The Mighty List: Our 10 favourite creative ideas for 2021


To close the last full work week of 2021, we’re sharing our second annual Mighty List highlighting some of our favourite creativity from the past year.

The 10 short profiles below are not presented in any order. We chose this work without categories, well-defined criteria, or scoring system of any kind, but we think it represents some of the best of the Canadian industry in 2021.

We started with a review of our most popular stories of the year, looking for creativity and executions that stayed with us from the thousands of creative ideas that crossed our screens. Then we spent a lot of time debating, dissecting, and discussing.

Some were easy choices, some only made it to the final list at the last second, narrowly beating out a handful of others*.

We looked for originality and quality of execution, and favoured work we think will have deep and meaningful impact. We like innovation, but we also like good-old fashioned craft and storytelling. In other words, this is just stuff we like, but thought long and hard about. Let’s call it thoughtful subjectivity.

On Monday, we’ll publish part two of our Mighty List featuring the people, businesses and industry initiatives that had a Mighty impact on us.

McDonald’s Canada, “Steal my Fries”

As the lukewarm reception to Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story has shown, musicals can be a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition for modern audiences. But perhaps more than any other piece of creative I saw this year, Cossette’s musical-inspired “Steal my Fries” for McDonald’s was the one that stole my heart.

It’s built around a comedic premise that sees a friend popping up in the unlikeliest of places—at work, a hot tub, in the back of his car—to belt out the spot’s title refrain to his chum, whose formerly frustrating French fry-filching he missed during a forced absence because of the pandemic. And the visual reference to the boombox scene in the 1980s John Cusack flick Say Anything was just the ketchup on the fry.

The spot adroitly straddles the line between sentimentality and irreverence, while showcasing one of the QSR’s most beloved but occasionally overlooked menu items. And while McDonald’s got rid of supersizing some time ago, we much prefer the bigger 60-second version of the spot to the 30-second version that ran on TV. — C.P.

Dyslexia Canada, “It’s Hard to Read”

Dentsumcgarrybowen made ample use of its thesaurus for this campaign, which demonstrated the challenges in reading comprehension faced by those afflicted by dyslexia in a distinct and thoughtful manner.

Where a standard awareness campaign might have simply transposed a few letters in a headline and called it a day, “It’s Hard to Read” managed to convey the confusion and uncertainty experienced by those with dyslexic when attempting to read even the most basic text.

The idea was simple in its execution: Substituting the simple words in children’s storybooks with multi-syllable words carrying the same meaning.

That meant that “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” became “Gilded Coiffure and the Ursine Ternary,” while “The Three Little Pigs” became “The Triumvirate of Undersized Swine.” All of the creative led to the “World’s Hardest-to-Read Website,” a swirling, shifting, occasionally fuzzy amalgam of information pertaining to dyslexia’s prevalence and its impact on those afflicted.

All in all, we think it’s a worthy addition to this year’s “Indomitable Enumeration.” — C.P.

IKEA Canada, “Our Little World”

IKEA Canada’s head of marketing Johanna Andren called “Our Little World” the most ambitious and technically advanced of the 40 commercials that she has overseen during her career, and it’s easy to see why.

From its opening shot of a tiny blue orb drifting serenely through an early morning sky, to its closing shot of Earth as seen from outer space, it just felt big in a way so few ads are these days. Created by Rethink, the made-in-Canada spot was exported to several international markets.

Inspired by the 1943 children’s book Le Petit Prince, best known for its iconic picture of the title character standing atop his own personal planet, the spot features people all living on their own little world in the sky, all of them connected by a commitment to sustainability. This one was an otherworldly delight.  — C.P.

Volkswagen Canada, “The Carbon-Neutral Net”

The internet might seem benign when compared to the emissions produced by internal-combustion engines, coal factories, etc. but Volkswagen claims it is responsible for about 4% of all CO2 emissions, with the average site generating 1.76 grams of CO2 per page view.

That led the automaker and agency partner Type1 to create “The Carbon-Neutral Net,” a dedicated section within its website showcasing its EVs that removed all colour and photos and rendered images using only simple ASCII text.  VW said the pages are cleaner than 99% of the two million web pages tested by Website Carbon.

The company still has some work to do in putting the whole emissions-gate scandal in the rearview mirror, but we think the “Carbon-Neutral Net” is worthy of recognition as a smart, relevant brand activation. — C.P.

James Ready, “The James Ready Mutual Fun(d)”

James Ready has a history of out-of-the-box marketing, but this year’s “James Ready Mutual Fund” was a fun, buzzworthy addition that yielded both real and brand dividends.

Inspired by the WallStreetBets movement that led to exorbitant gains in previously moribund stocks like GameStop, the stock market-themed campaign from King Ursa saw the beer brand take $20,000 earmarked for advertising and instead buy stocks recommended by a maximum of 5,000 drinkers, with a pledge to divide any profits.

It bought stocks in five companies, including Apple, Amazon and Shopify, and created further engagement by inviting drinkers to participate in “shareholder” meetings to discuss how the funds should be used.

It was a refreshing piece of creativity in a category that’s known to employ more than a few enduring tropes. Playing the market is inherently risky, but this bet paid off. — C.P.

Tim Hortons, “TimBiebs”

Usually, I don’t give a lot of points for ad campaigns built around celebrities, but Tim Hortons collaboration with Justin Bieber—a well-known super-fan of the donut chain—was very, very Yummy.

There’s much to like here: From its genesis in a Bieber complaint about Tims’ new coffee lids, to the cheesy-enough-to-be-cool limited merchandise, to the performance of Bieber and his co-star who nails the comedic complexity of an earnest worker who needs to push the singer toward Timbit-concocting glory.

And it’s not just about selling the special TimBits to Bieber fans. As CMO Hope Bagozzi explained to us, this was a fun and playful way to demonstrate brand love by featuring a global superstar who genuinely wanted to work with Tim Hortons because he loves it.

I roll my eyes almost every time a marketer uses the word “authentic” these days, but in this case, Bieber’s contribution to TimBiebs feels actually authentic. — D.B.

Kraft Peanut Butter, “Protection for Peanuts”

Once again this year, Kraft Heinz was one of the busiest marketers in Canada—at least in terms of pitches and press releases sent our way. There were some big ad campaigns, but many of the ideas felt PR-driven—clever and often charming, and perfect for social sharing.

It was difficult to choose one from that bunch, and though we thought long and hard about it, we didn’t choose the one that has performed well at awards shows this year.

Late last month, we learned about “Protection for Peanuts,” an initiative to help Canadians pay for their epinephrine auto-injectors (aka EpiPens), the medication that can save the lives of those experiencing an allergic reaction to peanuts. Most marketers are terrified of even acknowledging negatives about their products, yet Kraft is running an entire campaign inspired by the fact its product is literally poison to some people.

There is much skepticism about brands trying hard to be seen as doing good for the world, and those skeptics may dismiss “Protection for Peanuts” as another example. But, as we said at the time, we like this one a lot. It’s good for people to be saying nice things and thinking good thoughts about your brand in ways that traditional advertising can’t buy. — D.B.

World Wheelchair Rugby, “Here to Win”

Much of “Here to Win” unfolds like any tried-and-true sports story. We’re introduced to a young man in a wheelchair, who is inspired by Canadian wheelchair rugby Paralympian Zak “The Kid” Madell. We watch his relentless training as he rises up through the sport, until he finally takes to the court across from his idol. As the game gets underway, our hero gets the ball and streaks down the court.

The music builds to what feels like a moment of triumph, until suddenly the young man—and the viewer—are rocked by Madell. He crashes to the floor and the music crashes to a halt. Bewildered, and his ears still buzzing, he watches Madell scoop up the ball, complete a play and then spin back around to smirk at his crestfallen young opponent as the super appears: “We’re not here to inspire. We’re here to win.”

The first time I saw this film, I had a feeling it was going to be on this list because it so flawlessly delivers one of the most powerful and effective misdirects I’ve ever seen. I was left with a visceral understanding of the message: They’re not playing the game to inspire anyone or for warm-and-fuzzy stories about overcoming adversity. They’re doing it because they’re athletes, driven by their passion for the game and the thrill of victory. And that’s why this ad is a winner. — D.B.

Re/Max Canada, “Your Unfair Advantage”

It’s tough to do really great 15-second ads, but I can watch these two short spots for Re/Max by Arrivals + Departures over and over.

Re/max told us they wanted a campaign that was “edgier and unexpected.” And they are. But I would also add quirky and truly LOL funny, while still delivering key brand messaging that its service seems to good to be true, supporting the tagline “Your unfair advantage”: Re/max agents can get you everything you want when buying a new home, and will get your listing in front of the most possible buyers.

But what really stands out for us is the acting performances, particularly in the Prince and the Frog spot: All three are excellent, but it’s the utter bewilderment of the shocked and slightly worried husband, and the guilty smile of the wife who knows she did something wrong but has no regrets.

There’s no doubt these ads are odd, but an original idea, tight writing, and standout performance all combined to make advertising magic. — D.B.

Pfaff Harley-Davidson, “Tough Turban”

This is the kind of idea that is technically only intended for a relatively small consumer segment—Sikh motorcycle riders—but can have a much larger impact because of what it says about the brand.

Zulu Alpha Kilo worked with industrial design company Spark Innovations to create a material that can be used to protect the heads of those riders who want to wear their turban instead of a helmet. And rather than patent the idea, Pfaff released the design specs online, so others can make their own. No advertising here, and not really a product as much as an idea for a product.

But we think this was a really smart way for a brand to show it understands, is engaged with and connected to the ethnic market in meaningful ways. And another great example of agencies creating solutions to problems that benefit their clients, rather than simply defaulting to advertising and communications. — D.B.

*Very honourable mentions… The handful of campaigns that just missed out on our Top 10 for 2021: No Frills, Uber Eats, Jackson-Triggs, Heinz, nabs, Petro-Canada.

Chris Powell