Jenn Larry and Claire MacDonald on Crafting the 'Modern Street' of MTL Cannabis
Claire Macdonald and Jennifer Larry are, respectively, the creative and commercial power duo behind MTL Cannabis, a privately-owned, flower-first cannabis company based in Montreal.
Not only have they taken over seven provinces in seven months, they have outsold many other brands and sustained as a top-5 seller in each market, and done it all with a single SKU.
As creative director, Claire has worked within Canada's notoriously stringent marketing regulations to establish assets that align with the craftsmanship and Montreal-ness of the MTL Cannabis brand. Jenn Larry, chief commercial officer, has a career that spans cigarettes, gambling and music, which all gave her the tools to enter the cannabis world as a commercial consultant before joining MTL Cannabis full time.
We spoke with Claire and Jenn for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.
Where you grew up and where you live now.
Claire: I've come full circle! I grew up on the West Island of Montreal, where I'm currently raising my family, just a stone's throw away from the MTL Cannabis offices. Living in the West Island most of my life, you come to realize that you've lived in the juxtaposition between the tension of the French and English power struggles. Politically, there's permanent tension, but socially, we live in harmony. As a first-generation Canadian—my parents arrived on a boat from England—I see beauty in the mix of French and English influences, history and culture. Where else will you see graffiti on a building where the profanity spelled out has both French and English swear words in it? Only here in Montreal!
Jenn: I grew up in Montreal on the west end of the island. It was a new suburb when my family moved there, but now it is a bustling little area of town. It is crazy that I find myself driving the highway back to where I grew up in the industrial part of the area as I pull into work daily. Traveling the world only to find oneself back at their "front door" is pretty impressive, especially since cannabis is still so new on the global stage. Now I live in the city. I love the culture, and the history and the grit that comes with living in the city. The cobblestone roads in the old port, the graffiti covering the buildings, the art, the music, and the construction make Montreal so unique compared to the rest of Canada! Plus, there's always been a bit of political friction in Quebec, and indeed, Montreal was at the center. However, I think this is part of our identity and has given us an edge and the ability to balance language, culture and history. Whatever it is, Montreal is about joie de vivre and now about great weed.
Your current role in the cannabis industry.
Claire: I'm the creative director and graphic designer at MTL Cannabis in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. How awesome is that? I started my career working for a newspaper and then a magazine, medical supply company and then a print and design agency, then I spent 10 years running my own design agency. I've worked on design campaigns for plumbers, banks, hospitals and charities. I've illustrated the human heart to company logos. I feel like it was all practice for this: creatively marketing cannabis while taking on the responsibility to do it justice in a just-legalized market. That's one hell of a commitment. With everything in this industry being so new and, in Canada, so strict on what can and cannot be shown and used, we have to pivot daily—no, hourly—on strategy. If you can't roll with those punches, you better get out of the boxing ring fast!
Jenn: I'm the chief commercial officer at MTL Cannabis, located in Quebec, on the side of a highway in the west end of Montreal. CCO is a new and lesser-known role that we have seen emerge over the past few years; I am honored and excited to hold this post with the MTL family. What I love about the role is that it is all about strategy and weed. As a former strategist focused on regulated vice categories, I am obsessed with interconnecting the flow of operations, commercial needs and brand development.
This role affords me the chance to lead marketing, sales and product development and build a strong foundation with an incredible team. From testing the competitors' product to developing new brands, packaging and format offer, defining sales goals, pricing, and trade programming, it is a dream come true. Looking back 20 years ago, I would have never thought I'd be in the business of cannabis. I started my career managing recording studios and working with record labels and retail. Then I spent a decade working in strategy with global agencies and some homegrown ones as well. Having clients in tobacco, gambling, music, pharma, oil and gas, cosmetics and food, I feel like the last 20 years have been a primer for the world of cannabis CPG.
A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.
Claire: That's easy. I'm living it right now. I've lived it since I met my husband [Rich Clement, co-owner]. He's been in the industry as a hydroponic shop owner since we started dating many years ago. We then got the medical license to grow before embarking on the long road to creating MTL Cannabis with my brother-in-law [Mitch Clement, co-owner]. It's been a long uphill battle to get MTL to where it is today, but the struggles were well worth it. We believed in fighting for this. Rich was passionate about growing the plants, and I was passionate about creating the brand. We were both committed to our craft. We need to know when to get out of each other's way and when to collaborate. We're just at the beginning and have many more plans for MTL Cannabis. We have a great team backing us; they are all just as passionate about their part of the craft. It's exciting and frightening at the same time, but we wouldn't have it any other way right now. Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life. So my husband gets to grow great weed that he's proud to put on the shelf, and I get to brand it. That's pretty cool stuff.
Jenn: Being introduced to cannabis at the age of 15 changed my life. I had been diagnosed at an early age with mental conditions, and for so long, feeling happy or focused was a challenge. But then, when I found weed, something inside me changed. I felt great starting with that first joint, my physical and mental pains were reduced, and my mood was optimistic.
And it was not just that. As I became a young adult, I noticed that I had leaned into a more natural life, using weed as my vice of choice, and because of that, I never drank. But I'd say the most impactful part of cannabis is the community: the people and the plant. Working at MTL Cannabis seems so on point when I look back to how weed has positively impacted me. I am glad to be part of a company that is working to do it right and continuing to make a positive impact on the industry.
A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.
Claire: As a creative person, the mind always goes with ideas that I want to get out on paper or screen. I enjoy a good vape pen that calms those ideas at the end of the day and puts me into a deep sleep.
Jenn: I am a flower girl. I love to smoke my weed, so many new formats, while cool, have not yet found their way into my repertoire. I also love to be super functional all day, so I choose stuff that keeps me focused, happy, creative and chill. Some of the flowers I enjoy these days include Sage n' Sour, Cookie n' Cream, Animal Face, Apple Fritter, Purple Skunk and Jack. And sometimes, when I am with my girls, we hit the Bello cause who doesn't love a cup of smoke? So thanks to Bello, the 510 carts are making their way into my heart.
The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.
Claire: In the Canadian market, we're so restricted in what we can use, show and put out there as visuals to the brand. We're still in the balance of the regulatory market. So it was the most complex challenge I've come up against as a designer to give the personality to MTL that I knew it deserved. I'm not allowed to show you a chill, relaxed, cool person puffing away at a tremendous joint; it's not allowed. So how was I to get the authentic personality of this great company out on the shelf? It all stemmed from this concept of "Modern Street." Great strains that came from the streets in the black market days are coming to the modern-day shelf.
In case you missed it, the West Island is an island. There's only one way on and off the island, and that's by a multitude of bridges here in Montreal (that is when they aren't falling apart). I never really thought about it until I *thought about it*. It's evident in the visual choices I made in the MTL Cannabis marketing portfolio. It grew from there. So much of what we have around us in Montreal is all about personality, uniqueness and attitude. We don't just have clean new bridges. We have train bridges covered in graffiti, cobblestone streets infused with European flair, and alleyways with French and English signage. That's what we call "Modern Street."
Jenn: The biggest challenge I see marketers having is how to reset their mindset when it comes to marketing. All the classic lessons about channel distribution, messaging, campaigns, contests, branding seem to be out the window. Well, kind of.
Before I joined MTL Cannabis, I ran a consulting firm called CBD Strategy Group, and our entire purpose was to help brands learn how to thrive inside the box of cannabis regulations. Creatives often talk about how important it is to think outside the box, but in cannabis, I think it's a bit different. If we're in a box filled with Cannabis Act rules, the real magic is knowing how to thrive within. And that's what we do here at MTL Cannabis … thanks to our remarkable creative director. It is exciting working hand in hand with such a talented person who can embrace the rules, push the boundaries, create incredible assets, appreciate the nuanced requirements of cannabis art and copy, and do it all with a smile. Marketing is not static, so staying dynamic and open to what it means to build a brand that connects with the hearts and minds of the consumer is critical. At MTL, we keep it real, and somehow we have managed to do it inside the lines. That's our commitment to staying on point so we can continue to shine in the legal market.
One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.
Claire: We're at the forefront of the Canadian market. This is uncharted territory, but we're in good company because we respect the brands running along beside us, with us and even in front of us. We're humbled to be in their company. Challenge accepted!
Jenn: All of it. I am excited daily by the prospect of developing the future of the industry. The product innovation, the process innovation, flavor profiles, the collabs. This is what will make the industry feel like a true community, working with old school and new school players who bring a perfect blend to the table. When we take the best flower and pair it with the best processing, we can get something awesome to the shelf. If I had to choose one thing, I would say I'm most excited about the cultural philosophy that comes with cannabis. I am hopeful that the ethos of the plant and the hustle of the past decades will help to transform society and the boardroom. Business as usual is not fit for purpose, so maybe cannabis can help break the mold and bring about a new way of working with more people and planet-focused. No matter where we are going, I feel it is in the right direction.
A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.
Claire: Jenn has broken through many barriers with the Cannabis Guild, and that's why the whole MTL Cannabis team fully supports her work and is proud to call her part of the family. One of our slogans at MTL Cannabis is, "We remember. Fighting the good fight." Jenn does that every day.
Jenn: The advocacy in our industry is incredible, and every organization touches my heart. There is no organization I don't support, from the expungement of past cannabis crimes to diversity to patient rights. Seeing the global reach of groups like NORML is what keeps my hope alive that even more change will come. As founder of the Cannabis Education Guild, I spend some of my time working with my group to a fundamental social impact cause: a slavery-free cannabis industry. As one of the number commodities, cannabis and hemp are ripe for exploitation. Modern slavery practices continue to impact the global supply chain, leaving underserved communities and people in a hard place. At the CEG, we are working with leaders in Thailand, the Philippines, Africa, the U.S. and Canada to help change policy and add our part to the incredible.
A project you worked on recently that you're proud of.
Claire: I'm super proud of what we're built so far at MTL Cannabis. It was a massive undertaking to give this company a personality and creating the brand. In the bombardment of advertising and marketing these days, you don't remember a brand unless it grabbed you by the balls with its product and its attitude, understated or overstated. Although it makes my co-workers laugh, I don't let them talk to me about other cool brands—I don't want to see it and for my own decisions to be affected! We are different, so my inspiration cannot come from within the industry; it has to come from elsewhere. Using Montreal as a backdrop is where our brand starts, and putting great weed on the shelf is where it ends.
Jenn: I am humbled and amazed to help build a brand as authentic and reminiscent of the street as MTL Cannabis. It is fulfilling to work with Claire as we are unrolling and defining the MTL Cannabis brand—a flower-first company that reminds budtenders and connoisseurs of the best of Montreal's streets. What's extra fulfilling about it is that we're overcoming the challenge of creating magic that complies with policy and regulations.
Someone else's project you admired recently.
Claire: There are so many great, innovative examples out there. Since the U.S. doesn't have as many restrictions against their packaging ideas, some serious works of art are popping up in those markets.
Jenn: Overall, Canada's cannabis retail is impressing me because we have everything from classic head shops to those that are the "Apple Store of cannabis." Specifically, I love the creative work coming from Superette. It's a distinctly unique approach to branding cannabis retail with throwbacks to old pop shops, and I love seeing what their team is working on to stay committed to their brand essence. If I can give props to one more, it's Miss Jones in downtown Toronto because it's swanky and brings me back to my years of living in Toronto when Spadina Avenue was the absolute mecca of music and coolness.
Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.
Jenn: Abi Roach. She is a true OG who founded the Hotbox Cafe, a popular cannabis lounge in Toronto, over 20 years ago. Not only has she been pioneering policy, human rights and the cannabis industry, I can honestly say everyone who knows her respects her. I admire her because she's the real deal. She loves weed, weed culture, and unites the community. What I think is so cool about her journey is that today she works for one of the most influential government-owned cannabis buying boards in the country. Leaping from being an owner of an independent cannabis retail lounge to joining the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) just highlights her trailblazing approach to what cannabis culture is all about. I can tell you from what I hear on the street: Abi Roach is a legend in Canada.
What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry.
Claire: I'd still be a graphic designer, just in another industry. I studied fine arts at university, and although I knew it would be a struggle to live off my illustrating, I also knew I would need a career that stoked my creativity. Creating ads and layering visuals in Photoshop and Illustrator was an excellent outlet for me. I get to do what I'm passionate about every single day. Now, as creative director, I get the final say on all creative decisions. Try keeping that from going straight to your head.
Jenn: I'd probably still be a strategist working in other sectors, or maybe by now, I would be in the sex trade. (I'll tell you why.) I have always had a passion for working in industries that need advocacy, enthusiasm and support. Plus, I love the idea of being part of making change happen. I truly believe once more of the world normalizes cannabis, we will see a global effort to legalize sex work to reduce trafficking and improve society's perspective on what is right and wrong. If all that fails, I'd probably be doing some remote consulting from a canoe.