Creative Calgary Congress — Exploring ways that the arts and artists can play a leadership role in making Calgary a more curious, compassionate and creative place for all citizens.

Jim Button

Businessman, Marketing Expert, Community Leader
YYC this is not a time to turtle! We need to think outside of our energy box…

Jim Button shares a laugh during this presentation at the Creative Calgary Congress | Photo: Calgary Arts Development

Originally I thought I was up here because I’m a busy connected get stuff done kind of guy. After listening to Jim Dewald and Lauren Voisin, that we need 99% of failure to get to 1% of success, I realize I’m up here as the failure guy.

I’ve been laid off or fired many times and I’ve failed a lot. But along the way I’ve had a ton of fun and I’ve done a lot of stuff — I’m a lucky man.

Jim Button shares his epiphany | Photo: Calgary Arts Development

Moving to Calgary

I don’t know if there are many cities better than the city we are in right now. We are at a time where it is our responsibility to make the city better. We all know we are having a tough time right now, but actually I don’t want to perpetuate that story. I have two companies and I need to hire 10 people in one and the other one is up 15%. So we’re not all having tough times. This is the time when we have to start thinking about those success stories and those activities we’re doing to diversify ourselves outside those things we know we’re good at.

And to start thinking of what we can do as a group to make this city a better place.

I absolutely love this city. This is the greatest city we could possibly want to live in. Let me tell you how I got here. I moved here in 1993 when I decided I didn’t want to live in Toronto any more. I didn’t know where I wanted to live but I knew I didn’t want to live in Toronto. So I got in my car and I drove around for six months to all sorts of different spots to figure out where I wanted to make my own agency. I slept in my car or on people’s couches, or every so often if I needed a shower I would rent a hotel room.

In the end it came down to two cities — Halifax and Calgary. And I’m gonna tell you why Halifax didn’t win. Because when I came here… and imagine this in any other city and I can guarantee you this doesn’t happen in every city, so those of you who’ve lived here all your lives, be thankful where you live. When I came here I would phone up advertising agencies and say: “Hey, I want to move to Calgary and want to start an agency, you know be your competitor. Would you give me some time to give me the landscape?” And first of all they would say yes, and then I would ask to meet with them. I would promise them a phone call that would only take 15 minutes and guaranteed every time it would take more than 15 minutes and guaranteed every time they would give me two or three names. At that time the Internet wasn’t really functional, so they would connect me with two or three people.

And when I would walk down the street, people would look me in the eye. This doesn’t happen in Toronto. When I drove, people would wave when they let me in. It was beautiful. And the economy was just taking off. And in Halifax it was just going down. So that one sliver of economics was what decided my fate and I came here. And, ironically, the first person I met was my wife.

When I came here I didn’t start an advertising agency, I started a financial planning company with my brother. After that I started an event marketing company and got to do a lot of fun stuff. I got to start the Eddies, I got to do Calgary Cares, there were so many beautiful cosmopolitan events that came out of that experience. Then I joined Arlene Dickinson at Venture to work on her PR, event marketing and promotions. Then left that to become a VP at Big Rock. I was hired to bring it back to its roots and the present leadership decided that wasn’t exactly what they wanted to do so I hassled them for three years and then they asked me to leave. So what did I do then? I decided to start my own.

I started Village Brewery and to echo the earlier conversation about social enterprise, I agree that in the future private enterprise and social enterprise will no longer be separate pieces. I don’t think the way we are growing as a society will allow that to happen.

It’s imperative that you understand that you can build a company, make money which means you are sustainable, and do good.

At Village Brewery 10% of our bottom line goes back into the community. It’s a company that’s owned by six partners that got together, and for our financing, instead of going to a bank or some of us ponying up more than the others, we went to other engaged Calgarians who are doing things to make a better place. We asked them to invest so that when the company grew we could collectively do better things. And it’s proven to be a very fun and successful company and I would encourage everybody to think along those lines. Whenever I go outside of Calgary — for example I sit on the board of Beer Canada — and talk about how much social enterprise is happening in Calgary you’d be amazed at how foreign that is in many other cities. We are so much further ahead. Almost every event we do says proceeds go towards…. so we are leading pretty far ahead in terms on our activation on that.

At the same time I started Village Brewery, I also started working at Evans Hunt. They asked me to join their company to do their business development. That company now has 91 employees and we’re looking for another 10. It’s growing fast, even in this economy, because it’s doing good work—65% of business is in this city and 25% in the US. If you do great work, great things happen to you.

So I love this city and I was doing work for three years in this city before I happened upon an epiphany of my life.

Slide: Jim Button

I’m going to pivot over to a thought — for about a year now, maybe two years, we’ve been hearing all the plight and how terrible things are and how hard it is. I’m not taking that away but it’s a pretty good indication that we need to start thinking outside that energy box right now and start adding other elements to our portfolio to make this city better.

And there are a lot of things.

But in business this is the time I invest, this is the time I become a spender. In business when things are going sideways that’s when I get busiest. That’s when I get most aggressive, smarter, sharper, more focused, and I make things happen in a totally different way. And that’s what’s going on at Evans Hunt. About 20% of our business was in the oil & gas industry or directly affected by the industry. Almost the week that the scenario started switching over, we started changing our strategy. We saw the future coming because we had a lot of clients who were also ancillary benefits to the energy sector — developers, restaurants, and so on. So we knew we had to change how we were marketing, who we were marketing to, and what kind of business we were going to do. So we made wholesale changes. This is that time — we need to make wholesale changes.

Slide: Jim Button

This is the Time to Create

I’m going to show two examples of things that I have done in the two years since things started going a little bit sideways for us as a city. These are initiatives I’ve taken on myself with groups of individuals — but I’ve taken on the time risk, the financial risk, and the fun risk.

Circle the Wagons

Through the work I’ve done with Evans Hunt I know that our clients — Calgary Arts Development, Calgary Economic Development, Hotel Association, Tourism Calgary, Downtown Association, CMLC, Urban Development Institute — all our clients — they all have research. And I’m in this really luxurious position of being able to see all that research and layer it on top of each other. The Urban Development Institute showed me research that shows us that we’re not what we used to be. About 50 to 60 years ago about one in 350 people was from a visible minority. Four years ago one in five, in 2020 — two in five. So that’s just a visible minority shift that we’re seeing.

Then we layer in research that says that people who are new to Calgary, new immigrants or have moved here for work, they think this is an extremely energized, exciting, vibrant city. People who’ve lived here for a long time think it’s a boring ass town. And we all know it’s not. We also threw in some of Calgary Economic Development’s research — we know that the further people get away from the downtown core, the less they are engaged in the activities.

So I took all three of those, and at the time food trucks were coming on the scene, I had this idea in my head that percolated for about six years. I had this truck that could deliver beer around the city but I couldn’t sell beer on the street. The only way I could actually have that happen was to take all the food trucks and put them in a circle and put the entertainment in the centre. And then move that around the city. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be great if all that great urban activity, all that dance and music and food trucks, people getting together and learning about others, if I could slowly start taking it outside the city? I met up with Baron of Bass Bus and James of YYCFoodTrucks and we realized we all had a similar dream. We started Circle the Wagons.

For the first couple of years for a safety net we did it inner city. And last year we did it at the Urban Development Institute with my partners and Bass Buss and YYCFoodTrucks. We’ve got all the research and we’re watching it start to grow. We had 5,000 people last year and 5,000 the year before. All funded by us personally. And it’s been an incredible success.

My dream is to eventually take that event out somewhere where the neighbourhood is primarily an immigrant population. And wouldn’t it be great if we got there and nobody paid attention that it was an immigrant population, it was just another great neighbourhood to go to for an event?

So the great thing about this event is that it starts out for kids, families. It’s a beautiful family event — we had 100 goats, we had a wiener dog race, and as the evening goes on it turns into an incredible dance party and it’s beautiful. When I stood in the crowd at the event last year I wept because I was just so proud of what we had created and all these great people who got together.

Best of Calgary

The other one I’m going to talk about — we started last year. Another group of engaged Calgarians, as a direct result of the downturn and the negatives that were going on, felt like it was time for us to celebrate what the positives were and the great things that were happening in our city. We bought the Best of Calgary from FFWD and continued their tradition of a survey to find the best of Calgary.

More than 7,000 people answered the survey. And along with the survey we asked what are some of the things we need to solve, talk about, do.

The result was a full day “supposium” which celebrated all the winners of the Best of Calgary. It wasn’t an awards ceremony — the Best Ofs showed us what they were best of — Best Coffee place made coffee for us, etc. Then in the evening we had a stage show — the incredible Dave Kelly and his group made a show that was stellar. This was our mandate — celebrate our businesses and people who make our city great. We wanted to be the spark plugs, not unlike what you’re doing today.

The most important part that I want you to take away from my presentation is that having ideas is spectacular but unless you actually do something about it, unless you actually activate it, it’s meaningless. This was a group of people in the worst economic scenario trying to sell tickets to an event and we pulled it off. We made $68 — very sustainable. But it was good enough for me.

The interesting part, though, is that we didn’t just bring in Calgarians to be our panelists. We brought in the past mayor of Pittsburgh who was the architect of taking that one horse steel town and changing it into a medical and digital centre of the US. Not unlike our challenge. We don’t think we can change ourselves out of this because every time we get ideas about changing ourselves out of being wholly dependent on the energy industry, as soon as the barrel price goes up, we lose people, the energy gets sucked into that vortex. Well he actually told us how that is possible, how you can actually change out of that. When someone asked him — I think it was Dave Kelly who asked — How do you know when you need to make that shift? How does a whole city get around that idea that you have to change your dependency on being a one horse town? And the gentleman was almost shocked that the question was even being asked. And he said — If you think that you having a city dependent on the energy industry when the rest of the world is trying to get off that product, doesn’t have an emergency in front of you, you’re sadly mistaken and you better change your act right now. So that motivated a few people that day.

We had the mayor of Nashville talk about how he built Nashville into a great city. We had the CEO of Portland Tourism explaining how he got that city to be so weird. It was a beautiful day and a beautiful celebration and it’s done us extremely well.

…Someday isn’t one of them | Photo: Calgary Arts Development
If you want something to happen you’ve got to stop just talking about it. You have to take the steps. You have to be mindful. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, to participate, to listen and to share.

The Gift of Cancer

I’m going to get into something that’s really interesting. I have had cancer for the last two years and it’s back again. I had my kidney removed two years ago. I’m one of those people who likes to shock people a bit and also share.

Because I think this is an important thing I want to give everybody — my gift of… And I’m actually having trouble with this one blog post I’ve been trying to write for about four months what I call The Gift of Cancer. And the gift of cancer is that I have a better understanding of being in the moment, a better sense of purpose. I have ongoing gifts. I have bird houses made out of my beer cans, I have more pies you can shake a stick at, I had an incredible evening on Saturday night with a bunch of gentlemen.

This gift that I have and the challenge of having to combat it is something I’ve been sharing. So I’ve been writing this blog called Gather with Jim. It’s also very relevant in terms of today’s conversation that I let you know I was never any good at math, I was always a lousy writer. There were so many things I was not good at in school, so for me to actually take the time and have that blog and do that writing has been a huge creative step for me. It’s me exposing my disease and my writing skills so it’s been a big huge creative challenge.

I wrestled with whether or not to put this in but I decided to put in because if you want something to happen you’ve got to stop just talking about it. You have to take the steps. You have to be mindful. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, to participate, to listen and to share. That’s an extremely important thing and I moved to this city because of all of those qualities. This is that city and you are the people who can help make all that happen. So today is the day you can make the first step.

Slide: Jim Button

Dance or Donate

There was this group at Evans Hunt about two weeks ago who put on a conference. There was a gentleman who was speaking at that event who is the CEO of a program called Water is Life. They have this drinking straw that you can put into dirty water and kids can drink out of it. The kids hang the straws around their necks and it filters the water for them so they can drink the dirty water. And they also have these big solar powered springs that go over a well and convert all that water so they can feed whole villages.

He spoke at this conference that was about social media and marketing. The reason he was there is because he had created a campaign called First World Problems. He overtook #firstworldproblems so he could capture when someone was posting that they were upset that their power chord to their mobile device didn’t quite reach the bed from where they were, or that the person at Starbucks didn’t quite get their order correct. He actually did a campaign where he took those posts from #firstworldproblems to places where they didn’t have clean drinking water and he had the kids read the first world problems — super impactful.

But now he needed to take the next step to convert that into fundraising. So I met with him that morning and promised him I would have a crew from Evans Hunt that would show up as soon as his speech was over at 2 o’clock and we had until 4 o’clock the next day to come up with a campaign. Imagine the creative pressure of having to come up with a campaign in about 24 hours that raises funds for Water is Life. So, for starters, for every person that day who bought a straw I bought them a beer. We raised $3,000 that day. And Evans Hunt built this campaign which is launching in front of you today, which is called #DanceorDonate for Haiti. The reason dance was used is because dance is a big part of being Haitian — they all dance — they love to dance, they dance everywhere. But the dancing stopped because they have a serious cholera problem as a result of the earthquake and then the recent hurricane.

He’s asked us to help him get 5,000 straws and 10 sun springs into Haiti because if we don’t then the cholera problem is going to overtake the island. So we created #DanceorDonate. The idea is that if somebody sends this to you, you either have to dance or donate — I prefer you do both, then capture it and send it on to someone else.

Thank you.

WATERisLIFE #DanceOrDonate for Haiti | Video: Evans Hunt

Illustration: Sam Hester

Jim Button

Jim Button is a leader in networked marketing and has been for over 25 years. As a founder of Village Brewery, Jim works hard to gather people around community. Using beer as a social lubricant he leverages his many experiences in marketing and building communities to create a more connected Calgary.

At Evans Hunt Group, a digital marketing firm, Jim gets to focus that networked background on a one-to-one relationship — helping customers participate in the brands they engage with online.

Through both organizations Jim has created countless festivals, conferences and programs that are building a better city — Circle the Wagons Travelling Food, Beer and Music Festival and Best of Calgary being two of the most recent successes.

His passion for community investment has been a common thread through his career and has earned him a philanthropy award from the Canadian Association of Fundraising Professionals, two “40 Under 40” awards with Avenue Magazine, and an e-Award for Community Service from Alberta Venture Magazine.

He also came in second place for best Dad as voted by his kids.

About the Creative Calgary Congress

Calgary Arts Development produced the first Arts Champions Congress in 2011 as a meeting place for people who make Calgary’s arts sector a vibrant and exciting place to work and our city a great place to live.

Renamed the Creative Calgary Congress in 2014, it returned on November 22, 2016 as a place to share ideas and explore ways that the arts and artists can play a leadership role in making Calgary a more curious, compassionate and creative place for all citizens.

Learn more about the day and add your voice