Mightiest Agency: Rethink caps a year of strong creative by winning its biggest pitch

Much of our first-ever Mighty List is a mash-up of seriously great work, ideas and accomplishments with stuff we simply found fun or interesting in a good-for-the-brand kind of way.

But we took choosing our first-ever Mightiest Agency of the year very seriously. We spent hours talking this one through, and it was undeniably our most difficult decision. Until very late in the process, we were unable to decide between No Fixed Address and Rethink.

We thought both were compelling stories, although for very different reasons. For us, agency of the year accolades take into account the usual metrics of awards, amazing work and big wins. But sometimes it’s about the smart, bold business moves that lay the foundation for future awards and great work.

Both NFA and Rethink are great independent Canadian creative agencies that are not only thriving here, but also building a reputation on the world stage. But as we kept reviewing the long list of what Rethink accomplished in 2020, it became clear which of the two had to come out on top: Rethink is The Message’s first ever Mightiest Agency of the Year.

From January right through to December, Rethink put forth a steady stream of attention-grabbing work for big brands in competitive categories like telecom, QSR, retail and packaged foods. In a year when it felt like most agencies were okay with treading water, Rethink seemed to race ahead, picking up momentum as it went. And then it closed out the year by winning the pitch for one of the biggest brands in the country, while also transitioning to a entirely new leadership team.

Rethink showed it can do it all, from hard-working but watchable TV ads, to clever, quick-thinking ideas and activations that drive earned media and social sharing, to targeted digital and product design. It can even make rolling paper straws for those who prefer to drink their cannabis.

But before we show you why Rethink was the mightiest in 2020, let’s talk a little about No Fixed Address. Still only four years old, the agency grew to 140 staff this year, when most agencies were focused on minimizing losses as a result of the drastic economic downturn. It continued to put out strong work and add new business, but the biggest headlines for No Fixed Address this year were about new offices and big hires. And in an industry where individual talent is everything, those hires represent huge wins.

First, NFA founders Dave Lafond and Serge Rancourt brought Jordan Doucette back to Canada from her position as chief creative officer as Leo Burnett Chicago. Then, the agency expanded to Montreal with an office led by Jack Latulippe. But the biggest win came a few weeks later, when Lafond and Rancourt landed one of the most respected and accomplished creatives in the world.

In the rush of news stories about layoffs and cuts in the U.S. due to the pandemic, BBDO’s decision to part ways with Greg Hahn stood out. He was behind much of the iconic, world-famous creative that came out of BBDO New York in the last decade-plus, and was soon taking calls from giant agencies, the massive tech players, and big brands looking for an in-house creative lead.

He could have gone anywhere, but Hahn chose No Fixed Address because they are building what he believes the industry needs. “I was like ‘Oh my God, these guys have grown to 140 something people, and they’ve been killing it for the last three years. They’re already doing what everyone else is pontificating about,'” he told us at the time.

All of those moves are huge wins for NFA: the kind of hires that lead to great work, attract other top-notch talent and, of course, client interest. In a difficult year, they made NFA a strong contender for mightiest agency of 2020.

But then you look at Rethink. Like a lot of agencies, it had a rough few weeks after the pandemic hit hard, with several big clients badly affected by the economic downturn. The agency took the punches and made some cuts, but stayed on its feet and soon started putting out a steady stream of strategic, highly impactful work.

A&W was one of the first Canadian brands in market with an ad after lockdown in mid March. The spot had the long-time commercial face of the brand, Allen Lulu, talking selfie-style to the audience, not as a pitchman but as actual person giving thanks to all those doing their part to fight the coronavirus and helping others. It proved brands could actually add their voice in a humane way at a profoundly emotional moment in time.

And after Shaw awarded its mobile business to Rethink, the agency introduced Shaw Mobile with the “Brighter Together” brand platform, including an optimistic, anthemic 60-second spot connecting Shaw Mobile to brighter days ahead, as well as shorter, more tactical 30s that spoke to product benefits with slice-of-life moments presented with humour and personality.

For Molson there was the #MakeItCanadian campaign around Canada Day, which saw Molson create special cases of beer with other Canadian brewers. The agency also made rolling paper straws for Truss’s cannabis beverages, and lobbied to change the name of a Quebec town for Greenpeace.

For IKEA’s various product promotions and events, it created high-concept, whimsical TV creative like “The Wardrobe,” “Swede Dreams” and “Scrap du Soleil,” and also ran a clever outdoor campaign that turned pages from the IKEA print catalogue (RIP print) into a wide range of ads from billboards to coffee cups and window shades.

There was also the impressive, one-shot “One little thing.” The ad was about LED lightbulbs, but it played like a brand spot—a lyrical allegory about the power of small changes—that connected to IKEA’s sustainability efforts and “Beautiful Possibilities” platform. The TV ad was supported by hyper-targeted digital ads that communicated the impact of small actions like switching to LED light bulbs, reusable bags, and energy saving blinds.

Then there was the Kraft work (see our Mightiest Marketer of the year story). The agency picked up new brand assignments this year, and put out the kind of creative that people talk about and engage with. Here, too, the list is long, but Pumpkin Spice Kraft Dinner generated all kinds of earned media, and the Heinz Ketchup Puzzle may go down as not only one of the best creative ideas to come out of Canada in 2020, but maybe one of the best (at least for a consumer good in an established category) in years.

So all of that… and then Rethink goes and puts an exclamation point on the year by winning Scotiabank—the biggest pitch of the year and one of the biggest accounts in Canada.

It’s cliché by now, but it bears repeating here that this was a year like no other. A tough year for the industry and for a lot of agencies. A year where the degree of difficulty was just higher: from trickier productions and meetings on Zoom (“you’re on mute”), to balancing work and home-schooling, all playing out against the backdrop of a deadly global pandemic and all the nasty mental health repercussions that brings.

But in a hard year to do great work, Rethink did a lot of great work.

David Brown