The Agency A List: Initiative

The transforming Toronto agency is growing brands through culture
A giant Lego mural was set up at Toronto’s Union Station around Christmas that passersby could help build. The objective was to get Lego bricks into the hands of adults who never played with them as children to demonstrate the creativity and fine-motor-skill benefits.

A giant Lego mural was set up at Toronto’s Union Station around Christmas that passersby could help build. The objective was to get Lego bricks into the hands of adults who never played with them as children to demonstrate the creativity and fine-motor-skill benefits.

Initiative anticipates a trailblazing 2019 following a year of significant growth, according to Initiative Canada president Helen Galanis. She credits the transformation largely to the vision and stewardship of global CEO Mat Baxter and several additions to her Canadian leadership team.

“There’s new energy in the organization and the results have been amazing,” says Galanis, who came on board the 27-year-old shop three years ago, after IPG folded m2 into Initiative, bringing scale and clients. Now the Toronto agency, which counts 159 staff, is focused on growth. It’s also prioritizing strategies to combat ad avoidance, tackling a big brand challenge.

Initiative Canada won the best in Brand Integration at the Atomic Awards for creating a permanent Wendy’s “walk-thru” restaurant in the Big Brother Canada household, and making it part of the plot by awarding Wendy’s food for winning challenges.

Initiative Canada won the best in Brand Integration at the Atomic Awards for creating a permanent Wendy’s “walk-thru” restaurant in the Big Brother Canada household, and making it part of the plot by awarding Wendy’s food for winning challenges.

“Our antidote is to help brands diffuse their message through culture by looking at all consumer connection points – not just paid media channels,” Galanis explains. “We help brands grow by driving cultural relevance. We have a tremendous data underpinning, but our differentiator is in uncovering insights and finding the right balance between reach and relevance.”

Its data research has even tapped neuroscience, as in the report “What Brain Research Can Teach Us About Building Relevance,” an effort with Brainsights that maps viewers’ responsiveness to varying ad lengths and sequencing strategies. It has since applied these new best practices to redefine how the agency approaches video planning.

Harley-Davidson - Common GroundBut sometimes intuition trumps science, as in Initiative’s “Common Ground” campaign for Harley-Davidson with creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, which won nine awards, including three gold at the MIAs, two gold at the CMAs and another at the Strategy Awards.

The insight indicated the motorcycle brand had lost relevance with young consumers. The strategy was to reconnect with this group through skippable YouTube pre-roll ads that paired younger riders with loyal Harley owners on a nationwide road trip. The team went against the prevailing wisdom that “short-form wins” and ran three stories at 14 minutes each.

“We believed people would want to see it,” Galanis says. “We took a bit of a risk and far exceeded the benchmarks.” The videos’ completion rates were better than the average for 30-second ads by a factor of three and garnered 8.7 million views.

Emboldened, the agency successfully pitched Bell Media on the videos as broadcast content. The material was edited into a one-hour documentary and aired on Discovery Canada, which even scheduled pre-existing dramatic miniseries Harley and the Davidsons, about the manufacturer’s origins, as a six-hour lead-in.

“We started with an unconventional approach to paid media and ended up earning much more exposure through the partnership opportunity with Bell Media,” Galanis notes.

For client Destination Canada, Initiative Canada collaborated with a consortium of publishers, creating more than 100 pieces of content embedding Canada into the sub-cultures that mattered to its audience: music, style, culinary, adventure and the arts. The 100% content-led approach delivered “dreaming” and “considering” content at the right moment across publisher platforms, social, programmatic and owned channels.

For Destination Canada, Initiative collaborated with a consortium of publishers on over 100 pieces of content embedding Canada into sub-cultures that matter to the audiences: music, style, culinary, adventure and the arts. The approach delivered “dreaming” and “considering” content across social, programmatic and owned channels.

For client Lego, the challenge was to win over parents who didn’t play with the toy as kids. Lego’s insight was that it needed to get the plastic bricks in the parents’ hands to build connection and demonstrate their creative and fine-motor-skill benefits. Initiative’s solution was to set up an integrated campaign that included a giant Lego mural at Union Station around Christmas that passersby could help build.

“We wanted to do something local that would drive impact,” Galanis explains. “It was a creative idea but fundamentally delivered on the bricks-in-hand experience. Though the experience itself was local, we were able to capture great content and amplify it through social to get more scale and reach.”

Initiative’s understanding of client needs is deepened by client- side experience in its leadership team. Galanis has client experience at Canadian Tire and Rogers, while three VPs have worked at Big Five banks. And then there is Nish Shah, VP strategy, whom, says Galanis, “is the one who helps set the vision and really owns the overall product with the leadership team at the end of the day.”

While Initiative feels it has achieved its comeback, it’s not complacent. “More than ever we’re thinking about ways to transform the model and not fall into old industry conventions,”

Galanis says. “I’m excited to continue to build an agency that challenges the status quo – one that clients are excited to work with and where our employees are motivated to do the best work of their careers.”

CONTACT

Helen Galanis

President, Initiative Canada

Helen.Galanis@initiative.com