the pop-up container or the ad running in Yonge Dundas Square. Or that they downloaded the app and checked out the stories. It’s been satisfying to see the work getting out there, like a viral campaign would.