Mary-Lynn Bellamy-Willms, CEO of Suburbia Advertising

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She founded Suburbia Advertising with her husband, Russ Willms, in 1988 and is CEO of  the busy agency (he’s the art director and partner in the business). She also runs Function Fox, which sells project management and billing software for creative companies, now a bigger business than Suburbia.

Bellamy-Willms is also a partner in Valentus, a group of clinics that use thermography and low-level laser therapy to treat chronic pain opening in Victoria. She sits on the advisory board of Daily Splice, a Victoria tech startup. Suburbia has clients from Victoria to Halifax and works for a number of shopping malls on their marketing campaigns. Among its local clients are Hillside and Woodgrove shopping centres, the Cancer Foundation, Queen Alexandra Foundation, Coastal Community credit union, Megson Fitzpatrick, and Planet Organic.

You once worked on advertising for Woodward’s department stores. What was that like?

For Suburbia, it was one of the early campaigns we worked on. We worked with Palmer Jarvis, actually before people worked from home and freelanced. For whatever reason, they kept hiring us to work on Woodward’s ads.

How did Suburbia get from a home business to an agency with clients across Canada?

I guess I’ve always been interested in marketing. That kind of led to a job with a firm called Western Communications. I loved it, lots of energy, lots of things to work on. I started as receptionist, then traffic manager. It was during the boom in Calgary. If you put in the time, you worked your way up the ladder. That’s something I really value: people who don’t have too many lines drawn in the sand.

Suburbia’s website says it’s a “retail branding advertising agency.” What does that mean?

We have developed a really solid expertise in retail marketing. We are known in the shopping centre category in particular. That’s also led to people just knowing who we are. It’s more about strategy. We really understand women. We do spend a lot of time studying ways you can inspire and motivate them. It’s like going to a GP if you have a heart problem. No, you want a cardiologist.

{advertisement} Is there a future for an agency founded on strong print campaigns in the new world of online?

We don’t think just about advertising — we think about marketing… how your brand can be expressed inside your company as well as outside. It’s much deeper and broader than just advertising. We help clients define their brand strategy and help them stick to it. We’re fully integrated so we do a lot of social media. We’re working with Twitter, Facebook, blogs. If we’re working with a client, we’re integrating a lot of e-marketing with it. It’s there — it’s a matter of understanding it and using it strategically. Right now, there’s a lot of poor use. They can be effective if they’re used strategically.

Is Mad Men a realistic portrayal of the business?

I’m not a big follower of Mad Men. It’s fun and engaging — it’s entertainment.

Are women better at advertising and marketing than men?

We have lots of guys on our creative team. Any one of the guys here can tell you what a kitten heel is. We joked that when they started working here, we put female DNA into the coffee.

How do you balance the demands of work and home?

Both my sons are in their 20s — when they reached 16, it felt like the heavy lifting was over. I love working — it’s invigorating. I didn’t think I’d have been a fulltime stay-at-home mother.

What’s it like working with your husband during the day and then being at home together? Do you talk shop all the time?

He’s really an artist and a painter, an illustrator. He’s not a businessperson. I can’t remotely do anything he does. We met when we worked together when we were young at the same agency.

Can you name your favourite campaign or project?

It’s easy to say, iPod. I think I like everything Apple does. Their product designs are beautiful and innovative.
Who among your competitors do you admire, and why?

I think I admire all of them. Every agency has something they do really well. I don’t think we compete. We have our focus, our niche.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in being CEO?

Time, I think, just time. I need more time, more hours. I could be busy 20 days a week. Time is always the challenge. I love ideas. I love innovation. I love the startup phase, whether it’s a campaign or a new business.

What’s next?

I’m excited about getting the Valentus clinics up and running. The goal for the clinics is to have them across Canada. We’re looking at continually adding new and noninvasive therapies.

What are you reading these days for pleasure?

I’m not reading anything for fun except cookbooks. I like to cook. I generally have a couple of business books on the night table but I haven’t picked them up.

What advice would you give women thinking of a career in business, especially in advertising and marketing?

I would say be curious, be open, work hard. Be really good at something. Get expertise in something. The idea of a specialist is so much more interesting than a generalist. Say, become a leader in understanding Twitter strategy.