Creative Report Card 2020: Three pillars, one agency

How Rethink co-founders Chris Staples and Ian Grais wrote the book on running a CRC-topping agency.

Chis and Ian portraits

You are reading a deep dive into what helped this year’s winners propel themselves to the top of the 2020 Creative Report Card. Be sure to check out other coverage of this year’s class, as well as the full rankings across brands, agencies, creatives and strategists.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of strategy.

This year’s #1 CDs Ian Grais and Chris Staples opened the doors to their Vancouver agency, Rethink, way back in 1999. The two have come a long way since first meeting at DDB. Staples has sat atop the CD list a whopping ten times, with Grais close behind at seven times. As part of their exit plan, the creatives (and fellow co-founder Tom Shepansky) wrote a book on how to build an agency. Here are the Coles Notes.

1. PEOPLE

Rethink’s philosophy goes, “if you take care of the people, then the product and the profit will follow.” This people-come-first attitude translates into shepherding leaders who are approachable, reachable and teachable; fumigating the agency of egos (“assholes can singlehandedly derail the three Ps,” they say); and fostering a culture of gratitude (all-company shout-outs and $300 bonus dinners), creativity (a Lego play space), and silliness (irrational celebrations with little rhyme or reason).

Barges, Speedboats, Subs
To keep peeps motivated, the CDs say you should ration their time across three metaphorical clients: (1) barges, the slow-chugging, gas-guzzling brands that pay the bills; (2) speedboats, clients with shallower pockets and fewer levels of approvals but which are enjoyable to steer; and (3) submarines, the prized pro-bono passion projects that lurk below the surface, waiting to suddenly appear and blow up the internet. The perfect mix = less burnout = happier employees = better output.

DFIU: Don’t Fuck It Up
Directing creatives means giving them a map, not just a compass. The “Don’t Fuck It Up” tool is an acronym for CDs to leave clear and actionable… Direction (clarify the creative and strategic approach); Feedback (tell the team what’s working, what’s not, and why); Instruction (give clear priorities); and Understanding (what are the specific challenges and opportunities). This tool is born out of Rethink’s culture of mentorship: be the kind of boss you wish you had, and don’t fuck it up.

Founder Facetime
It’s time to democratize mentorship. Be a founder that’s not just a figurehead at the door, with a photo and quote on the wall. Commit up to two solid days of speed dates with staffers once a quarter. Either in person or via Skype, the usually time-poor, but knowledge-rich founders invite staffers to ask Qs and seek career tips and work advice. It’s also an opportunity to hear from the horse’s mouth any issues that are arising at the agency, the creative directors say.

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2. PRODUCT

Is creativity born from chaos? Or does structure and rigour help the idea breeding process? The answers are “no” and “yes,” based on way the Grais and Staples run Rethink. Creative businesses are like airports, they say. Briefs are landing while projects are taking flight. Similar to an air controller, “Traffic” manages it all. Rethinkers are obsessed with overcommunication – where frequent huddles are booked through “Traffic,” and “Office Hours” are scheduled blocks of time with CDs to review work. They keep it going through “Peer Reviews,” internal polls that test-drive ideas. Even the brainstorming can be formulated. Here are three “how to have an idea” tools.

1+1 = 3
No, Rethinkers are not bad at math. They’re right-brained folks who can put two unrelated things together, over and over again, until they find a winning pair. Smash together words, images, concepts or objects and see what happens, the founders say. For example, Rethink’s ping pong tournament, King Pong: King Kong + ping pong = gorilla paddle logo.

Be the Ball
Similar to 1+1=3, this tool helps creatives to unlock ideas by combining (a) a business or a project theme with (b) a medium that brings it to life. Think, coasters made of metal from car wrecks for an anti-drunk driving campaign. Or sandpaper business cards for a carpenter, and ones made of beef jerky for a survival gear co. to create a meaty visual language.

Fast & Loose
The trusty napkin sketch didn’t die the day digital tools arrived. The founders say it’s easy for young ADs to dive into computer programs to design stuff, but a client-and-Cannes-winning idea doesn’t need all of that. This principle encourages creatives to channel their stream of consciousness to paper: set the timer to five minutes and write as many ideas as you can; don’t craft one script, jot down ten blurbs on ten angles the script could take; and doodle, sketch, draw, scribble every single idea.

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3. PROFIT

Rethink’s founders are stepping aside (Shepansky will make music, Staples will travel, and Grais will create art), leaving 22 partners to share leadership of the three offices. Each partner was gifted equity on merit. This way all employees have something to aspire to. And even if they never become partner, they’re still treated like one: everyone receives a portion of the profit when it hits a 7.5% margin (lower than the standard 18% to 25%) – which means execs (who typically only stand to gain from margin bumps) don’t compromise on their values by making decisions through a pure-profit lens. Here are other ways to drive profit via the product:

Change Proposals
CPs are also called “submarines.” Remember those? They’re the lurking purpose-driven projects that resonate. The agency sets aside 2% to 3% of its profits to cover the hard costs of these U-boats. An idea is struck (usually out of the blue) and then there are a lot of cold-calls to prospective clients to make it happen. The DIY nature of the proposals drives innovation and galvanises the whole agency – which improves happiness scores, the creative output, and ultimately keeps the agency in the black.

R+D Days
That’s R for Rethink and D for Develop. They’re sort of like those hackathons of the tech world, but not. All client work is put on pause for 24 hours. Across all three offices. The radio silence is in effort to unlock Rethinkers’ hidden talents, quirks and secret passions. R&D Challenges (creative problems, like solving a pain point for city-dwellers) have led to actual client proprosals, making them a bit of a profit centre. But arguably more beneficial, they break down departmental walls, get people out of their shells and encourage shared learning.