Marvi Yap, an immigrant the from Philippines, was staring at an ad on a Toronto subway car in 2002. “Did you understand that one?” Yap asked her longtime friend and fellow Filipino immigrant, Anna Maramba, who was sitting beside her. “No.” Maramba said. The two were media savvy — Yap had even run her own advertising agency in Manila — but often the ads they saw, which relied on obscure cultural reference points and nuanced English expressions, went over their heads.
At that moment on the subway, it dawned on the duo that they could launch a multicultural ad agency to cater to people like themselves.
Today, Yap and Maramba run AV Communications, a multicultural advertising and marketing agency based in downtown Toronto. The company has offices in Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg and has a roster of high-profile clients, such as Western Union, Money Mart and the Ontario government. They tap into the expertise of their eight employees — immigrants from Serbia, Latvia, Latin America and China — to reach out to ethnic markets.
It’s a far cry from the two women’s employment situation in 2003, when they first launched the agency. Yap and Maramba (who had worked previously as a designer of commercial spaces in the Philippines) were moonlighting with “survival jobs” to make ends meet. They worked together packing garlic in a factory, and later, they delivered the Toronto Star in the middle of the night.
With few contacts in Canada, the two women networked through the Filipino community to get their humble first gigs — making business cards and decorating the lobby of a bank branch. Eventually they met someone at Western Union who was looking to reach out to ethnic communities.
Yap and Maramba came up with a brochure with text in the Filipino language Tagalog and cartoons in Komiks style, a type a illustration popular in the Philippines. “Any Filipino would identify with the graphic style,” says Yap. The campaign was adopted by Western Union in the U.S., and helped boost the Philippines from Western Union Canada’s No. 23 destination country to No. 12 in just three months. Since 2006, the Philippines has been Western Union Canada’s No. 1 destination country.
Today, Yap and Maramba make a point of helping new immigrants who contact them, often hiring them on small projects to give them their first bit of “Canadian experience.” “I tell new immigrants to pursue their goals and not to overanalyze,” says Maramba. “There are always barriers, but they need to just go for it, and do what they’re doing well.”