The Mighty List: The people and brands that made a difference in 2021

Remember when we (probably naively) thought that 2020 was a year unlike any other? Well, 2021 wrestled that title away pretty handily, didn’t it?

This was a year in which we were forced to contend with a full 12 months of the pandemic; in which working and learning from home was no longer an aberration but the new normal (and if we never hear that phrase again, it will be too soon); and in which time felt both curiously condensed and elongated. It also had a big impact on part two of our Mighty List for 2021.

In part one, which we published Friday, we highlighted the 10 campaigns we felt deserved recognition as the best of our industry. Below, you’ll find our (again, entirely “thoughtfully subjective”) selection of the people, initiatives and brand actions that resonated with us this year.

The pandemic loomed large over so much of what the industry did this year, but it was also a year in which individuals and institutions attempted to tackle a wide range of challenges—from vaccine hesitancy, to decades of systemic racism and gender inequality. And there were even attempts to solve good old-fashioned business challenges.

It was a singular year. We can’t wait to see what 2022 brings.

Mightiest Anonymous Gesture

“SomeoneWhoLovesYou” appeared in February, during the darkest days of our first Covid winter. Vaccines had started rolling out, but progress was slow and everything was still locked down as we approached the one-year anniversary of the pandemic’s arrival in North America.

The film uses what were by then familiar shots of empty public spaces, followed by people making the best of a once unimaginable challenge. “We see you. Please don’t give up. Today is a fight for everyone’s tomorrow.” One of the anonymous creators told us they made the film because “many extremely kind-hearted people are just running out of steam.”

There was no agenda or call to action other than simply sharing the film—a lovely and pure message of encouragement and support by three industry professionals who wanted to remain anonymous, yet created something with real purpose and authenticity.

I knew I wanted to put this on our list even before we were plunged into this new yet familiar wave of the pandemic, and the message seems more important than ever: “Please don’t give up.” — D.B.

Mightiest marketing-savvy mayor

Back in February, with Canadians still fuming over media reports that some politicians had travelled to tropical destinations over the holidays despite a travel ban, Moose Jaw mayor Fraser Tolmie created a video that touted his city as the perfect choice for a clandestine getaway.

It was an unexpectedly charming piece of low-budget tourism marketing, and the 60-second video attracted the attention of all three major Canadian news networks, briefly turning Tolmie into a minor internet sensation.

It opens on Tolmie sitting poolside at the city’s Temple Gardens Hotel & Spa, cucumber slices on his eyes and a bottle of champagne on a table beside him. He sits up and says conspiratorially, “Are you a Canadian politician taking heat for going away at Christmas? Listen up.” He then lists reasons why they should consider Moose Jaw for their next getaway, telling would-be visitors, “We’ll never tell.”

The spot is built on Moose Jaw’s reputation as “Canada’s most notorious city,” branding that Tolmie himself helped introduce in 2019, based on the city’s purported ties to legendary mobster Al Capone. The “acting mayor” had also previously starred in a video response to a SkipTheDishes ad in which pitchman Jon Hamm mentioned Moose Jaw.

The spot is proof that good marketing is not the sole purview of big agencies and clients. Which is why this particular politician gets our vote. — C.P.

Mightiest Good Thinkers

This is an industry that prides itself on the ability to persuade: To reach people and deliver a message that can change their thinking and behaviour.

Last spring, Vancouver based strategist Penny Norman (then with Pound & Grain, and now with Rescue) realized that skill-set could perhaps be used to affect positive real world change, and she wanted to start by changing the thinking and behaviour of the vaccine hesitant. Norman took her idea to the Account Planning Group of Canada (of which she is a longtime member). They liked the idea, and “Good Thinking” was born.

Strategists and planners worked with vaccine hesitancy experts who best understand the issues underlying hesitancy but struggle with how to communicate effectively to change minds, said Norman. “What’s the behavioural insight that’s going to trigger someone to think differently? That’s the gap for them.” Together, the group came up with strategies to address six specific hesitancy issues and posted them online for open-access.

In an industry that is often accused of doing charity work for awards, this was decidedly not that. “What we need is effective work, not just an award-winning, ‘This is cool’ kind of thing,” Norman told us. That’s good thinking. — D.B.

Mightiest Earned Media Earner

Lots of brands have come to believe that marketing capable of generating earned media and has high social shareability can help them sidestep the growing challenge of ad avoidance. But arguably no Canadian brand has perfected this approach better than Kraft Heinz Canada (though maybe No Frills/No Name has comes close).

From its hit campaign inviting people to simply “Draw Ketchup,” which led to a wave of crude but unmistakable renderings of its signature brand; to KD raising the profile of the Olympics’ goofiest sport with its sponsorship of race-walker Evan Dunfree; to Kraft Peanut Butter’s creating a book explaining pronouns for Transgender Awareness Week, the company once again put forward a wave of marketing that was characterized by its inherent media value.

There’s still vigorous debate in marketing circles about the value of marketing programs that prioritize short-term gains such as likes, clicks, etc. at the expense of brand, but there seems to be lot of latitude for a company boasting nearly 100% household penetration and across-the-board category leaders. — C.P.

Mightiest homepage

Starting last year, and continuing into 2021, a lot of agencies said they were making changes to improve diversity and BIPOC representation in the industry.

Aside from making more effort to attract and retain BIPOC talent, there have been a number of admirable programs created to correct a systemic problem of underrepresentation, particularly for Black people. But we’re putting Juliet’s Home Page for Change on this list because it is such a simple gesture to help young creative people of colour at the earliest stages of their career.

Starting in August, the agency gave over its homepage to a BIPOC artist for one month, along with $2,000 to help them keep working on their creativity (the agency is also extending the program to its L.A. office in March). “It’s all about the goal of increasing BIPOC representation in the arts and our industry,” explained the agency’s co-founder and creative director, Denise Cole. “That was our thinking: Getting people published, getting people paid.”

Please keep doing all the stuff you’re doing to improve your hiring and retention, but we hope more agencies find equally creative ways to fix the problem in 2022. — D.B.

Mightiest Furious Women (In Three Parts):

I: Our Mighty List is reserved for those people and ideas from the Canadian industry, but London-based Zoe Scaman gets a special place on this list for her searing essay “Mad Men. Furious Women,” detailing multiple incidents of sexual assault and harassment while working in the industry. She said she was inspired to write it after a conversation with a friend about which industry men they had watch out for. It’s an embarrassment that so many women in this industry still feel this way, and Scaman’s powerful words were an overdue reminder that they do.

II: Stop the Party also arose from women frustrated by another stubbornly enduring problem: The 25% wage gap between men and women. “Stop the Party” asked employers to sign a pledge to commit to real change within one year, and it was pointedly launched on International Women’s Day: “It’s a campaign that recognizes that while women’s accomplishments are reason for celebration, the lack of progress closing the wage gap is not,” explained Erika Maginn, strategy director at The&Partnership and one of the pledge’s founders. We reached out to Maginn recently and she told us the effort is still going strong, and they’ll be looking for new employers to take the pledge this year. Anyone interested can reach out here.

III: Fierce Mamas started out in 2018 as a group of industry women who created Mother’s Day cards to celebrate what they call “power moms.” The cards were about empowerment, but were also light and funny. This year, after a full year of the pandemic which has hit working moms particularly hard, they knew the cards had to be different. Still fun, but with a slightly darker tone that acknowledges “There is a need for a primal scream into the abyss,” Rica Eckersley of the Toronto agency formerly known as Union told us. Their cards can’t fix the problem of industry inequality exacerbated by the pandemic, but the Fierce Mamas make our list for voicing the heartbreak of that injustice, and doing it with a smile.— D.B.

Mightiest Brand Transformation

For most of its 67-year history, Harry Rosen has been synonymous with business attire. However, the pandemic exacerbated the shift away from elegant suits in favour of the elastic waistbands that had already been taking place prior to last year.

Add to that an aging customer base and the fact that so much of its brand identity was tied to a superlative in-store experience at a time when stores were shuttered, and Harry Rosen’s business challenges were as obvious as a spaghetti stain on a white shirt.

But in 2021, the retailer re-oriented to better meet changing consumer tastes and habits, while at the same time adopting a more human, slightly irreverent brand voice  to speak to younger consumers.

Whether it was changing the exterior signage on its flagship Toronto store to “Hairy Rosen” to launch its men’s grooming line, to introducing “Green Screen Shirts” that let wearers project different patterns on their chest during video calls, Harry Rosen suddenly didn’t feel quite so buttoned down.

And with the November debut of FinalCut, its new entry in the fast-growing discount retail space, Harry Rosen made a play for younger consumers for whom “Why pay retail? has become something of a rallying call.

We said at the time that discount retail felt like something Harry Rosen would have been reluctant to set a (Prada-clad) foot in just a few years ago, but chief marketer Trinh Tham said it represented the next step in the brand’s digital transformation. — C.P.

Mightiest anti-racism advocate

Among the most toxic side effects of the pandemic has been the wave of anti-Asian racism it has brought rushing back to the surface.

In March, a report from the Chinese Canadian National Council’s Toronto chapter reported there were 1,150 incidents of racism against Asian-Canadians during the pandemic’s first year.

Toronto creative Lionel Wong has endured such racism all his life, whether it was being taunted and teased about his school lunches, deliberately coughed on in the grocery store, or being told to go back to his own country while walking down the street.

That led him to tackle the problem head-on. He created a series of nine downloadable posts tackling anti-Asian racism, featuring rejoinders to some of most common racist statements like “Asians have weird traditions” and “Asians are all good at math.”

“I wanted to create something to express what I’m feeling, I wanted to start conversations, and I wanted to make sure I could give people resources to find out more,” Wong told The Message earlier this year. “I just wanted to do something that was impactful and give Asians a voice.” — C.P.

Mightiest NFT

One of the biggest non-Covid stories of the year was the explosive rise of non-fungible tokens, which quickly made their way into marketing playbooks. In the spring, the David Suzuki Foundation and Camp Jefferson created an NFT and listed it for sale for $50 billion.

They called it the “Nature Friendly Token,” and it was created specifically to make a point about NFTs: Not that they are outrageously overpriced (they are, right?) but about the environment. Transacting NFTs requires a massive amount of computing power and energy—the equivalent of flying for two hours, or driving for about 1,000 kilometres, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. And they chose $50 billion because that’s an estimated value of the benefits of Canada’s boreal forest.

The non-profit and Camp Jefferson stressed their problem wasn’t with NFTs themselves, but with the technology driving the process. The NFT was simply a way to kickstart the conversation. But we like this one because it also flicks at more important issues about how we will define real value as we move increasingly toward the “metaverse.”

“The NFT space is yet another example of the absurd overuse of a scarce resource, carbon, for something that has no tangible value or use,” said David Suzuki Foundation’s Yannick Beaudoin. Spending most of the last two years in a sort of virtual reality has reminded us what tangible value should look like, and we hope it has little to do with bored apes. — D.B.

Mightiest GIFs

A number of brands like Rogers and Scotiabank took action this year to keep the conversation going about systemic racism in this country. And on the long list of injustices in search of a remedy arising from systemic racism, a lack of representation in wine culture is probably pretty far down the list. But Jackson-Triggs knows the wine industry well, and it took steps this year to fix the problem in that industry.

“WineForChange” is both a pledge to make improvements inside the company, but also to change the face of the industry itself—and that includes something seemingly as trivial as wine GIFs. “We’ve all seen a funny wine GIF posted on someone’s social channel. But the reality is very few reflect how we need to change,” explained Bensimon’s Joseph Bonicci. So the agency created wine GIFs with more diverse characters.

It would be good if more brands in more industries and categories took more action to, well, clean up their own backyard—take a hard look at themselves and those around them for the countless ways long-standing structures and processes make people feel less welcome. — D.B.

David Brown