Capital a tough draw for animation firms

Clint Eland echoes a refrain familiar to many CEO in Ottawa’s high-tech sector these days: his office is bursting at the seams and he says he couldn’t find enough skilled workers to fill the cubicles even if he were to expand.

 

Mr. Eland doesn’t make software or communications systems. His company, Mercury Filmworks, employs 250 people who produce animated features and TV shows for the likes of Disney, Netflix, Warner Brothers and Nickelodeon as well as the firm’s own original projects.

 

Mercury is one of about five local animation studios that are producing content for customers around the world and have helped Ottawa forge a reputation as an industry leader. Yet Mr. Eland says that hard-won respect often doesn’t mean much come hiring time.

“We have a real problem attracting talent to the region from Toronto and Vancouver and Montreal, where there’s a bigger industry,” he says. “You wind up fighting this uphill battle against the perception that Ottawa is a sleepy town, it’s boring and there’s nothing to do.

“We get overshadowed by the fed and high-tech. One’s big and one’s very sexy, and then animation and entertainment sort of fall into the shadows and nobody notices. Whenever I talk to folks, they go, ‘Hey, what do you do? And I’m like, ‘I make cartoons. We run one of the most respected studios in the world.’ They go, ‘Oh, really? I had no idea that was here in town.’”

Rick Morrison, president of local studio Big Jump Productions, has lived in Ottawa since 1982 and agrees animation is an underappreciated economic sector in the capital.

“The animation industry probably dwarfs the live action industry here in Ottawa. We’re a sleeping giant, really,” says Mr. Morrison, who employs about 70 people and concedes finding talent can be “somewhat of a challenge sometimes.”

Mr. Eland, who founded Mercury in Vancouver in 1997 before transferring its main operations first to Toronto and then to Ottawa in 2004, says he could hire another couple of hundred people tomorrow and have no trouble putting them to work, such is the demand for his firm’s productions.

That won’t happen, he says, because the nation’s capital is a tough sell to Millennials, who make up the company’s prime target market for new talent. While he loves his adopted home and believes it offers something for everyone, he says many potential recruits aren’t getting that message.

“The things that are important to them at that age, I think Ottawa has those things, but it does a really poor job of marketing itself to that demographic,” he says. “Fully half of the effort that we expend in recruiting is just getting people over that hump of moving to Ottawa and seeing it as a positive thing.”

Mr. Eland is calling on the city to collaborate with the industry and agencies such as Invest Ottawa and its Ottawa Film Office to come up with a “unified message” they can pitch to talented young people in creative industries such as animation.

“Why is Ottawa a fantastic place to come when you’re 20 to 35? If we’re all saying the same thing, we have a better chance of having that message heard. Whereas if we’re all picking and choosing our own sound bites, it just becomes noise.”

Invest Ottawa currently runs a “Why Ottawa?” video campaign that touts the benefits of living and working in the National Capital Region. But Mr. Eland suggests a more targeted approach to younger employees emphasizing the city’s nightlife and cultural institutions is required to paint a more well-rounded picture of the capital as a place to have fun as well as raise children.

“It really revolves around selling a lifestyle to individuals that are in relationships and maybe thinking about getting married or having a family and that this is a place where they can actually put down roots,” he says. “But it’s an uphill battle. I’d love for the city to acknowledge that it has this image problem, if it hasn’t already, and to help us as businesses … add more things to our tool kit to sell the city. I feel like it should be more of a partnership as opposed to all of us having our own version of selling the city.”

Bruce Harvey, the head of the Ottawa Film Office, says Mercury’s struggle to find talent is hardly unique, adding animation companies in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver face the same issue. But he acknowledges Ottawa’s traditional image hasn’t helped.

“I think there’s something to that,” he says. “Sometimes you want to go to the bigger hub because it gives you more diversity. I think there is some of the view of Ottawa being just a government town. Quite often, we don’t promote how hip the city really is. I think that can be a bit of a stumbling block.”

Still, Mr. Eland says Mercury’s revenues have shown “solid” growth over the past decade and he has no regrets about his decision to set up shop in the capital.

“Ottawa’s been a great home for us. The company that we’ve built here in the past 12 years is exactly the company that I’d hoped to build.”