Creative Report Card 2021: FCB will stop at nothing

How the agency sells clients on ambitious ideas before fully knowing how to deliver on them.


This story is part of a series exploring the ideas and strategies that helped propel the 2021 Creative Report Card winners to the top. Be sure to check out other coverage of the CRC, as well as the full rankings across brands, agencies, creatives and strategists

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of strategy.

Two weeks before the launch of FCB’s 2019 campaign for the Canadian Down Syndrome Society (CDSS), everything was written but it was still going to be a mad scramble to get the work done on time, says CCO Nancy Crimi-Lamanna. “It’s a mad scramble every year.”

Like many of FCB’s campaigns, “Project Understood” had been pitched on an ambition, rather than a fully fledged idea – to make voice tech more inclusive of people with atypical speech, says Crimi-Lamanna – who, along with retired creative partner Jeff Hilts, are the #5 CDs on the 2021 CRC. The campaign would help train speech recognition models to identify voice patterns of people with Down syndrome, opening up a new world of opportunity for the community.

But the idea was presented to CDSS (#3 Brand) before FCB (#2 Agency) had found a partner in Google (#2 Brand) and before it knew people with Down syndrome shared sufficient commonality in their speech for the tech giant to train its algorithms, says Crimi-Lamanna. Once a test-run with Google proved the experiment could work, there was little time left to shoot the creative and finalize the campaign.

Luckily, the agency and client had a long-standing relationship and a track-record of quickly producing award-winning work together. Despite the timeline, CDSS knew FCB could pull it off, says Kristen Halpen, manager of marketing communications. “Seeing a campaign that you may have wondered wasn’t even possible at times go live – that definitely builds trust. The fact that they consistently exceed our expectations, that builds trust too.”

Project Understood

CDSS chair Ed Casagrande worked with the agency at OLG prior to chairing the non-profit. As a pro bono client, Casagrande says CDSS knows that other paying brands may at times take priority. And someone new to that dynamic may think, “Oh, we’re never going to pull this off – because, knock on wood, there have been some really, really tight timelines,” he says. “But, I’m just amazed at what the turnaround has been. After hours, weekends – it’s not like they’re doing pro bono work for the sake of pro bono work.”

“Project Understood” is but one example of the success FCB has had when it comes to pitching ambitious ideas to clients before fully knowing how to deliver on them. Another is the 2019 Cannes-winning “Go Back to Africa” campaign by FCB/Six, which tackled hate speech directed toward Black people online by transforming a common racial slur into a positive call-to-action in hyper-targeted ads.

FCB/Six had to find an organization as brave as CDSS to partner with when it came up with the concept for “Go Back to Africa.” The agency found a match in Black & Abroad, which bills itself as a “trusted authority in Black travel,” offering experiences for travelers. “As soon as we began to understand their brand, we thought they would be an incredible fit,” says CCO Ian Mackenzie (#7 CD).

Kent Johnson and Eric Martin, the co-founders of the U.S.-based travel and lifestyle company (and #1 Brand), were familiar with some of the tools needed to bring the campaign to life – including Google’s Vision AI – but they recognized that FCB/Six would need to “stretch the limits” of what they thought was possible with the tech.

Plus, the idea of taking on the potentially controversial campaign – inspired by the lived experience of former FCB/Six-er (now CD at Gut) Frederick Nduna – was “super frightening,” says Martin. “We didn’t know if, in fact, we wanted to move forward with it, because it was just so risky.”

“The thing with a campaign like this is that its purpose is to get more eyes on what your company is about,” Johnson says. “So if this was someone’s first brush with Black & Abroad, we wanted to make sure that messaging was very clear, because it has so much opportunity to be misconstrued.”

Go Back to Africa

The agency’s “Destination Pride” work for PFLAG convinced the client that FCB/Six could pull it off – that global platform also had a travel dimension and was rich in data and tech, notes Mackenzie.

“When we saw the ‘Destination Pride’ campaign, it was a no-brainer at that point,” says Martin, noting the work took appropriate risk and a progressive stance on the issue of identity politics. The campaign “could have gone completely left. But not only did they keep on track, they also garnered quite a bit of positive press and attention from it.”

The diversity of the team, which included Nduna and Ramón Charles (#1 AD and currently the senior AD at Isobar), also gave them confidence, adds Martin. “It reflected the world. [Other shops] may not have that diversity to be able to understand our concerns [and] nuances that might not translate well with our audience.”

That’s not to say “Go Back to Africa” didn’t evolve along the way. “Although the idea never changed at the heart of this, the execution was discovered through iteration,” Mackenzie says. “[It] was solving marketing challenges that were coming up through client feedback, and through the idea, intersecting with the brand, [and] with our approach as a creative data agency.”

Crimi-Lamanna says that client trust is also evident in larger brands such as its six-year partner BMO, for which it created a platform that takes a stand against the gender bias that undermines women’s financial confidence. “We wouldn’t have been able to do that work in year one,” she says. “We sell [clients] on ideas that we don’t know how to do,” she adds. “But they trust that we’re going to figure it out. We have a track record of delivering on the ideas that we promise to put into the world.”

Get a behind-the-scenes look at how the creative team behind Black & Abroad’s “Go Back to Africa” campaign overcame the risks of confronting racism online.