Creative Report Card 2021: The Rethink machine

A fine-tuned creative process helped the agency crack the "acts, not ads" code.

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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.

What do a Heinz Ketchup puzzle and a Valentine’s Day Candy KD have in common? Aside from Rethink’s involvement, they’re the advertising equivalent of the “show, don’t tell” writing technique.

In both cases, Kraft Heinz worked with the Creative Report Card’s #1 Agency to spin out products that tap into a cultural moment, bringing brand relevance through action, not declaration. When you’re building a puzzle, you’re not so much consuming a piece of advertising as you are participating in its creation.

No one knows this better than Rethink. A small part of the agency’s recent success can be attributed to having mastered what many in the industry are calling “acts, not ads.”

Though it has been leveraged by global brands like Mars and Burger King, agency Leo Burnett dubbed and helped popularize the idea nearly a decade ago. And in 2019, it looked at the work most likely to win at Cannes that year and declared “Acts, Not Ads, Reign.”

“Building brands over time is no longer about launching the big traditional ad – it’s about acts along the way that make the brand relevant over time,” says Nina Patel, head of brand build and innovation at Kraft Heinz (#5 Brand). “For us, this means going after ideas that are bold, that tap into an authentic tension or insight, and ignite consumer conversation.”

Looking at some of its most recent client work, it’s fair to say Rethink has cracked the “acts” code and now feels comfortable applying that filter to a slew of clients across categories.

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The agency applied the thinking to much of Kraft Heinz’ marketing over the last two years – from “Pour Perfectly” to “Heinz on Film” and “Heinz Ketchup Puzzle” – and continues to move forward with equally shareable work, like its super slow-loading webpage (57 minutes!) or its call for people to sketch the first image of ketchup that comes to mind (the majority naturally drew pictures of Heinz).

But the formula can also be seen in work for #6 Brand IKEA – from its “Gingerbread Home” (tiny edible furniture) to a “Dog Translator” (to help customers communicate with their pets) and “The ScrapsBook” (a sustainability-focused cookbook filled with recipes that use food scraps).

There are even traces of it in #10 Brand WestJet’s “Flight Light,” a nightlight that used data to let kids track their parents’ whereabouts in real-time. In that instance, Rethink “leaned on a mobile application, as well as this physical thing, to create this moment of meaningful connection that really ties back to the brand,” says Rob Daintree, director of marketing communications. “You see that in a lot of work [Rethink does] with their clients.”

At Kraft Heinz, Patel says her team evaluates ideas bearing five things in mind: is it authentic and ownable to the brand? Will the press write about it? Does it have inherent tension and a point of view on the world? Does it offer something consumers can authentically engage in? And lastly, has it been done before? “If it smells at all like something we’ve seen before, then it’s likely not something we’re going to want to jump into,” she says.

But how does Rethink develop, pitch and ultimately sell clients on so many of these ideas?

That, according to Aaron Starkman, managing partner and national CCO (as well as the #1 CD), is thanks to a fine-tuned process that “eliminates wheel spinning and helps us get to the best possible work.” It’s what agency co-founders Chris Staples and Ian Grais (the #2 CDs) refer to as “the Rethink machine.”

Starkman says: “It works like a machine with many parts that result in reliable output. In our case, that output is work that people talk about, write about and share.” No matter the client, its mechanics are the same, with only minor deviations for act-based work.

During early-stage ideation, the agency opts for breadth, not depth. Creatives are encouraged to generate as many concepts as possible under Rethink’s “1 or 100 rule.” As Starkman explains, “Your best idea can be your first idea, or your one hundredth idea. But you won’t truly know until you come up with 100 ideas.”

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The less-than-stellar ideas are then filtered out through an internal review process that involves presenting concepts to other agency creatives who resemble the client’s target and who help winnow down the list by applying a “CRAFTS” lens – Rethink-speak for ideas that are Clear, Relevant, Achievable, Fresh, True and Shareable. The top-ten most promising ones land on a CD’s desk.

Then, clients are called in for a “shallow holes” meeting, Starkman says. Rather than share a 100-slide deck outlining two big ideas, Rethink keeps things short and sweet, pitching six to eight ideas in brief, digestible bites – enough for the client to intuitively distinguish the potential winners (typically two) from the non-starters.

“Then we go away and we start digging deep into the selected shallow holes for our eventual big ‘Ta-da!’ meeting,” says Starkman. “In that final meeting, there are never any surprises, because the clients have been brought into the kitchen early.”

That process has helped Rethink develop award-winning campaigns that run the gamut from IKEA’s “Stuff Monster” to the Government of Ontario’s “Rowan’s Law.”

The only difference is that “acts, not ads” are also given the press release treatment, a pitch method that was frequently used by Alex Bogusky when he was at CP+B.

During the ideation stage, creatives are asked to write a headline that captures how they expect the work to be covered in the mainstream press. Real examples that appeared in the media almost word-for-word include: “Heinz creates the slowest puzzle that’s just the colour red” and “WestJet’s Flight Light projects your flight path onto your child’s ceiling.”

“The press headline, sometimes accompanied by a rough sketch, is how teams actually present ideas,” Starman says. “It’s a great way for creatives to filter out the ideas that won’t take off or ideas that are overly complicated or don’t make any sense.”

For clients like IKEA, the “acts, not ads” budget is small, coming in at around 5% of overall spend, says head of marketing Johanna Andrén. The work is culturally relevant and typically falls on the stuntier side, but has to always be rooted in the brand and its values, Andrén says. The “ScrapsBook,” for example, ties back to the retailer’s sustainability positioning and messaging. The ideas “are creative, but not completely crazy,” she says.

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As the goal is to maintain an appropriate balance with larger campaigns, Andrén says the acts are baked into the annual planning process. The ideas can come from any of its agency partners or its own marketing team, but they must adhere to certain guidelines, such as seasonal planning, and tie back to its brand DNA. There’s also a limit on the number of concepts it pursues in any given year. “So it’s structured in a way, but it’s not the same process as for the larger brand and core business campaigns.”

Kraft Heinz, on the other hand, enjoys the flexibility of the “acts” approach, deploying work that speaks to a cultural moment, whether it came via a formal brief or not.

“It’s them calling us on a given day saying, ‘We have a great idea; it’s not the plan, but we should do it,’” Patel says. “Ideas are fluid, and they can often happen through an informal chat or a text beyond boardroom conversations. It’s that kind of openness and agility that’s been game changing [for us].”

Patel adds that, when it comes to acts, both the client and agency recognize the inevitability of failure. “We don’t let perfection get in the way of what could be a great idea,” she says.

In fact, the partners mutually recognize the need for a “go, then grow” mentality. That approach “allows us to jump into an idea, see if it catches fire, and then throw fuel on the fire once we see something there,” she says. “Not everything’s going to take off. So you need room to tolerate some failure that you may not have had with a larger integrated campaign.”

Moving forward, Starkman says the agency’s future success will depend on keeping the “well-oiled Rethink machine” greased.

Having officially taken over from Grais and Staples in the fall, the national CCO says he’s “never going to mess” with the founders’ process. “I’ve been part of the best work of my entire career by believing passionately in the Rethink machine. So it’s my job to make sure it’s running properly. I’ll try not to fuck it up.”

Editor’s note: The print version of this article mistakenly refers to “winner 100 rule” instead of the “1 or 100 rule.” Strategy regrets the error.