2021 AOY, Digital and Design Gold: Rethink’s winning streak hits a milestone

The agency's triple win comes after a year of initiating people-pleasing initiatives and going against the traditional agency culture grain.

Rethink NEW AGENCY PHOTO (Sept 24)

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

By Will Novosedlik

It is conventional for agencies to grow by entering other markets, and for those same agencies to claim bragging rights based on the number of offices they have around the world. Rethink opened its Vancouver office in 1999, Toronto in 2010 and Montreal in 2015. But rather than be seen as a company with offices in three cities, each one focused on local clients, Rethink sought to be viewed as a unified entity.

The pandemic accelerated that ambition. Realizing that Zoom had virtually eliminated geographical barriers, Rethink began to look at resource allocation in a very different way.

“When Chris Staples, Tom Shepansky and Ian Grais founded the company, they wanted Rethink to be an alternative to the typical wheel-spinning, stressful agency culture,” explains national CCO and managing partner Aaron Starkman. “The pandemic has really allowed Rethink to realize that original vision.”

Now that geography has evaporated, teams are no longer built around location but around the ideal mix of skills for a particular challenge. It’s common for there to be a meeting with a creative director and a strategy team from one city and a creative team from another, allowing them to look at their entire roster of Rethinkers to determine who’s perfect for a particular project.

And it’s working. For the third time in just as many years, Rethink nabbed three 2021 Agency of the Year medals. While the shop typically takes home two Golds and a Silver across Agency, Design and Digital, this is the first time it stacked all three bases and hit a home run with a Gold in each of the categories.

Some of the work that led to its triple win included the Fondation Emergence’s “Colours of Pride,” which was named one of the Campaigns of the Year, getting top marks for taking actual bruises from victims of homophobic hate and using them to create a Pride Flag. Another top-scoring case was Molson’s “Drink from the Cup,” in which the Stanley Cup – Canada’s hockey version of the Holy Grail – was placed over a vat of beer during the brewing process so that the brew could be funneled through it. As a result, when drinking a can of Molson Canadian, fans could literally “Drink from the Cup.”

But it was Digital that Rethink really took a run at, doubling down on work that demonstrated a creative and strategic integration of online media to take home its first Gold in the category. For Heinz, for example, Rethink teamed up with Waze, a traffic app that colours any stretch of road where there is vehicle congestion in red. Using the speed of a Heinz ketchup pour (0.045km/h), the brand dished out a free bottle of ketchup and a Burger King Impossible Whopper to any driver clocking in at 0.045 km/h when using the GPS navigation app.

Rethink’s challenge now is keeping a good thing going.

According to Starkman, when the company originally set out its values, the priorities were people, product and profit, in that order. The last thing the founders wanted was to grow as an independent, be purchased by a network and fall prey to the high turnover the industry is famous for, he says. The agency’s November 2020 shift from a corporation to a limited partnership means that shares are held in trust and cannot be sold to a network or holding company. It ensures that Rethink will remain independent, preserving the people-first cultural values upon which its success has been built.

But it also comes down to maintaining a healthy culture. To do this, Rethink instituted semi-annual culture checks to take the temperature, identify strengths and weaknesses and solve for any pain points. During COVID, for instance, it discovered that in one particular department, the lockdown was really messing with employees’ work-life balance. The agency responded immediately by hiring more staff to relieve the pressure.

It also banned creative presentations on Mondays. As Starkman says, “Monday creative meetings are a guaranteed way to make people work all weekend. So we have told all of our clients and we’ve also said it in new business pitches, and it has been met with universal applause by both existing and potential clients. Not to mention our own people.” This was not only a gamechanger at Rethink, but given the agency’s high profile, it was also a challenge for the rest of the industry.

The list of people-pleasing initiatives induced by the pandemic goes on to include a $500 benefit for each Rethinker that can be applied towards a Health Spending Account (to increase medical benefits) or a Lifestyle Spending Account (to cover meditation apps, yoga or even running shoes).

It also instituted “Advocacy Days” where everyone gets two paid days to attend a protest, or do volunteer work, or mentor students; “Bueller Days” where all staff are encouraged to take an extra day off, even at the last minute, to play hooky; as well as “Rethink Talks” with community and business leaders speaking on topics related to coping in a pandemic.

Putting its people first has had a very positive effect on business. The company enjoyed 30% growth in 2020/21. It also made 26 key hires in the account management, strategy and creative departments across offices and promoted five existing staff to ACD roles, including Skye Deluz, Naeem Ghafari, Jacquelyn Parent, Hayley Hinkley and Zach Bautista.

These new hires and promotions are in response to 30 new business wins in the last year, including Scotiabank, McCain, Metrolinx, Cara, Miller Lite, Belgian Moon, Coors Original and Organic, Ottawa Tourism and Special Olympics Canada.

Its growth has been accompanied by a boatload of recognition for work done on brands like IKEA, Heinz, Truss and Molson. The 228 awards won this year include AdAge Creative Agency of the Year, D&AD’s #2 Independent Agency of the Year, Cannes #3 Independent Agency of the Year and the One Show’s #1 Ranking Canadian Agency. The firm also won multiple Grand Prix awards at national shows, as well as the most Effie awards in Canada, the ADCC’s Agency of the Year, and Grand Prix trophies at AToMiC, Marketing Awards and SIA.

Says Starkman, “If our people feel they’re putting great work out the door and enjoy the ride getting there, then the revenue and the recognition follow naturally.”

New key business
Scotiabank, McCain, Metrolinx, Vizzy, Miller Lite, Pilsner, Belgian Moon, Blue Moon, Fine Company, Coors Original, Coors Organic, Ottawa Tourism, Special Olympics Canada, Decathlon Canada, Montréal centre-ville, Le Devoir, Mega Brands, Chambre des notaires du Québec, Ordre des infirmières et infirmier du Québec, Athleta, Cara, Jack.org, Pozio, Waterplay, Happy Planet, Perch, Purdy’s, Vancouver Downtown Business Association, Rubicon Organics, Naramata Tourism, Chek Media Group, Empowering Villages International, End of the Roll, GardenWorks

Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver


AOY cases

Colours of Pride - Image 1

1. Campaign of the Year: Acceptance of LGBTQ+ communities isn’t commonplace around the world. Homophobia continues to exist, even in Canada. To remind people of the cost of LGBTQ+ pride, Rethink and the Fondation Emergence created a new Pride Flag that incorporated actual bruises from victims of homophobic hate. A hero video introduced the new flag under the “Colours of Pride” campaign and featured prominent members of the LGBTQ+ community who had suffered from hate crimes.

Draw Ketchup - Image 2crop

2. The agency conducted a social experiment across 18 countries asking one simple question: “Draw Ketchup.” Almost everyone drew Heinz. So of course Rethink juxtaposed the simple drawings against massive billboards.

Molson Canadian Stanley Cup Batch - Image 1
3. Molson Canadian attempted to reclaim its spot in the fridges of rookie and diehard hockey fans by pouring its beer through the Stanley Cup, and then bottled it up to create a limited-edition batch.

Screen Shot1

4. For IKEA, Rethink showed Canadians how the retailer can help make their homes a more sustainable place. The campaign included a whimsical spot, instruction manuals for repurposing old IKEA furniture, and pivoting its Black Friday sale from being about saving money to saving the planet.

Pumpkin Spice KD - Case Board
5. The agency took KD’s original recipe and relaunched it with a Pumpkin Spice flavour and campaign that poked fun at people’s cult-level obsession with the popular Starbucks latte.

Design cases

Periods for Periods - Image 1

1. Period poverty is a problem in North America. To show that menstrual periods are as commonplace as those at the end of sentences, Rethink created a unifying visual symbol in protest of the lack of government support. Periods for Periods is a font made entirely of 230 periods, with designs ranging from the literal to metaphorical (think uteruses and flowers).

IKEAScrapsbook_CaseStudy_Supporting Images_01

2. The agency designed a “Scrapsbook” recipe guide for IKEA to show consumers how to practice sustainability in their homes by turning unwanted bits of food into hearty cuisine.


3. For Truss, Rethink created five unique cannabis brands from scratch, each of which reflected a different need state: enjoyment; health and wellness; taking it easy; taste experience; and high intensity.

Digital cases

Lost Tapes of the 27 Club - Image 1

1. The “Lost Tapes of the 27 Club” were created using artificial intelligence to show the world what four music gods who died at age 27 (Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse) would have made – if they had gotten the mental health support they needed from organizations like Over the Bridge. The tracks saw more people reaching out for help, with an 830% bump in traffic.

Heinz Bottleneck - Image 1

2. Rethink partnered with Waze for Heinz Ketchup and used its speed tracking system to target Canadians stuck in traffic. It tracked the speed at which drivers were moving, and if it matched the speed of ketchup (0.045/km), Heinz rewarded them with a free bottle of its red sauce.

Cristiano Ronaldo Water Bottle - Image 2


3. During a press conference for the Euro 2020, Portuguese legend Christiano Ronaldo made headlines when he pushed away Coca-Cola bottles and chose to drink water instead. Naturally, Rethink hijacked the conversation to promote IKEA’s sustainability message, posting an image with its famous reusuable Korken bottle and re-naming it Cristiano with the message to drink water, sustainably.