Gut’s leadership on plans for Tim Hortons and beyond

One of the biggest developments in Canadian advertising during the pandemic was the official arrival of Gut to the country as creative agency of record for Tim Hortons.

While the agency “officially” launched in Toronto at the end of June, there had been plenty of signs it was coming: Although based in Miami, Gut started working on Tim Hortons in 2018; it hired a Toronto based creative team (Fred Nduna and Matt Kenney) to work on the brand in early 2020; and, late last year, “I’m joining Gut” notifications started appearing on the LinkedIn profiles of senior-level Canadian agency folks, with its co-founders themselves confirming the new office in February.

But the arrival of Gut is significant not only because it’s the agency for one of the most scrutinized (and critiqued) brands in Canada. The agency’s founders—Anselmo Ramos and Gaston Bigio—also developed some of the biggest and boldest creative ideas anywhere in the world over the last decade (including this this and this).

The Gut creative ethos has been transported to Toronto with a fully formed 40-person agency behind it. Brynna Aylward, one of the creative directors from Miami, has been named executive creative director (she hopes to move to Toronto by October), with Nduna and Kenney as her creative directors, Ryan O’Hagan as business director, and Dino Demopoulos as head of strategy.

The Message‘s David Brown spoke with Ramos, Aylward and Kenney last week about opening in Canada.

For now, they say, the focus is entirely on Tim Hortons, although the agency definitely plans to expand. “Yes, we want to grow and we want to have other clients in the future,” said Ramos. “The best way to attract those clients will be with the work we’re going to do for Tims.”

What’s going to make Gut different in this market?

Ramos: “I am a confessed ad nerd… and I think we’re going to bring a lot of ad nerdiness. I mean, we’re not cynical about advertising. We love this business… we talk about ads all the time. We love it. And I think the clients feel that passion.

“So we’re going to bring that, and it’s a mix of being humble and confident at the same time, you know? We are coming in very humble because, of course, we have lots of Canadians on the team. But a lot of us haven’t worked there, which is good because we come with fresh eyes. We say ‘Hey, what if we do this?’ You know those stupid questions that sometimes are really good.”

Has the Tim Hortons brand changed since you started working on it?

Kenney: “As a Canadian growing up with Tim Hortons, it is one of the most unique brands—not only with Gut, but in the world. The brand is really tied to the whole identity of the country in a way that’s super unique, and I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. It’s like a part of the fabric of Canada.

“This kind of means there’s extra pressure for us to make sure that we’re representing the brand—and Canada as a whole—in a way that feels modern and forward-thinking, but also keeps [Tims] as that brand I grew up with, that we all love. We say a lot at Gut that this brand belongs to the country, not us.”

Aylward: “I had no idea until I got really immersed in the brand what it meant to Canada and the significance of it. I’ve tried to think long and hard about similar things that exist in the U.S. and there just isn’t one like it. And as Matt said, it’s a huge amount of pressure. But it’s also a huge opportunity, because the brand is so iconic and deserves to have work that’s just as iconic…

“I think we’re working on changing it. I think some things we’ve done have pushed the brand forward and have changed things a little bit, but I think it hasn’t completely 180 [degrees] changed, and I don’t think we would want it to 180 degrees change, because it is so iconic and so deeply connected and tied to Canada as a country.”

Can you point to some examples?

Aylward: “Snowpeople” for sure. The ad that we did for the holidays was one I think we all are extremely passionate about. So that was definitely a good one for us, and then a recent one is [for] Camp Day.”

Can you say more about how that work is changing the brand?

Aylward: “I think it’s definitely not changing the brand as a whole, but I think that for ‘Snowpeople’ in particular, the focus on diversity is something I don’t think that Tims has been all that vocal about in the past, but it’s definitely such a part of the fabric of Canada.

“So it’s embracing things that we know are Canadian at heart, but the brand might not have talked about in the past. I think that’s where there’s a unique opportunity for us to push things forward.”

Anselmo, can you talk about the brand and where it is going?

Ramos: “It’s like Matt mentioned that the shared values with the country is just incredible: Generosity, community, diversity, welcoming, togetherness. It is just amazing, there’s no other case like that in the world.

“I think the problem was, the brand kind of took everything for granted a little bit. The country was advancing and the brand almost had to catch up in a way.

“What’s happening now is the brand has so many things to communicate—when it comes to sustainability, when it comes to products and services and all that. We have a lot of news to share.

“In a way it’s almost like a recommitment to Canada. And that should be the feeling of Tims. It is a recommitment to Canada because it belongs to all Canadians, it doesn’t belong to us.

“Our job is to communicate all that great news in a compelling, authentic way. And to also bring some ‘iconic-ness’ to this iconic brand, to push it. I think ‘Snowpeople’ was a great example. I think ‘The Autograph‘ also was a great example.

“We are getting there with some really emotional work. It’s a very emotional brand. And it’s very powerful. And we’re just scratching the surface here. We’re just starting, you know. We will keep pushing.”

Anselmo you have a reputation for some world-famous, award winning work for Burger King (Tims’ sister brand within RBI). Can you do equally famous work for Tim Hortons?

Ramos: “I think award-winning, yes. But you wouldn’t be like Burger King at all. Burger King is a completely different brand, with completely different values.

“We can do award-winning work, but a completely different kind of work… It’s a different tone, it’s a different context, it’s a different brand. But yeah, we can see Tims winning some awards in the future.”

It has to be more conservative?

Ramos: “I don’t know if it’s conservative, I think it’s more emotional. It needs to make you feel something, like a strong connection. Again, if you think about what this brand means to Canadians—a sense of community and togetherness and generosity and welcoming and diversity and all that—this is very rich territory to create powerful work. But the tone would be more emotional.”

What about reaching younger consumers?

Aylward: “It’s something we’ve definitely talked about with the client quite a bit, making sure we can resonate with that younger group, because we know we already resonate with that older target.

“And I think, to Anselmo’s point, something that we talk a lot about is brands having the full scope of emotion and a full range of emotion, just like a human would.

“So Tims can still be a little bit more playful, a little bit more youthful, a little bit more fun in certain regards. And then be extremely emotional and extremely poignant in other situations.

“I think it’s having that range that makes a brand successful, and that’s kind of how we can dial up those levers in certain places, like social and digital, or pivoting to the gaming space or wherever we go next.”

I associate much of your recent work with TV. Have you done much in the way of digital ideas?

Aylward: “We’ve had some digital ideas. We had ‘Donut Day,’ where a bunch of local artists did their interpretations of a donut, and they’re actually super cool prints. Like I want them for my house.

“We also did like a big mural along with that, which was very cool. So we’ve had some stuff along the way that we’ve done in the digital space, but yeah I think we’re going to be expanding more, and doing a little bit more in the digital space to come.”

What else excites you about opening in Canada?

Ramos: “We feel a huge responsibility having Tims as our first client. We will keep pushing to do great content together with Tims. We have a great team from the client side and our side, so we don’t have any excuses really. You know how agencies love to have excuses? Well we don’t have any excuses. We need to do great work.

“Hopefully, Gut can be a player in the Canadian market and help push Canadian creativity. We’re very excited to be there.”

You have a staff of 40 now. Do you have a target of many people you want to be a year from now?

Ramos: “No we don’t have a target in that sense. We just want to do great work for Tims. It’s like in the other offices: you do great work for your first client, and then you grow. That has been our playbook so far, and it’s been working.”

If an RFP for a Canadian brand crossed your desk right now, would you take it?

Ramos: “Not sure. It will really depend on the brand. It would really depend on their desire to [embrace] creativity. You know, we tend to send a reverse RFP, with some questions [for the client] as well.

“For us it needs to be a match. We really asked like, ‘Hey, do you consider yourself creative client? Do you like creativity? Do you want to do a great work?’ It needs to be a match.”


David Brown