The Mighty List: People, businesses and campaigns that had a big impact in 2020

Year-end lists are for taking stock and, as anyone who has ever compiled one knows, for fretting about who/what might be left off and wondering if an inclusion really is warranted. We did a lot of that as we talked about this list.

But we are fortunate to be covering a vibrant industry that often seems to be in a perpetual state of reinvention and motion, even when time slows down as much as it did this year. There was no shortage of source material to draw upon as we reconsidered the last 12 months in order to compile our first-ever Mighty List.

The choices below were not made using any rigid scoring system or tightly defined criteria. We simply felt these people, businesses and campaigns had an impact. In some cases it was an impact on the industry (or should have on the industry). And in some cases we felt the impact was on us—not in a “change the world” way, but simply to bring a smile that stays with us after the moment fades. And in a year like 2020, that’s mighty good.

Mightiest at-home creative execution: “Dear COVID-19”

The arrival of COVID-19 brought Canada’s creative industry to an abrupt halt. The thing about creative people, though, is that they’re often compelled to find an outlet for the ideas constantly swirling around their head.

Edmonton creative Mark Watt’s “Dear COVID-19” video was one of several projects undertaken by people in the industry when it became apparent that a return to “normal” wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Constructed around a manifesto written by Watt in response to a pandemic then still in its early days, the three-minute video was intended to be a rallying cry in the midst of a dark, uncertain period. It achieved its goal by highlighting some of the massive calamities that humanity has overcome in the past, from world wars to hurricanes and floods.

The video is a beautiful combination of words and visuals that’s put over the top by Watt’s decision to have his six-year-old daughter Ellie provide the narration. “I was looking for someone older to give me that pure perspective, and I just couldn’t get it,” he told us at the time. “When I got it out of a child, it just struck me.”

Honourable mentions: Toronto commercial director Jesse Hunt’s moving “Meet me at the stairs” was an evocative representation of the pandemic’s impact on healthcare professionals and their families, while Brad Dworkin’s ode to the industry, “Ready to Roll,” was a similarly striking reminder that the industry will come back. — CP


Mightiest Canadian marketer / A-list Hollywood superstar: Ryan Reynolds

From the earliest days of The Message, we’ve regularly posted short news stories about Canadian-born Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds.

We found his marketing work truly engaging and funny, with the kind of sharp edges that marketers tend to shy away from—cheeky but never nasty, and often self-deprecating. Over the past year, though, Reynolds has proven once and for all that his marketing acumen is no joke.

His work building the Aviation Gin brand led to a $600 million acquisition by global spirits giant Diageo, and now he’s making waves with his wireless brand Mint Mobile.

For us, his success stems from two factors. First, he comes across as real and authentic—authenticity being the holy grail for most marketers these days—and secondly he possesses an obvious understanding of what it means to be a marketer in 2020, when culture is changing at the speed of the internet.

Reynolds is a handsome, charismatic actor, so he knows how to perform and appear authentic. But his work always feels more genuine than anything produced by any of the big-time “influencers.” But it’s not just about his performances—his ideas break through, too. See, for example, the lighting-quick production of the Aviation Gin ad about this time last year, which played like a sequel to the Peleton ad everyone was talking about. Which takes us to the next point…

Like most popular culture, advertising today is ephemeral: It might not be here today and gone tomorrow, but it’s often gone by next week. Reynolds refers to the approach taken by his agency Maximum Effort as “fastvertising.” The Peleton riff was a perfect example.

“We get to react,” Reynolds told TechCrunch last month. The simple strategy is to react quickly to whatever is going on in culture and execute without the red tape that most brands and agencies have to deal with. “So in a way, it’s unfair, in that sense, because most big corporations, they take weeks and weeks or months to get something approved.” — DB


Mightiest celebrity endorser: Tessa Virtue

Olympic ice dancer Tessa Virtue retired from competition last year, but she’s not exactly putting up her feet (skated or otherwise) in sunny Florida. In fact, her post-skating career has been something of a whirlwind of marketing endorsements.

In addition to being a world-class athlete, Virtue is also personable and charming, so it’s no surprise she’d be much sought-after by marketers looking to capitalize on her fame. What is surprising is just how popular she has become with marketers in such a relatively short period. This year alone she appeared in ads for Nivea, Stella Artois, Loblaw, Kashi and Buick.

“She’s a gem to work with, just a lovely person,” said Uninterrupted Canada’s Scott Moore, who recruited Virtue for a new content series related to Stella Artois’ “Rally for Restaurants” program. “In a spokesperson… you always want to find somebody the audience connects with, and she’s been great at that during her career.”

Honourable mentions: Jon Hamm played the dour, troubled ad man Don Draper on Mad Men, but the parodic (we hope) version of himself he plays in the Skip the Dishes ads remains a joy to watch (this year’s auctioneer spot, with Hamm issuing non-sensical auctioneer patter, was a highlight). Schitt’s Creek star Annie Murphy, too, was a scenery-chewing delight, all wide eyes and exaggerated gestures in ads for meal kit company Hello Fresh.  — CP


Mightiest Voice for Change: People Of Colour in Advertising & Marketing (POCAM)

Hopefully when the history books are written, 2020 won’t just be the year of the pandemic, but also the year society finally understood the centuries of damage caused by systemic racism and committed to doing something about it.

We’re not there yet, but this year saw the emergence of important voices both around the world and in this industry—voices we at The Message want to amplify because they’re reminding us that empty promises are no longer enough.

Here in Canada, one of the loudest voices for change came from a new group called People of Colour in Advertising and Marketing. Founded by Taxi’s Stephanie Small—who also launched that agency’s new Black Taxi initiative—POCAM became a focal point for those calling for real change as the Black Lives Matter protests exploded.

In its “Call for Equity,” the group delivered an unapologetic demand for real change in an industry that has long viewed itself as
relatively forward-thinking on social issues. “For all the apparent progressiveness of our industry, there has been very little progress,” they wrote. The letter also called for employers to sign the public document as way to demonstrate their commitment.

“We need justice, equity and inclusion,” they wrote. “[W]e need to dismantle the industry’s oppressive monoculture that stifles the growth of Black, Indigenous and PoC professionals and restricts our ability to express our true selves.” This is the voice of change in 2020, and the voice we need to listen to as we move into 2021. — DB


Mightiest acting couple: Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll/Gywnne Phillips,

Shooting restrictions forced advertisers, as well as agencies and their production partners, to get creative with their casting this year, and one of the by-products was a reliance on using actors who lived in the same household.

Enter Toronto couple Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll and Gywnne Phillips, who popped up in several spots this year, all of them playing to their comedic abilities.

They first came to our attention in “Wax,” one of three ads from Frank Content and Juliet Creative urging people to support local businesses during the pandemic, rather than attempting a DIY approach. In their spot, Fernandez-Stoll tries to give Phillips a home Brazilian, with predictably disastrous results. The spot was remotely directed by Craig Brownrigg, who provided direction between takes.

Later, the pair recreated the now infamous Trinity Bellwoods kiss (remember that?) in a campaign promoting the city of Toronto’s program. More recently, the two appeared in Zulu Alpha Kilo’s “Born to Adventure” spot for Subaru Canada’s 2021 Crosstrek. — CP


Mightiest Startup: Broken Heart Love Affair

The rumours started in the last few days pre-pandemic. First Carlos Moreno left Cossette in late February, and then in the second week of March, Denise Rossetto and Todd Mackie left BBDO. People wondered if something was going on, and Jay Chaney’s name came up more than once.

By the end of the month all was revealed: the most audacious agency startup to launch in Canada since, what, Grip Ltd? It was Broken Heart Love Affair: five senior partners, including three of the most awarded and accomplished creatives in the country, along with one of the most respected strategists with a reputation for breakthrough work, finished off with the business acumen of Beverley Hammond and the infrastructure and clients of her previous agency, Republic.

The new agency launched during the dark, early days of the pandemic with an optimistic determination to shake up the industry.

Broken Heart Love Affair was created in response to the industry fixation on data and targeting. They wanted to champion big ideas, and the use of creativity to get people to love brands. “[F]or a while, in a weird way, this group was out of fashion in some senses,” said Rossetto at the time.

“And we felt like the pendulum should be swinging back,” said Mackie. “It just started to feel like the timing might be magical for us, because what gets me out of bed in the morning is when I can transform the way someone feels about a brand.” — DB


Mightiest risk-taker: No Frills

No Frills and its agency partner John St. are taking a refreshingly different approach to marketing in what has traditionally been a dull-as-dishwater category emphasizing things like low, low prices and product freshness/assortment/etc.

It started with last year’s launch of the “Haulers” platform and the introduction of its irreverently hilarious Twitter account (which has only improved as the months have passed), as well as the launch of an online video game called Hauler: Aisles of Glory.

Perhaps it was all of that lovely pandemic revenue for parent company Loblaw Companies, but this year saw No Frills’ marketing take another giant leap forward—starting with a song called “A Cart Apart” that tackled grocery store protocols during a pandemic (and Iater expanded to a full-length album) to the introduction of a Marvel-inspired campaign introducing a team of shopping superheroes.

Honourable mention: Like No Frills, Kruger Products operates in a commodity category where there are a lot of competitors and price is often a determining factor. But “Unapologetically Human” represented a shift in paper products marketing, ditching the cuddly animals and cute animations endemic to the category in favour of something infinitely more, well, human. — CP

Mightiest comeback we totally didn’t see coming: Frank Palmer

Fifty years is an awfully long time to spend in an occasionally brutal “contact sport” like advertising, so when Frank Palmer retired from DDB Vancouver in 2018, it seemed a reasonable assumption we’d seen the last of one of the Canadian industry’s true legends.

But in June, we learned that Palmer and his business partner Bob Stamnes were taking over DDB’s Vancouver operations (monocle pops out)—now rechristened Palmer Stamnes DDB—as part of a broader shakeup within the Omnicom network’s Canadian operations.

Palmer also assumed what he coyly described as “a big majority” in the agency’s ownership, although he made it clear that money wasn’t a motivating factor in his decision to return to agency life. “I still have all of the passion and love and all that stuff, and still want to work in something I’ve enjoyed all my life,” he said at the time. “It’s really almost like a hobby with me, I really enjoy it.” Welcome back, Frank. — CP

Mightiest Content Creator: Brittlestar

It seemed like nothing more than a fun little piece about an end-of-the-week time waster, but our story about a tongue-in-cheek ode to the late discount retailer Zellers ended up being one of our most widely read posts of the year.

At the time, we described “Moving Target” by Stratford, Ont.-based content creator Stewart Reynolds (AKA Brittlestar) as a “perfect encapsulation of the power of nostalgia and branding, and a pointed rebuke of Canadians’ tendency to elevate America’s cultural exports (in this case Target), no matter how mediocre, at the expense of their homegrown equivalent.”

He comes across as a Canadian everyman, but Brittlestar’s trenchant and witty observations—”If 2020 were a thing, it would be passed gas in an elevator,” he proclaimed in one recent video—have made him a must-follow on Twitter during this pandemic year. Brands including KFC, Rogers, WestJet and Nextdoor Canada have also enlisted him for various content plays.

His growing fame has even led to some meetings with Hollywood executives, who, he tweeted recently, offered the best assessment of what he does: “No one should want what you’re offering, but they do.” He might not be Canada’s biggest cultural export in a year that saw Schitt’s Creek become a Netflix phenomenon, but he’s certainly one of our most fun. — CP


Mightiest helpers (tie): NABS and ADCC 

It was an undeniably difficult year for Canada’s advertising professionals, but both nabs and the Advertising & Design Club of Canada launched programs reaffirming the strong sense of community that exists within the Canadian marketing and advertising industry.

Healthcare has long been a concern among the large (and growing) freelancer community, but this year saw nabs launch a new group health benefits program in partnership with Medavie Blue Cross that enables it to extend life insurance, as well as extended health and travel, and dental.

“This is what has been the Holy Grail for me, to find a really good benefits offering that’s affordable,” said nabs’ director of allocations and services Louise Berube at the time.

Meanwhile, July’s ADCC All-Nighter web event was created to save Canada’s oldest industry association. Put together by Zulu Alpha Kilo and structured like an old school telethon, the 24-hour web event included a discussion between creative legends David Droga and Alex Bogusky about their thoughts on vegetables, as well as an auction that included advice on how to start your agency, a socially distanced photoshoot, and positive reinforcement from ADCC president Andrew Simon. The event raised more than the $70,000 hoped for and did indeed rescue one of Canada’s most beloved creative institutions.— CP


Chris Powell