Meet our partners: Kat Francis – managing director at Canyon

We sat down with Kat Francis, managing director at Canyon, to talk about Stella’s brand redesigned, her career and why creative industries need women.

Kat Francis Canyon

When and why did you decide to join independent brand agency Canyon?

I will start by explaining the head space I was in at the time. I have two boys – six years old and three years old now. The time I spent on maternity leave with both of my boys was incredibly precious to me, but being highly career driven I struggled with missing out on the part of my life that really lit my soul alight. And while I did work in a senior role in between having both kids, it was quite hard to push my career forward while knowing I was going to be taking a break again with our second child. So, I felt like I was in a holding pattern, and it was pretty frustrating for me. I managed to temper myself by focussing a lot over that time on learning and taking in as much inspiration as I could, so that when I was ready to come back, I was coming back with a lot of knowledge and purposeful intention around the impact I wanted to have. Internally I referred to that time as “the gathering years” and that mantra really kept me going. When I returned to the workforce, I was committed to building out my skillset in a broad way – which led me to work on a variety of roles and running my own consultancy.

The opportunity at Canyon came along as a bit of surprise – albeit a pleasant one! Having close ties to Melbourne’s design and brand community I’ve been familiar with Canyon for many years and have always been impressed by the calibre of work they create and the lengths they’ll go for their clients.

Canyon has worked across property, education, sports and the health sector. What attracted Canyon to Stella?

Canyon is a strategic brand agency that has a strong track record operating cross-sector. Even though we have real depth in key sectors like education, health and government, we’ve never wanted to corner ourselves into a particular industry. It’s our ability to bring insights and creative thinking from one sector to another, which enables us to solve complex problems and keep our work relevant and impactful — and that’s why our clients choose to partner with us.

With that in mind, there was never any doubt that Stella and Canyon would make for a magical partnership. It was a beautiful fit for me personally, due to my love of literature and my mission of championing women in creative industries. For Canyon, it was a great opportunity to expand our minds and do something meaningful that would have a resonance within Australia’s creative community for years to come.

What was the inspiration behind the new Stella concepts? 

We had two big strategic goals for the Stella redesign.

The first was to enable Stella to reach and attract a wider audience, particularly a younger generation, by feeling not only more accessible and inclusive, but also more relevant to culture today. 

The second was to elevate the role Stella plays in championing the rights of women and non-binary writers in Australia. To do this the brand needed to feel more credible and authoritative, and it also needed to represent more than the Stella Prize and act as platform for all the other wonderful initiatives that are driven by Stella – such as the Stella Day Out and the Stella Count.

The Literature without bias positioning we created, alongside the Equal Writes tagline and all the other design elements embedded into the brand were architected to address these challenges and reimagine the brand as a platform for engagement.

It’s a bold step forward for Stella and I commend Fiona and her amazing team for their conviction and the massive effort they put in to turning our ideas into a reality. We’re incredibly proud of the work and feel so fortunate to have contributed in our own way to the success of such a vital initiative in Australia.

“We need great female role models who are committed to being active in the creative community, reshaping it, and being a part of it for the long haul.”

You are a leader in your field. What advice would you give to young women seeking opportunities in creative agencies?

The first thing to say is we need you! We really do. I was fortunate to have a couple of great female role models during the time I was “coming of age” in the industry but at that time it was not the norm. Now that it’s 2024 you’d like to believe that times have changed but there are systemic issues, behaviours and rules that still need to be rewritten. And these are not just issues around gender, but also ageism. We need great female role models who are committed to being active in the creative community, reshaping it, and being a part of it for the long haul.

I am really against this new trend of the ‘lazy girl job” because it has been often connected with creative agencies and I think it’s worth mentioning because working in a creative field is not always easy. The work can be challenging, the hours can be long, and the pay is not always commensurate with the effort – there certainly are easier ways to make a buck! If you’re deciding to be part of this community, it’s probably because – like me – you simply can’t imagine doing anything else. You have to be passionate, you have to be purposeful in what you’re trying to achieve, and you have to be fearless in that pursuit. Given what I mentioned about ageism, if you want to have a career in a creative agency in your mid-forties and beyond, then you’re really going to need to work hard to find ways to remain relevant and at the top of your game.

If you’re adding the complexity of also wanting to be a mother while working in the creative industry there are pluses and minuses to that specific to our industry. My advice to the women I have mentored is that you want to get far enough on your career journey to have earned the leverage to set the terms of your engagement when you return to work. Junior roles tend to be more reactive and full time while senior roles have more intense pressures and responsibilities, but you manage your own time, you’re less reactive to urgent demands, and able to prioritise what’s important. On top of that, if you’re proven yourself to be truly valuable to the company you can usually negotiate to reshape your role in a way that ticks all your boxes.

You are a mother, work full-time and handle the ever-competing priorities of family life and work. We won’t ask you how you do it all, but instead, what do you do to avoid burnt out and find spaces to keep on growing personally and professionally?

The truth is, it can be hard and there have been times when I have felt like all the signs were there that I should just put my career in cruise control. But as I said before, I have the audacity to believe I can be a great mum, and great at my work, and deep down my purpose is to help pave the way for other women in the creative industries to achieve that too.

The key for me is focusing on the long game and not getting too swept up in my own narrative about how tired I am, or what bad luck it is that the kids are sick (again), or that the meeting got moved during school pick up and now I must apologise for leaving early (which is so unfair!), and so on. It’s important to have perspective that these years are relatively short-lived in the context of a whole career and your child’s whole life – and to remember what you’re doing it for.

On a more practical level, it’s critical to have boundaries both with your work and your family – set the expectation for what you are willing to give and what you need in return. The times when I’ve tried to “do it all” have been a spectacular failure. Get as much support around you as can – and if you don’t have that available through family, get as much as you can afford. It’s an investment into your health, your career, and your relationships.

The last thing I’ll add is the importance of exercise. Before having kids, I was incredibly active and competed in triathlons. Nowadays I must be realistic about what’s possible. My alarm is set for 5am every weekday and I go for a power walk or run, which is when I either listen to podcasts for learning and inspiration, zone out and think about a work challenge, or I simply prime myself for the day. This practice is the most important part of my workday because it’s the chance to really focus and get clear space away from all the noise. Anyone who works in the creative space will know that your best ideas never come to you when you’re sitting at your laptop!

We have to ask: what Stella Prize nominated book have you read recently?

I am an insatiable reader and typically have three kinds of books on the go at all times; a book on parenting, a business or psychology book and a work of literary fiction. At the moment this includes The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel, Not Now, Not Ever by Julia Gillard, and most excitingly 2024 Stella Prize winner Praiseworthy by Alexis Wright. On top of this I’ve had a copy of 2022 Stella Prize Winner Drop Bear by Evelyn Araluen on my nightstand for the last six months at least, and I treasure it dearly. I adore poetry and this book is one that I’ll often come back to and ruminate over in moments of quiet reflection. The thing that I appreciate most about the Stella Prize list is the courageousness of the authors in creating work that is so personal, so original, and so daring. For me a mark of great fiction is one that has moved me or stirred something within me by the end of the first page, if not the first paragraph. It’s a feeling that I cherish and something I know I’m guaranteed to get from the incredible women and non-binary writers who are celebrated as part of the Stella Prize.

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