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After big agency jobs, designer starts socially responsible marketing firm

This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That? We ask readers on our LinkedIn group to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories.

This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That? We ask readers on our LinkedIn group to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories.

Introducing Barry Martin, the founder of Hypenotic, a marketing strategy, design & development firm based in Toronto.

Let's start with the basics. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, what it does, and where you operate?

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Founded in '98, Hypenotic is a founding Canadian B Corp-certified design practice on a mission to manifest a more generative economy. It means we work with brands who look beyond minimizing their negative impact and are actually sparking other good things. The idea is that with some slightly bigger-picture thinking, business can go from trying to waste as little as possible to considering how many positive changes we can set in motion.

Our other distinguishing quality is the service gamut we cover. From helping people figure out why their audiences should actually care about what they're doing to designing user-centred digital and print experiences and on into technical development for performance driven websites, applications and e-commerce stores.

Specifically, our services include brand strategy, content strategy, user experience design, information visualization (often for research), print and package design and digital development.

We're based in Toronto, but our clients are across Canada and in the U.S. Please send us clients in Italy and the South of France so we can visit them.

What inspired you to be an entrepreneur and to branch out on your own with this idea?

I graduated from the advertising design program at Syracuse. It's a storied place that started the careers of designers who have made some of the most iconic communications of the last century: Milton Glaser, Ivan Chermayeff, Michael Beirut, April Greiman, Woody Pirtle. The list goes on.

But I graduated in the mid-nineties – a pretty commercial, consumer era. I got jobs at big Toronto agencies like Taxi, Bozelle, Saatchie, Capital C. I managed to do some exciting work. But one day I started to realize that even if I rocked my career, my dream future would basically get me bigger budgets to sell cars and beer. It made me feel kind of empty.

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I started looking for clients I liked personally. Gradually, I worked with people doing important things. Finally, with no small help from my wife (Jodi Lastman), who worked with us for six years between 2005 and 2013, we settled into a roster of clients/partners working on things that really matter.

Some of them, like the Centre For Impact Investing at MaRS, Social Finance, The Greenbelt, PARC and Lowfoot are working on systems and sectoral change. Others, like Fiesta Farms, Cabot Cooperative Creamery, Chocosol and Evelyn's Crackers are modelling their values through ingredients, experiences, education, culture and carefully chosen partnerships every day.

Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?

Our typical customers are non-profits, social entrepreneurs and social intrapreneurs with entrepreneurial spirits. The latter refers to people at larger organizations like Bell, Aramark and Ryerson who have the mandate, will and clout to make change from within.

Many come to us through word of mouth. Some meet us at events that we share a common interest in. Our own marketing is entirely doing and sharing useful things. We do no traditional promotional work for ourselves, not even PR, so the people who call us are pre-qualified leads.

What are the roles of you and your co-founder in the business? Do you have any employees?

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I started the business myself. There have been as many as eleven of us on the team at one time, but we're currently at seven. Our network extends to the organizations that the people who have passed through our doors have ended up at. And having been around for more than 15 years, we have a network of partners whose technical skills we're comfortable specifying when they're called for.

Like many, I wear multiple hats at Hypenotic. The biggest ones are as strategy and design lead. The rest of the team breaks out into strategy, design and development, and everyone brings dimension to their role as they blend in their personal interests.

You've been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key element of your success?

Just one? :).

Kidding aside, I think that in this hyper-media saturated era, reputation, relevance and usefulness are critical metrics. We've done a lot for a lot of people over many years, so I hesitate to boil it down to a single thing. If I had to, maybe it would be an overarching approach or attitude. We believe that business can be a force for good. We believe it's our responsibility to leave customers in better shape than we found them. We believe that the most important skill to develop is agility – our playing field is constantly shifting beneath us – we embrace it.

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