What’s propelling Canada’s top agencies?

This year's Agency of the Year winners beefed up on strategy, data and content.

This article appears in the November/December issue of strategy.

It’s the most secretive time of the year. So this year we doubled the Agency of the Year covert fun with the new Strategy Awards, remaining so stealth that not even a shortlist was announced – blasphemy in ad circles (where everyone likes to know exactly what the ROI of showing up is)!

However, we like everyone to be genuinely surprised.

Both competitions deliver on that. Strategy’s Agency of the Year is unlike any other competition. By assessing a body of work, and by asking marketers to be a major contingent of the juries, AOY provides a very different lens than most award shows. The AOY winners have to prove bench strength across brands and categories. One buzzy campaign won’t get you through.

The Strategy Awards, developed with the Account Planning Group of Canada, also assess advertising from a different perspective – the strength of the insight. It’s about ideas that open the door to a unique, ownable new direction for a brand, and influence change. The Grand Prix winner, Leo Burnett’s sexual violence awareness work for the Ontario Women’s Directorate – which hinged on the insight “if you’re not helping the victim, you’re helping the abuser” – certainly delivered on that.

A close read of all the winning AOY stories shows that beefing up on strategy remained a widespread goal this year, across all types of agencies, from media to PR. The first crop of Strategy Award-winning campaigns prove why that’s a smart priority.

In addition to deepening insights and planning bench strength, the AOY agencies had a few other goals in common: more data, used across more departments, with more data whisperers.

The other not-so-secret sauce is content skills. Winners bulked up on in-house content creation talent and spread the gospel of everything-needs-storytelling by imbuing all corners of their agencies with a hack-the-newsfeed mentality. That shift fuelled Media Profile’s Gold PR AOY win.

Which leads to what the agencies of the year all had in common: rebooting culture to be more collaborative, nimble and innovative. Gold Media AOY PHD did it with a game. Gold Digital AOY FCB did it by listening closely, acting fast and checking in often. And the Gold AOY, Cossette, did it by nesting start-ups in its midst, hoping that fresh entrepreneurial spirit would rub off.

One other thing that crops up in this issue is exporting Canadian ideas to other markets. From Silver PR winner Citizen Relations’ insights and innovation group solution being adopted in other offices, to Strategy Award winner Ritz Cracker Cutters getting picked up in new markets on the brand side. Not to mention all the candy fans in other countries clamoring for a local Skittles Holiday Pawn Shop.

Everyone from CMOs to media agency CEOs tell me the bar-raising and team-inspiring effect of awards – both winning and just absorbing the body of work – leads to aiming higher. And that is definitely needed to succeed. So thanks to everyone who’s participated in our efforts to curate the best work and congrats to all the winners.