Hitting Your Mark: Design(ers) on TV

Screens hungry for content are ubiquitous. And while they may not accurately reflect the design industry, they can be valuable tools for building an interior designers’ brand and generating business.

Ami McKay’s television show Vancouver Reno is currently streaming on the Magnolia Network in the U.S. and Canada. (photo: Janis Nicolay).

To TV or not to TV? That is the question we put to a few veteran interior designers who have appeared on network television, asking if such a vehicle is the best form of promotion and how the experience helped their business.

Among the new generation of designers, the topic interests those who dream that their YouTube podcasts will be picked up by HGTV. They want to be influencers without first paying their dues by slogging through the bowels of a large architecture or design firm as a CAD monkey for 20 years.

Ami McKay, based in Lions Bay, B.C., founded her nine-person firm Pure Design in 2000 and runs a construction company and a brick-and-mortar artisan retail shop. She’s been published in a variety of consumer and trade publications that focus on architecture and design and was a “regular” on HGTV’s Makeover Wish (2007-08). The pilot for her new series, Vancouver Reno, on the Magnolia and Discovery+ networks, features her transformation of a bungalow through its “before” and “after” phases. It highlights her imaginative, non-generic ideas, such as the custom cover for a small galley kitchen’s stainless-steel range hood that evokes the arc of resonator pipes on a marimba or vibraharp.

Shot as a docuseries, the show chronicles Ami’s day to day life as principal of Pure Design Inc. and retail shop owner (photos: Janis Nicolay).

Yes, McKay has won new clients through her TV appearances yet—and this was a recurring theme through the interviews for this story—it was Instagram that paved the way for her TV pilot. “The client was following me on Instagram, then contacted me and asked if I would come look at this adorable little bungalow and tell her if it would be a good idea to buy it,” McKay says. “Instagram is my Number One. A lot of people who have been following me on social media for years will reach out when they’re finally ready to renovate their kitchen or house.”

Ami McKay

The pilot opportunity came about circuitously and fortuitously: McKay filmed her sequence of renovating a house in Italy and sent a sizzle reel to a friend who pitched it to a Magnolia producer in Los Angeles. “Put a camera in front of me and it’s the easiest thing in the world,” she says. “I don’t struggle, I have zero nerves. I’m definitely not an actor so don’t give me lines. I won’t remember them; I’ll mess them up. But if I can just be me, I’ll shine.”

Ironically, McKay shies away from giving advice about how to get on television because, surprise, they’re all too busy designing to watch design shows on television. “For most people, these shows are like going to the spa, but these folks aren’t designing all day.” But she suggests that a first step for designers eager to appear on television would be guest appearances on established podcasts such as Kimberly Seldon’s Business of Design and Apple Podcast’s Measure Twice, Cut Once.

Another British Columbian, Trisha Isabey, of her eponymous Kelowna-based Isabey Collective, founded one of the largest interior design firms in the country, with 43 staff members, in 2013. The former investment advisor at RBC Dominion Securities and CIBC Wood Gundy parlayed her financial savvy to become Canada’s newest lifestyle guru. Her adjunct business, Furnish, offers B.C.-lifestyle-inspired home furnishings at a retail store in Kelowna and an ecommerce website that ships “B.C. Style” across Canada. “We’re becoming everything ‘home’ now,” Isabey explains.

“Instead of creating a traditional boutique design firm, I took a completely different approach, based on my previous career. All I knew was the brokerage industry, so I created an interior-design-style brokerage firm. Our designers are like investment advisors. Essentially, they run their own businesses under me; we support them with assistants and bookkeepers. They can work as much as they like and earn as much as they are capable of. They find their own clients, although our company receives many inquiries, which I pass along to them.”

Lifestyle entrepreneur Trisha Isabey, based in Kelowna, B.C., has built a vertically integrated, one-stop shop (photo: Trevor Cooper).

“Interior design has been dumbed down for as long as television has been around,” she declares. Design shows “take a lot of shortcuts. They make the design process look much faster than it is. On a residential project, work takes place before anything happens in the home. Then we come in and monitor the progress of the job.”

But that’s not how it plays out on the small screen. Television shows, she says, present the designer as a celebrity who handles all aspects of the job while junior designers behind the scenes are actually doing the work. “But nobody really wants to know our process that intricately because it’s boring. Interior designers have a very technical job. We’re not stylists waving our hands with a tape measure. We understand architecture and the building code and everything else that makes a design viable. Design shows dumb down the level of education it takes to be an insider.”

With numerous guest appearances on CTV and Global under her belt, she opines, “If you want to make an impact on television, you need your own show.” Television exposure, she says, can be “helpful to a small degree” with marketing when integrated with Instagram. “I’ve had publicity with magazines, newspapers and TV and it all funnels through Instagram. Maybe TV is the medium for 50 and older, but Instagram, not TV, is the place for my target market: 30-to-50-years-olds.”

A better vehicle for attracting client prospects than television appearances, she’s found, is Google Ads (formerly AdWords). However, she advises, “to be successful with Google Ads, you need to spend $2,000 a month.” (With Google siphoning off all that ad revenue, no wonder traditional media is languishing.)

She’s also acquired clients by appearing as a speaker at design, garden and home shows. Her recent IDS Vancouver appearance moderating a panel about women in design, she avers, “was standing room only. I had a lineup out the door of people wanting to come and talk to me after it was over because I spoke directly and honestly to a group of people who don’t get spoken to directly and honestly.”

Micheal Lambie, seen here on the set of season two of the CBC competition series Best in Miniature, is an Ontario College of Art and Design alumni and owns and runs Micheal Lambie Interiors. He is a regular on City Line where he shares his knowledge and tips on interior design.

Michael Lambie, founder of his eponymous three-person firm in Mississauga Ont., describes himself as an interior designer and artist who creates unique works for his spaces. After a television appearance, more inquisitive phone calls than usual will come in for the next 24 hours. As a judge on CBC’s Best in Miniature series and frequent guest on Breakfast Television and Cityline, “getting on TV puts me at the front of the line. When someone sees my business for the first time on TV, it instantly establishes my credibility. They know that the network did a background check on me and that I’m a reputable designer. Being a quote-unquote TV personality separates me from the hundreds of other designers out there whose work may be just as good. I’ve gotten quite a few projects over the years from people who saw me on TV even if it took years until they were ready to call me.” A viewer in Chicago even flew him out for a project there after seeing Lambie on television because Cityline is broadcast in the United States.

He also builds his firm’s visibility with Google Ads, guest-speaker engagements at design shows (he was emcee at the National Kitchen and Bath Association gala at Toronto’s Palais Royale in February) and sponsored Instagram posts. “When I complete a new project that represents my brand well, I’ll do a boost. I finished a custom home in Florida and did a boosted Instagram buy targeted to local residents. I can control who I target.”

He feels that television design shows are “contrived and controlled. Usually, seven or eight minutes into the show, there’s a disaster that needs to be solved. Then at the end, there’s success. These shows are definitely dumbed down, but that’s not a criticism, that’s the purpose, right? It’s just entertainment.”

He also notes that these shows reinforce the stereotype “look” of designers. “I’m a unicorn in my industry. There’s not a lot of straight black males; it’s either a forty-something woman or a flamboyant guy who’s a little over the top. I get questioned about how creative I can be if don’t fit that demographic.”

While Lambie may not fit the clientele demographic for Jennifer Singh, a former television reporter and owner of She’s Newsworthy Media, based in Brampton, Ont., which helps designers become influencer marketers — “We amplify the voices of women entrepreneurs, in particular on television,” Singh says — her advice is certainly applicable across the spectrum. “Building your brand in different ways so that you can be relatable and approachable is important for making you stand out, especially if you’re an interior designer.”