Painting by Numbers, Data Driven Creativity: DX32018 Day 2


Amazing things happen when data and creativity intersect. When organizations truly know their stakeholders, they can build rewarding experiences for them which don’t  feel like advertising.

In the past, consumers were bombarded with broad messages that they often didn’t relate to, for products that they might never be interested in. Today as we move through applications and online searches, we generate massive amounts of data in our wake. It’s staggering really, every time we search Google for example, we kick off around 40 experiments that are recorded and used to refine our next search or similar searches by similar people.

I witnessed a fascinating panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence with Katy Yam, Marketing & Communications Director at Element AI, Chris Laver, Distinguished Data Scientist, Machine Learning & AI with RBC and Anita Chauhan, Head of Marketing at Zoom.AI. In this discussion the panel touched on the benefits of AI and also its limitations.

In classic rules-based decision making, we try to find the reason for an anomaly by using relevant historical data to build a new rule for the novel condition. Now that we have big data, we need a powerful tool to work though it all, find patterns and generate solutions. This is where machine based learning shines. AI can process massive amounts of information in order to solve a problem using data that we may never have taken into account before. The best part is that AI can refine this “dynamic decision making” over time, enhancing its own accuracy.

Chatbots are a common application of AI in everyday business. They can greatly reduce the burden on a customer service team by handling common inquiries and grow smarter with each conversation. By 2020 approximately 85% of customer interactions will be with bots although more complex questions will still need human interaction. A particularly fascinating aspect of AI is its “black box”. There is a mystery as to how the more advanced algorithms of AI systems work. There are examples in which machines are able to learn without much human direction at all. No one is sure which algorithms are guiding them. Without this clarity we are not at the stage where we can completely trust AI decisions without applying our own common sense.

We now have processing power to realize a hyper-personalization of data which can enable targeted and relevant marketing without precedent. Jeff Miller, Global Head of Creative Strategy: Snapchat, gave some incredible examples of immersive brand experiences through the application.

Jeff describes Snapchat as a “best friends network” in which content is not curated and is shared with a highly engaged audience. Brands can fit well with this environment by carefully targeting their messages by demographic but also by location as the app is mobile based. They have to focus on building better experiences as most people will only stay on neutral content for 2 to 3 seconds.

The best campaigns make use of the engineering might of the application making the user part of the story in novel ways. Some highly successful initiatives have involved AR in which the consumer can play games, share augmented selfies and 3-D models of celebrities and products in their own environment. Reaching and engaging the right audience leads to high click through rates and even in-app purchases.

New technology is exciting and companies don’t want to feel left behind. The advancements I witnessed at DX32018 could greatly enhance many brands but only if there is a good fit between brand, their consumers and the innovation. Even in this fast paced era there is still a place for strategic thinking and a solid business case.


Evolution to Revolution, the age of the Customer: DX32018 Day 1

It has been an eye-opening first day at DX32018 with inspiring speakers and innovative tech. I can’t claim the above headline as my own, it is a brilliant summation of the current marketing environment by Theresa McLaughlin: EVP & Global CMP, TD Bank Group.

Theresa spoke about how important the acquisition and retention of talent is to the organizations of today. Within the zeitgeist of disruption and unprecedented consumer choice, finding the right people and helping them to navigate the shifting landscape is crucial to the success of all types of business.

She talked about how there was no longer room for “brilliant jerks”, those who may achieve success individually but who have no emotional intelligence. This is especially true for those in leadership roles. She considers those leaders who don’t take the time to properly manage and listen to their reports as failures, despite positive outcomes they may achieve on an individual project. Employees need to feel like they are growing and that they have the support of their leaders in order for an organization to make meaningful strides forward.

Competition is fierce as companies are no longer just racing with their peers anymore. In this era of monumental shift, each brand must compete with the consumer’s best experience overall in every category. Tamir Bar-Haim: Canada Country Manager, Amazon, shared many of Theresa McLaughlin’s sentiments when he spoke about achieving customer-centric growth. He explained how Amazon is completely obsessed with their customers which has driven innovations to serve them better.

One of Amazon’s notable customer-driven advancements was to open up their platform to third-party sellers which began at just 5% of their commerce but has now grown to 50% . This was considered a very risky move at the outset, yet has delivered a huge return on investment. Similarly, allowing customers to post reviews was heavily criticized at first, but has yielded fantastic results.

Amazon has taken informed risks, relying on the power of increasingly sophisticated analytics to guide them to a greater, longer range return. Taking risks is an essential path to success in times of flux. Though failure stings, it can lead to skyrocketing achievements that change reality for consumers, business and the world.

Rajen Ruparell, Charman & Co-Founder: Endy. knows all about taking risks. Although by his own admission he had many misses in his early career, Rajen is an extreme example of daring and initiative. While living in London in 2009 he had the idea to create a European mimic of a small start-up in Chicago called “Groupon” He pitched this idea over the phone to German Entrepreneurs The Samwer Brothers, who requested that he fly to meet them in Berlin that same day. Shortly afterwards they seeded the new company with a transfer of 5 million dollars to Rajen’s overdrawn student bank account.

The Groupon copy start-up was named “City Deal” and initially floundered. Rajen took another huge risk. He lied to the Samwers about needing another $500,000 to overcome a legal technicality and used the money to purchase movie tickets which he then offered to the public for only $1. He drove traffic to the website with an ad in the paper and made sure that City Deal’s best offers were most prominent to attract attention. In 24 hours Rajen had turned the company’s fortunes completely around. City Deal was eventually acquired by Groupon for $250 million US.

Though the scale of daring and the resulting reward achieved by Rajen Ruparel is far from ordinary, I saw brilliantly creative examples of new companies taking chances and creating disruptions in their industries at DX32018. An excellent example of this is reflected in Juniper Life Insurance.

Juniper offers term life insurance through an online application without the need for medical tests or in person visits. In doing this, they eliminate the expense and inconvenience of multiple layers of bureaucracy. They have embraced the “test and fail” methodology in their application development and are so cutting edge that they even allow payment by the cryptocurrency “PoliSure” which is unique to the insurance industry.

Derryn Shrosbree, Founder and President: Juniper Life Insurance, spoke about  fascinating insights gained while developing their application. In early iterations they began the process by asking for the person’s name before diving into more personal, potentially uncomfortable medical questions. Although completely logical, this turned out to be a huge mistake in terms of conversion. Asking for a name right upfront caused a 97% drop out rate. When users had anonymity they spent 25% more time on the site and were far more likely to get an insurance quote before going on to fill out their name near the end of the process.

I left day one with so much to think about. This is an exciting time in which consumers have unprecedented power to shape brands. There has never before been a level playing field in which an upstart company can compete on a virtual shelf right beside a traditional brand. Perhaps most encouraging is that despite this massive wave of change, companies with vision see their employees as assets and support them in keeping pace.


Dixonlicious 2018: A Glorious Night of Food & Community

Fresh Pasta by The Food Dudes at Dixonlicious
Fresh Pasta by The Food Dudes at Dixonlicious “…tossed in garlic butter and olive oil, topped with peccorino, black pepper, lemon zested panko, parsley and chives”.

Thanks to the Charming Modernist I was very fortunate to attend Dixonlicious, a fundraiser for Dixon Hall’s community food programs. The event offered an impressive mix of culinary delights, craft beer and wine. There were some tempting silent auction items featuring novels signed by Margaret Atwood, and entertaining performances showcasing the precociously talented students from The Dixon Hall Music School.

Global News journalist Farah Nasser hosted an impactful presentation about Dixon Hall. The organization began as a soup kitchen in 1929 and has grown and diversified into serving more than 10,000 vulnerable members of the community in East Toronto. Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services Board Chair and RBC CFO Rod Bolger, spoke about how the money raised at Dixonlicious translates into the number of meals that Dixon Hall provides. The event goal was to raise $80,000 which would serve 20,000 meals to at risk seniors, youth and those in shelters.

I was especially moved during the presentation, when Esther, a senior who relies on the Dixon Hall Meals on Wheels program, spoke firsthand about the positive impact it has made in her life. Ester has scoliosis which makes it difficult and painful to prepare meals. Thanks to Dixon Hall she receives nutritious food and also enjoys positive social interaction with dedicated volunteers.

The food at the event was phenomenal. Top Toronto restaurants prepared an array of pleasing dishes to suit every taste. My first foray was the “coffee smoked chicken salad” by Hawthorn Food and Drink which had a lovely depth of flavour. The salad was paired with a Lost Craft “Crimzen English Red Ale”. Daniel et Daniel made the most incredible “Pulled braised short- rib with white cheddar curds, gremolata au jus”, which was essentially excellent gnocchi poutine. The fried pasta had such a pleasant texture, I confess I had to have a second helping. This was well paired with Brickworks “Queen Street 501 Semi-Sweet Craft Cider”. Another notable menu item was the “Hokkaido scallops on the half shell with Aji Amarillo”, which were so attractively served, light and fresh to eat.

Dixonlicious 2018 was a huge success due to the generous sponsors, hardworking volunteers and lucky guests. The event even exceeded the $80,000 fundraising goal. I was grateful to be a part of the evening and also to have learned so much about the wonderful things that Dixon Hall does for the community.

Chef VS Chef: My day at the 2nd Annual Barn Burner Charity Hockey Game

I’m impressed by chefs. I think the profession attracts a valuable personality type which is both analytical and exceptionally creative. Being a chef requires a great deal of drive and performance under pressure, which might explain why they can also be enthusiastic hockey players.

Today I was lucky to witness a spirited rivalry between Toronto Chefs (Toronto Grinders) vs Montreal Chefs (Montreal Mashers) at the Second Annual Barn Burner Charity Hockey Game. This unique family friendly event combines delicious food and hockey all in support of Community Food Centres Canada, an organization which empowers communities to work toward a healthy and fair food system, as well as The StoreHouse Foodbank in Wellington.

My journey began at The Drake Hotel on Queen West where I boarded a classic yellow school bus to take me to the game in Prince Edward County. The Drake staff were very gracious and hospitable, making sure that I had some notably delicious coffee and some tasty cookies for the trip. They also played great music the whole way as an added bonus.

Local meat and cheeses
Local meat and cheeses

Once I arrived at the arena I received my VIP wristband which gave me access to a bountiful buffet of local meat and cheeses as well as a bar serving Goose Island beer and Ungava cocktails prepared specially for the event. Both Goose Island and Ungava were also sponsors of the Barn Burner this year.

In the concourse around the rink were magical concession stands which served a variety of dishes from lobster mac n cheese, gourmet Jamaican patties and banh mi to freshly prepared soups. All of these tasty options were included in the price of the hockey ticket.

I settled in to watch the game which got quite intense as The Toronto Grinders fought to maintain their lead over the Montreal Mashers. There were  even a few on ice skirmishes, which made me wonder what the chirping would be like between all-star chefs on a hockey rink:
“Your balsamic reductions are watery and tasteless”
“Oh yeah, well your local grass fed beef medallions are bland and uninspired!”

In the end Toronto triumphed as they did last year and both teams left to prepare the celebratory feast together at The Drake Devonshire Inn.



Recipe Quest: Homemade Hard Cider Gummy Bears

Gummie bears made with Parkside Cherry Hard Cider
Gummie Bears made with Parkside Cherry Hard Cider

I’ve been fascinated with the idea of making my own gummy bears for awhile now. I like the idea of knowing exactly what is in my food and I also love the unique flavour possibilities. You can make gummies out of any juice you like, fruit puree, tea and even in this case alcohol. You can colour them with natural dyes too like beet juice and even turmeric or regular gel food colouring. They can take any shape you have a mold for too. It really is a fun, limitless base recipe.

The essential ingredient in gummies is gelatin which is animal collagen processed in order to make it dissolve in water. Gelatin contains amino acids which do have health benefits, although the sugar content in most gummy candies diminishes their overall nutritional profile. I used ordinary unflavoured gelatin in this recipe but it is possible to buy  gelatin made from grass fed animals whic is free of the usual trappings of industrial agriculture.

I decided to use plain old sugar to sweeten this recipe, but I would like to experiment with fruit concentrate and honey in the future.

For this early attempt I chose to go with one of my favourite ciders – Brickworks Parkside Cherry – as I could easily imagine it working as a delicious candy. I visited a number of stores in Toronto looking for these quintessential gummie molds without success. Eventually I just ordered them online. They were inexpensive and arrived quickly.

Essential Equipment

Silicone candy molds (I used 3 gummie bear trays) Silicone worked best. I previously tried chocolate molds but found it very difficult to extract the finished gummies.

Optional Equipment

A candy thermometer is useful for recipes that contain alcohol. If you intend to preserve their alcohol content, you need make sure that the candy mixture does not exceed 170F/75C

Materials and Ingredients for Parkside Cherry Apple Cider Gummies
Materials and ingredients for Parkside Cherry Apple Cider Gummies

You will need
1 cup of cider
3 TBSP unflavoured gelatine
1/4 cup sugar

  1. Stir cider, gelatin and sugar together in a small pot over medium heat until all the sugar and gelatin have dissolved, taking care not to heat above 170 F to preserve the alcohol content in the mix
  2. Distribute the mixture to the molds
  3. Refrigerate for 2 hours to set
  4. Once extracted from molds, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator
Filling Silicon Bear Molds with the Candy Mixture
Filling silicon bear molds with the candy mixture

The finished gummies retained the flavour of Parkside Cherry Cider, and were less sweet than store bought varieties. I look forward to trying a beer based version too. So many possibilities!


Recipe Quest: The Search for the Perfect Baked Chip

Baked zucchini, beet and sweet potato chips
Baked zucchini, beet and sweet potato chips

In the spirit of homemade, simple food that is minimally processed, I decided to find a healthier, more nutritious  alternative to potato chips. It’s likely impossible to duplicate the seductive crunch of a deep fried, starchy chip in an oven, but I do love a good experiment!

I began my quest by researching various recipes online and narrowing my main ingredients down to zucchini, beets and sweet potato. After that, I looked at different baking methods. I found it best to go low and slow, using the oven almost like a food dehydrator. I also preferred the recipes which respected the uniqueness of each of the vegetables, rather than trying to come up with a generic strategy. These attempts went quite well, though I could perfect them further, especially the sweet potato version which might benefit from a cooler oven.

I realize that not everyone wants to be putzing around in a kitchen for hours like I do, but once you have the recipe down, it requires little effort and almost no thought to get things set up and do something else while they slowly bake.

Essential Equipment:
A Mandolin slicer to cut the vegetables to a reliable fine thickness, I can’t imagine trying to cut them by hand and using a peeler results in uneven wispy slices that burn.
2 sheet pans
Parchment paper for the zucchini and beets
Foil for the sweet potato


baked zucchini chips
Baked zucchini chips

These are the most delicate of the 3 options and require the lowest temperature for the longest time. The end result is a thin, crispy chip with a little sweetness to it.
The recipe works best with a slightly larger squash, as the chips shrink to less than half of their diameter when done. Do not use one of those massive overlooked monsters lurking your summer garden, as they tend to be too watery and seedy to work well.

You will need
1 medium to large zucchini
1 TBSP olive oil
light sprinkle of salt

  1. Pre-heat oven to 225 C
  2. Slice one medium/large zucchini into disks of 1/8 in or 30 mm thick.
    (This was the second thinnest setting on my mandolin)
  3. Layer the rounds with paper towel and put something heavy at the top of the stack to help squeeze out moisture while you prep the pans, about 10 minutes.
  4. Line two pans with parchment paper and arrange the chips in a single non-overlapping layer.
  5. Brush chips lightly with olive oil and lightly sprinkle with salt.
    It is important to use very light salt as the chips will shrink
  6. Bake for up to 2 hours checking at 15 minute intervals after the first hour.


Baked beet chips
Baked beet chips

Gosh what an exquisite vegetable beets are with their gorgeous deep pink colour. I only wish i liked them more. I do enjoy their earthy flavour as beet chips, so I thought it would be fun to make my own. The result was a pretty chip with a complex taste, a little bitter and a little sweet.

You will need
4 medium to large beets
1/4 cup olive oil
light sprinkle of salt

  1. Pre-heat oven to 300 C
  2. Wash and scrub beets thoroughly. You will not need to peel them. Slice them into disks of 1/16 in or 15 mm thick.
    (This was the thinnest setting on my mandolin)
  3. Place the rounds in a dish and add oil and salt, mix well
  4. Leave to release moisture while you prep the pans, about 20 minutes.
  5. Strain the Beet slices
  6. Line two pans with parchment paper and arrange the slices in a single non overlapping layer.
  7. Bake for up to 1 hour, checking at 5 minute intervals after the 45 minutes.

Sweet Potato

Baked sweet potato chips

The sweetest and starchiest, but also the fussiest of the three chips to make. These have a high sugar content so require more vigilance than the others to prevent them from burning.

You will need
1medium to large sweet potato
2 tbsp Sunflower/Safflower oil
light sprinkle of salt

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325 C
  2. Wash and scrub sweet potato thoroughly. You will not need to peel it. Slice into disks of 1/16 in or 15 mm.
    (This was the thinnest setting on my mandolin)
  3. Line two pans with lightly oiled aluminum foil and arrange the slices in a single non-overlapping layer.
  4. Brush chips lightly with olive oil on both sides and lightly sprinkle with salt.
  5. Bake for 8 minutes before flipping slices over and baking another 8 minutes,then flip them every 5 minutes until the edges curl and the chips become lighter in colour


NYE fun at the Infinity Ball #MyToronto

I don’t really believe in New Year’s resolutions but January 1st is an excellent prompt for procrastinators like me. I’ve long been meaning to capture the incredible experiences I’m lucky enough to have in Toronto and also to thank the wonderful people and organizations who make all of them possible.

Discoballs at Infity Ball NYE 2018

Thanks to the amazing Myseum of Toronto I was able to welcome 2018 right at the Infinity Ball. Myseum of Toronto is a non-profit organization which promotes and enhances our city’s rich culture. Through showcases, pop-up experiences, festivals and partnerships with community leaders, they celebrate and strengthen the unique cultural sector in Toronto.

When I first arrived at the Enercare Centre I was thrilled with the magical atmosphere of The infinity Ball. Young Offenders  described as a “team of experiential architects” worked with talented local artists to create an immersive and interactive environment for NYE revelers. There were many photo opportunities and bits of sparkly delight. I especially enjoyed taking a “lazer selfie” and having it imprinted on a macaron.

Broadbent Sisters Installationat Infity Ball NYE 2018
Installation by Joy and Rose Broadbent “The Broadbent Sisters”
Edible Selfie Macaron by Make Lab at Infity Ball NYE 2018
Our macaron from the Edible Selfie Photo Booth by Makelab

I had a fantastic time soaking in the live music experience that is Dwayne Gretzky.  This impressive collection of Toronto Musicians can cover up to 600 songs, from different eras and genres. The crowd was dancing and singing along to hits from Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Cindi Lauper among many others. There is a true love for music that radiates from this band, which completely transcends category and I believe contributes to their success.

Dwayne Gretzsky performing at Infity Ball NYE 2018NYE
Dwayne Gretzky

Although the changing of the year is mostly an arbitrary construct, I couldn’t help but think of the possibilities ahead. Swaying around to that familiar and cherished music, I daydreamed about the places to visit and the things to experience in 2018.