After spending 7 years as CEO of award-winning creative advertising agency KBS Canada, Nick Dean became the CEO of licensed cannabis producer Emblem. He sat down with Civilized to talk about his experiences in the cannabis industry.

What makes your company different from others in the cannabis space?

Many LPs say they want to move away from farming and cultivation, Emblem has made the bold decision to do this by signing the largest LP-to-LP supply agreement in the category’s history. We’ve made a clear statement that Emblem is firmly focused on product innovation, branding and distribution. 

We recognize that cultivation is a critical piece of the puzzle, but it’s certainly not the full picture. We see the greatest opportunity for margin growth in this sector coming from branded products. Consumers buy brands, they don’t buy commodities.

Ultimately, we believe Emblem is differentiated based on three key pillars, which must be inter-linked:

  • Product Innovation – create products that fill a market void and address a consumer or patient need.
  • Brand Relevance – create trusted brands that resonate with our patients, consumers and customers.
  • Distribution – if you build it (capacity), that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily come… you must ensure that you have the distribution points clearly established to reach your end-user.

These are core differentiators for Emblem.

How did you get into the cannabis space?

I was an early investor in the space and, in fact, in Emblem specifically. I come from a creative background (advertising) where it was becoming ever more difficult to create Canada-first innovations. The cannabis sector presented an ideal opportunity to build something from the ground-up in a truly nascent category where everyone, regardless of size, is equally footed at the starting line to build something special.   

Walk us through a normal day.

Really, there’s no such thing as a normal day! I’m up at 5 a.m. and immediately into my emails to respond to any questions before the day starts. Then onto Twitter and into the forums to review investor sentiment. 

My days are filled meeting potential partners and suppliers, evaluating M&A opportunities all over the globe, interviewing talent, meeting with our production team in Paris, ON, aligning with Emblem’s leadership team, and conducting media interviews. 

Every day is unique and more exciting than the day before. Honestly, this is a dream job for anybody that loves being on their toes and in the thick of the action.

What has been your biggest lesson about working in cannabis, and in business in general?

People are your most important asset, regardless of working in cannabis or business in general. Build a great team and surround yourself with people with a diversity of backgrounds, and you will have a great company. Full stop.

What do you see as your biggest opportunity?

I’ll answer this with a question; who would you rather be, Heinz or the tomato farmer?

The greatest opportunity in this category is building products and brands that people care about. Ten years from now, the notion of funded capacity will be a foreign word in this sector…the only thing that will matter is how your brands resonate with end users, and ultimately, your market share, both domestically and globally. This is the greatest opportunity for the sector and where greatest shareholder value will be.

What sets you apart to make you a potential leader in cannabis?

As previously mentioned, I spent the first 20 years of my career in a variety of marketing and advertising roles, providing counsel to a vast array of clients across a broad range of businesses; banking, retail, restaurant, consumer packaged goods, non-profit, pharma, ecommerce, you name it. This has given me the opportunity to see things through many lenses…it’s not a one-size fits all solution and I’m not constrained by tunnel vision in a single category. My experience has allowed me to approach the cannabis industry with a truly open mind about the possibilities, and to confidently zig while everyone else might be zagging.

What is the most frustrating aspect of the cannabis industry today?

Probably the most frustrating thing for me is the speculative stock market, which can be incredibly distracting.

In comparison to our peers, I believe Emblem is an under-valued stock. We have real revenue, strong patient counts, product innovation, great brands and strong distribution partners, including Shoppers Drug Mart, Fire & Flower and Compass/Starbuds. We have international expansion plans underway and, with the Aphria deal, enough capacity to support our consumer and patient demands. We also have a strong balance sheet to support our growth plans.

We are building a real business based on fundamentals and we’re confident that in the long-run, investors will appreciate the value we’re creating.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to get into the cannabis space?

Buckle up and get ready for a wild ride!

What are your biggest tips for branding cannabis?

I’ll keep this answer short and simple.

Fill a void. Listen to your consumer. Be authentic. Deliver a consistent and quality experience. Let your consumer or patient be your voice.

Do you see any big changes coming in the future of cannabis?

I think we’re going to continue to see consolidation, but I also expect to see more LP’s picking specific lanes of focus. The idea that every company can be everything to everybody is absurd.  We will see more specialization across core capabilities, such as cultivation, product innovation, co-manufacturing, branding, and retail.

Do you consume cannabis? And if so, what's your favorite way to consume?

I’m not currently a patient. However, I believe Emblem’s new oral spray, Atmosphere, would be an ideal way to consume medical cannabis as it is a precise, dose-metered format.