Q&A with Lisa and Doug of Big Tree Communications



Lisa Monforton and I met back in 2016 when we both worked for the same agency. When I ventured out on my own, she was one of the first people I met with because I wanted to pick her brain on how she managed multiple career changes and in her current role, how she navigated working with her business and life partner Doug Firby. I wanted to understand their business model, service offering and the shifting landscape of media. Lisa boasts an impressive resume that includes writing for the Calgary Herald, Globe & Mail, WestJet Magazine and more. Equally as impressive is Doug’s background from managing a daily newspaper, to editorial writing for the Calgary Herald and later directing internal communications teams at Sunshine Village, CREB and Canada West Foundation. Together, this one-of-a-kind team boasts more than 60+ years in the industry, which made me super excited to dive into this depth of knowledge for this month’s Q&A. Early into 2019, I got a chance to sit down with Lisa and Doug to understand how Big Tree Communications uses content and writing to develop credibility through a cohesive brand voice and gets a brand noticed. 

What took you both down the journalism path?
I was a nerdy kid who loved to read and write, and journalism felt more rebellious and creative than some other options. I’m also a generalist and interested in a lot of different topics, so journalism seemed to be a good fit. I had no idea what I was getting into. I started working for a small weekly newspaper near Windsor, ON. It was hard work, 60 hours a week for about $250 a week, but it was a great learning experience. I loved meeting new people in the community: the farmers, local school board and town councillors. I was a photographer, writer and eventually the editor there. I loved that every day was different - different people, different stories and I was constantly learning. And at every newspaper or media outlet I’ve worked at, that has always been the best part of the job.

Doug: I felt journalism was a way of bringing about positive social change. I entered journalism school shortly after the Watergate scandal brought down Richard Nixon, and activist journalism was growing in popularity – exposing cheats, advocating for the disadvantaged, and uncovering personal and institutional wrongdoing. It was a very exciting time.

What did it feel like to be part of the big changes at the Calgary Herald?
Doug and I both worked at the Calgary Herald, and during our time the media landscape was rapidly evolving. They had an online strategy that was exciting to be a part of. You had to learn quickly about this new world of 24/7 storytelling for a different platform and to optimize reader engagement. Though the crux of the news business still applied – telling stories and the news of the day – it was the delivery and how those stories evolved over a course of a day that forced us to adapt quickly. Suddenly, you not only had to write or edit a story, but assign video, tweet and engage with the public in real time.

Doug: When I worked there 15 years ago now, it was an exciting time because there was lots of experimenting in the digital space. In one of those experimental projects, we recruited a group of young people to blog. Mike Morrison and Falice Chin, who are well known today, were a couple of the original bloggers for the project. But just as it started to get traction, I left the Herald and the program got cut. So, all the effort was lost. It was a frustrating time for many people who worked at the Herald, because they weren’t adapting to the new conditions fast enough. The biggest shift was the structure of how newspapers were making money. For example, the newspaper’s owners failed to anticipate the emergence of online platforms like Kijiji which eventually eliminated classified ad sales.

How did you feel when it ended and what did you do next? Did you look for a full-time job or launch into consulting?
I felt I left the Herald at a good time. I had reached a point in my career (and Doug as well) where we would prefer to be our own bosses and make our own choices. I began writing and editing on a freelance basis after having built up a network of contacts. That has given me a range of experiences I couldn’t have achieved if I’d stayed at just one paper.

How did Big Tree Communications develop?
In 2014, The Calgary Herald was scaling down and offering packages to staff, so I took that opportunity. I had a pretty solid network and quickly was busy writing, editing, blogging and doing some general communications work for clients. I was lucky, and over the following months I developed a solid roster of clients that kept me busy.

Doug: I left the Canada West Foundation in November 2016 and Lisa and I began to develop her one-person business into a partnership. We wanted to be able to travel and work together and have the flexibility to work from anywhere.

What services does Big Tree Communications provide?
We offer a suite of services: writing, editing, media relations and training, strategy and crisis communications. We have the experience of not just writing stories, but also speeches, annual reports, news releases and blogs for corporate clients. Writing for SEO is also something that is factored into all online writing. You have to stay current and understand the algorithms that are being revised by Google, so you know how to best use keywords. SEO is probably the least creative form of writing we do because you have to follow some strict guidelines, but it adds excellent value for the client.

Do you have individual specialties?
My passion is travel. I was a travel and features editor for 10 years at the Herald, so I love writing about destinations and learning about new, evolving spots people should visit. But I’ve always also loved writing feature stories about innovative people, trends and social lifestyle topics. And, like anyone in communications, you know how to tell stories, and it naturally leads you to have the skills such as listening, analyzing and getting to the nub of a topic that resonates with your readers. But I also love that I’m not siloed and get to work with a wide variety of clients. 

Doug: I’m a bit of a gear-head and love cars and have had the opportunity to write about a number of different new automobiles, which is really fun. But similarly, I really do enjoy a wide variety of industries and learning about different kinds of businesses. I write on public policy, health care, politics, as well as travel, to complement the work Lisa does. Our combined skills and experience in writing, editing, providing strategic advice and social media planning is the base of our business.

What are your favourite types of projects to work on?
We can get bored easily, so we love to have a diverse portfolio of clients. Doug likes campaigns, building objectives, strategies and executing. I enjoy working on projects with a deadline that help tell a client’s stories in a variety of ways, through storytelling or doing a really good editing job to make sure that the content is engaging and resonates with readers.

What do you prefer more? Internal/external? What are the benefits of both?
Big Tree focuses on external communications. Though there’s lots of value in internal, our strength is in external.

Do you have a size of business that you like to work with?
Usually small to medium because there is more flexibility within the organization. These types of businesses are usually more open to creative input and have a less complex approval structure. You can make more of a difference.

What industries do you like to work with?
Emerging and evolving industries are particularly exciting, such as the Alberta craft beer scene, the cannabis industry and renewable energy. These are all developing sectors that need strong communications and planning. We also enjoy working in the health sector and for travel markets. Specifically, we love learning about hardworking people who have tourism businesses and helping them get known for the unique things they are doing.

How did you find your first clients?
My first step was just telling people, putting the word out that I was freelancing. From there, I started to get contracts through friends, referrals, word of mouth and I also pitched stories to editors. I was an editor for years and still pitch stories to editors. If you stay up to date on trends or what is happening in the news or community, you can see gaps in content/stories and help to fill those. 

What is your process for finding new clients?
Word of mouth, and through more assertive prospecting – such as cold calling. We look for niches that would benefit from our services. We have creative morning discussions over coffee and talk about what potential clients would be good to approach. For example, in the cannabis industry there have been controversies and it’s important the industry responds with fulsome information. In a case like that, we research how they are structured, who is on the management team and how they have been covered in the media. Then, we develop a proactive pitch that provides optimal value. Basically, we identify a client’s problem and create a proposal to mitigate those problems.

How do you measure your results?
Key performance indicators. Depending on the nature of the project, it could be social media hits, level of engagement, web page visits – basically all of the objective criteria – as well as anecdotal feedback.

Most memorable project you’ve worked on?
Last year, I did a project with Travel Alberta that focused on small towns. I got to meet business owners that don’t typically get promoted. I did social media posts and content for them that will help travellers discover them. It was a really diverse, fun project that made me realize how entrepreneurial and passionate people are about their home province.

Doug: Rebuilding the profile of the Canada West Foundation has been one of my most rewarding ventures. Before I arrived, the Foundation had gone through some hard times financially and as a result, led to a lot of staff turnover. My mission was to get its thought leaders back into the media and to increase public awareness of the organization. In my first year there, we saw a 100 per cent increase in media hits, got our experts onto radio programs, published in newspapers and invited to speaking engagements. We basically put the CWF back on the map.

What qualities do you value most in your clients/vendors/partners?
Candour. Clients must be totally open about what their needs and challenges are, and there also has to be a good personality fit. A personality that doesn’t fit is someone who already believes they have all the answers.

What is your biggest challenge of this career path?
Constantly having to prospect for clients and sell yourself and keeping a momentum with that. A close second is managing client’s expectations. Communications plans are just one part of the business and the entire business needs to be in sync. No amount of skilful communications can compensate for bad business decisions. The business has to be solid for the communications plan to be successful.

What is your biggest challenge/benefit working as a couple?
The biggest challenge is being able to put the work aside at the end of the day. The benefit is that we understand each other’s thinking and perspectives, so can be more efficient.

Lisa: I think our biggest challenges come from working in close proximity and work styles. We have the same work ethic, but not the same work style. We don’t always agree on how to solve a problem. But we have the same goals and we can easily decide which of our strengths should tackle a particular part of a project.

What does the future hold for Big Tree Communications?
We’ve looked at growing and adding partners, but ultimately, we are more interested in quality over quantity. Having a manageable roster of clients but ones that we really enjoy working with and get the most satisfaction from is our long-term goal.

qaShannon HewlkoComment