A conversation with Chris Miller evokes a cascade of stories and canny ideas

The CEO of Invoke knows a thing or two about shipping successful products and companies.

If you start at Waterfront Station and walk east on West Cordova Street, you pass a collection of bustling culinary establishments: Rogue Kitchen & Wetbar, Steamworks Brewing Co., Al Porto Ristorante and my favourite place in Vancouver to get a spicy chai latte, Buro Espresso Bar. Veer left onto Water Street and you have officially entered Gastown, and if the signs don’t give this away, the ageing cobblestone street, which was installed in 1974 as a beautification scheme, certainly will.

When you think of Gastown, you are inclined to think of ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton, the area’s namesake, and you remember that it was the original settlement that became Vancouver. In 2009, it was designated a National Historic Site of Canada. The district conjures up memories of the past, but in light of the recent influx of technology companies to the area, you might say that Gastown today actually represents Vancouver’s future.

The innovators came slowly, and then seemingly all at once. Now nestled into the neighbourhood is Quietly, Bananatag, Finning Digital, Later, QNX, Global Relay, Neurio, Control, and just on the outskirts of Gastown’s official boundaries, you find Launch Academy. “It takes a cluster to raise a startup,” wrote Canadian Business in 2015, “and Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood has emerged as one such nurturing ecosystem for technology companies.” The precinct has become a combination of business generator, incubator, accelerator and magnet for people with bold ideas. It’s also home to Invoke, a digital product and strategy agency founded in 2000, that you could describe using the exact same language.

Invoke is led by Chris Miller, a Vancouver native, who believes that the key to his company’s success is twofold: a “terribly smart” team combined with an insanely collaborative and value-driven approach. The way he sees it is that when you’re in the business of inventing—and reinventing enterprise—the expectation is that all hands are on deck. Nobody has a monopoly on ideas and there are no lone creative geniuses. “My feeling is that great ideas can come from anywhere,” he told me in a conference room at Invoke’s headquarters at 322 Water Street. “They can come from your team, from the companies you work with or from customers, and the idea of somebody owning that and showing up with the answer to all of your problems—it’s not a philosophy that I buy into.”

Still, after a conversation with Miller, it’s evident that he is someone who thinks a lot. He articulates his thoughts on a diverse set of topics elegantly. He is pensive, and he has plenty of ideas about people and business that shape his life and work at Invoke. But in order to fully understand his ideas, it helps to know the journey Miller took to refine them.

“Plan A” for Miller was to become a high school teacher. He attended Simon Fraser University with the intention of teaching history and physical education. “I thought it’d be perfect,” he says. “Summers off and spend time at the beach.” He graduated with a BA in history and a minor in kinesiology, despite partying as much as he studied, he recalls.

To become a teacher, he was required to enroll in a Professional Development Program (PDP), a teacher education program, but having just completed an academic marathon, he didn’t feel like jumping right into it. He needed a break.

The Internet was taking off around this time and Miller counted himself amongst the super curious. For as long as he can remember, he’s had an interest in technology and computers, and he had a sense of what this new global network could become. “I was like oh, this teaching thing is pretty cool, but these are really shiny objects and I want to learn how to use them more,” he says. “I started trying to figure out for myself how to code, how to design, and get under the hood of what the Internet could possibly become.”

He ended up getting a job at TELUS helping people go from dial-up to high speed. It was a job he enjoyed, where he took initiative, and with the technical knowledge he had previously gained, started building tools for his team so they could improve their work and service to customers. But his team didn’t bite. “I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to,” he recalls. So, he left.

Miller went on to work for an early incarnation of YellowPages.ca, helping to move businesses online and create websites for them. “That was actually a really good service that the company did back then,” he says. “You don’t have a website? Here we can build one for you.” Miller also worked on the online advertising part of the business and on their initial search business, which was competing with Google. “Yellow Pages lost,” Miller wryly concludes. That inevitability manifested itself in layoffs at the company, and while Miller was spared, he wasn’t interested in sticking around for what he called “another round of crazy.”

Miller would transition to the banking sector and introduce the world to a woman named Julie. Julie was the new face of the Coast Capital Savings website, and she was considered the first ever online greeter from a Canadian financial institution. Miller actually helped invent her while working as a web producer and editor for the bank. “We created probably one of the first banking chatbots, before we called anything a chatbot,” Miller says.

When Julie was launched, visitors to the Coast website would be greeted by her. “A video would cue up right away and she would wave at you,” Miller explains, “And she’d knock on the glass of the monitor.” Prospective customers could ask questions about products through a search bar, and Julie would respond with pre-recorded videos before a link would pop-up to lead them to more details.

To understand just how advanced this was considered back then, just read how Investment Executive, a news website, wrote about the campaign when it launched:

“Julie” is the star attraction on Coast Capital Savings new website launched today as part of a strategy by the B.C.-based financial institution to provide an enhanced, user-friendly online experience to customers while leveraging Canada’s high per capita penetration of broadband, which allows quality video and sound transmission via the Internet (italics mine).

For this project, Miller worked with a local company called Rethink Communications, who are still doing cheeky work for the credit union to this day.

Miller’s Coast days were, in some sense, the dawn of a new era, a move away from designing and building things to one of strategy, planning and management.

Is agency life like Mad Men? “My brother-in-law asked me the same question,” Miller tells me. “He’s a teacher. And he watched a couple of episodes. He’s asked me, ‘Is that what’s it like to work at Cossette? I said, ‘Well… not so much the rampant infidelity that happens on the show, but a lot of the other stuff, maybe? There are the drinks and people like to party and it’s a bit crazy.”

Crazy is one way to describe Miller’s time in advertising. You could, however, just call it an adventure if you’re looking for a gentle euphemism. It starts at Fjord, which was the digital solutions provider of Cossette West. Miller was account director for nearly four years there. But then Fjord became Dare, which was positioned as an innovative digital company and was expected to do cutting-edge work. “It was cool, but it was a big team, and it needed big clients to stay healthy,” explains Miller. This became a problem when the companies Dare was working with were not as keen about the future as Dare creatives were.

Miller was eventually recruited back into Cossette, the mothership, to rebuild its digital capabilities, he says. Because of his background in project and account management, he ended up a director of account services, and in one year, worked on a campaign reminiscent of his online greeter work at Coast. In 2013, Royal Roads University worked with Cossette to create a makeshift ‘digital kiosk’ that real live alumnae were hidden inside. When passers-by pressed a “Connect” button on a display screen, they would be pleasantly surprised when the screen would drop down and reveal the actual women they were expecting to see a video of.

Miller confesses that he took on the account services role somewhat reluctantly, but because he had a team of 20 account people, he saw it as a way of injecting digital thinking into all the work that was pursued. “I thought that’s the way to maybe change the landscape.”

After covering his general manager’s mat leave and running the agency for half a year, Miller was crowned director of innovation. His objective was to challenge the work that the agency was doing while bringing more digital thinking into the mix. “It was cool, I enjoyed enjoy it, but at that point things weren’t moving fast enough for me,” he says. Again, he left.

This thirst for more digital is what led him to leave. “When the opportunity at Invoke surfaced, I jumped at it,” he says. “Because I knew, not only the pedigree that Invoke has, but that it’s a different kind of digital shop. It’s not a traditional agency, or even an agency, for that matter.”

So what kind of company is Invoke today? “We’re focused purely on building products,” explains Miller, “And the biggest focus for us right now is doing work with large enterprise.” But Miller will also tell you that Invoke has had “different seasons,” where different values and approaches have come in and out of focus.

There’s season one where Ryan Holmes, Dario Meli, and David Tedman start the company. There’s another season in 2008 where Hootsuite is invented. There’s the season in 2011 where Eat Street, an iOS app and companion to the Food Network show of the same name, is downloaded over 150,000 times in one week. There’s also the season where Invoke made corporate catering easier through the creation of Foodee. There’s a season where Invoke Labs is spun-off as an independent accelerator. Then there’s a season where Miller becomes CEO of the original Invoke. And then there are the seasons where Invoke creates Earls Restaurants’ first ever “Social Menu” Facebook app before eventually merging back with Labs in 2014.

Miller has been around for the last few seasons, and he is proud of the capabilities of his current cast of characters. “We have a nice balance of knowing what it’s like to be a startup and what it means to ship really successful companies,” he explains. “But we’ve also worked with large organizations and know the complexity around how those businesses actually run.”

One of the defining features of Invoke today is its emphasis on creating value, he says. “We ship things that are going to generate revenue for the companies that we support or have some form of a value exchange between the company and the customer,” he says. “It’s not communications, it’s not marketing, it’s basically building new companies. That’s our stake in the ground.”

Miller feels strongly about that word value. For example, he doesn’t believe that taking money from a client and spending 80 per cent of it on ad space is an effective use of resources. “I think that should be completely flipped on its head,” he contends. “Where if somebody gives you a million dollars, you’re going to spend $800,000 of that creating something that adds value to the customer or builds a tool or a product or a platform that strengthens the business—and then spend the remaining $200,000 getting the word out there strategically.”

“The traditional advertising or media model—I think if it’s not already been pronounced dead, it will be pretty soon,” he adds.

When it comes to other topics like design, employee communication, news, business and management, Miller’s thoughts are just as fluent and refined.

For example, he believes that the intentional design of space is critical, and he defends the fact that his team works within an open-office concept. He recognizes that, “There are people saying it’s terrible or that nobody gets any work done. But it depends on the kind of work that you do and for us collaboration is such a huge part of the way we work. I’m happy with how the office is structured, but it’s not done yet.” And on this topic, he is not done yet either.

“I want to create spaces that encourage even more collaboration,” he continues. “An example would be this room. We would have it dedicated to a certain product we were working on. You start filling up the walls with post-it notes and everything, and this room becomes for that product. People come together for it and this room is not treated like a meeting room anymore.” The post-it notes no longer have to come down. The whiteboard needn’t be erased.

Like every other modern company right now, except for Microsoft, Invoke uses Slack for internal communication. Some of Miller’s staff find it useful, while others “find it pretty noisy,” he says. “It’s very in the moment kind of communication, which can be great in some ways and also challenging in others. So I try to encourage the team to use it when necessary, and I say ‘Guys, look Slack is great, we’re using it in the right ways, but it’s also cool to talk somebody.’”

When I ask him what the differences are between working with companies like McDonald’s, as he did in his ad days, and smaller locally-based companies, he says, “Fewer zeros in the budget.” He then continues, “Speed is a big difference. Willingness to experiment because the stakes are lower. It’s all relative too, right?

You know, if McDonald’s does something and it fails, it fails, right. It has many zeros behind the fall out. Whereas smaller companies are very comfortable with the idea of experimentation—at least they should be. Not all of them, but the kinds that we love to work with are the ones that want to take risks. But smart risks. Not risks that are going to destroy their business. But they’re comfortable with making small bets and then seeing how they go, and then, you know, iterating based on the outcomes. It’s hard for big companies to do that, and sometimes, it’s just not the right thing to do.

Miller is a proponent of what he calls just-in-time information consumption. He wouldn’t read a whitepaper on just any obscure topic. He would rather wait until he needs specific new knowledge before diving into it. “Things move so fast that information gets old really quickly,” he figures. “So I’d rather have the most recent information available when I need it versus looking at stuff that’s dated that I might never need to use.”

Maybe that’s the real reason Miller opted to forgo his teaching education. He couldn’t stomach the thought of any more hours reading—or teaching from—textbooks that would inevitably be outdated before the next term was complete. Or maybe he just liked the idea of what educators call experiential learning—learning through doing the actual work.

That’s Miller’s superpower: He doesn’t just understand the work of his employees, he’s actually done the actual work—design, code, strategy, sales, project management, all of it. “I’ve taken the mindset of wanting to know how to do the work before leading others that do it,” he says. “It’s really important to me and it’s been really valuable to me because I’m able to communicate more effectively, and I’m able to understand what challenges the teams are facing in the roles that they do.”

He’ll even suggest that he’s not an expert in any particular area. “I don’t have that one really deep knowledge of a specific thing,” he tells me near the end of our conversation. “I have knowledge about a lot of things across the spectrum, but I think that’s what helps me in the role. I guess the deep part for me has been just knowing how to run a business. And that’s what I’m ultimately responsible for.”

Back in June of this year, when I arrived at Invoke’s office to interview Miller, I momentarily found myself lost. Glancing at my calendar app, I had a partial panic attack. The meeting invite location read “Watson (3601).” I quickly Googled it.

3601 Watson Street in Vancouver is located just off of Main Street, between the Vietnamese restaurant Anh and Chi and the Vancouver Chinese Pentecostal Church. That can’t be right. Is that where Invoke is? No way. I called Sam Elgar, at the time, Invoke’s head of growth, who set up the interview with Miller. When I told him what was happening, he laughed, and then explained that Invoke’s meeting rooms are all named after computers. Watson was the room we were meeting in, and it is obviously named after IBM’s Watson; another room name is Pepper, named after the humanoid robot; and there’s Curiosity, a nod to NASA’s car-sized rover that explored the Gale Crater on Mars.

In this sense, every room represents once radical ideas that have become reality, with epic stories to match, all symbolic of the promise of digital technology. At a shop run by Miller, I would expect nothing less.

Photo credit: Barbara Jun