2021 Media AOY Silver: Wavemaker’s chips fall into place

How the media agency's "provocative planning" approach helped its clients through the last two years.

Wavemaker - Group PhotoREV

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

Right before the first lockdown in Canada, Wavemaker had launched a significant repositioning, which included a new model that pulled away from traditional linear planning and toward a more modular approach. The timing couldn’t have been better.

According to the agency, its new “provocative planning” approach – comprised of three modules: Maximize, Unlock and Transform – was pivotal in supporting its growth over the past year-and-a-half (with account wins from Bumble to De’Longhi and DHL to MGA), ultimately leading to a Silver medal in the Media AOY competition.

“We call them ‘modules,’ but they are really approaches,” explains Kristie Painting, CEO, Wavemaker. “Approaches for three different stages or parts of the client’s business, each with an eye toward stimulating growth.” More specifically, she says, Maximize is an AI-powered planning tool; Unlock is an audit process; and Transform is a collaborative, creative-led approach.

The disruption of the last year no doubt called out the importance of scenario planning, as clients looked to media agencies for short-term pivots. Contingencies were increasingly top-of-mind, Painting says, which its Maximize tool was designed to manage. It was originally developed prior to the pandemic to help the agency “scenario plan in a superfast manner,” Painting explains, “providing flexibility so a whole new [media strategy] wasn’t required if this or that happened, when small adjustments would suffice.”

Maximize and its AI-planning capabilities are designed to identify opportunities for growth against key target audiences, specifically nontraditional segments. “Instead of planning against women, 25 to 44, we can look at millennial parents who buy milk alternatives exclusively, and millennial parents who buy both milk alternatives and dairy milk, and plan against both audiences.”

As some brands scrambled to make the shift to ecommerce and figure out different ways to sell their products during the crisis, Wavemaker’s Unlock audit process helped them understand how clients were actually faring, says Andy Braunston, VP, managing partner, Wavemaker.

The process itself audits each component of a client’s digital ecosystem. Painting explains that the audit process results in a roadmap for growth opportunities.

Unlock audits also led to the creation of a new Wavemaker product, called Origami, “which was specifically designed to help drive D2C ecommerce conversions,” she says.
As for Transform, Painting says that the new process helps “codify creativity” by facilitating interagency collaboration and maintaining both creative and strategic consistency across disciplines and partners.

For instance, when Molson needed to be agile in the wake of restaurant and bar closures, Braunston says Wavemaker was able to help the brand get a new ecommerce platform up-and-running in short order. “That was a great example of a really tight interagency collaboration when it comes to tools and processes.”

Additionally, when Molson wanted to outpace the country’s number selling beer, Budweiser, leading up to Canada Day, Painting says deeper conversations and collaboration with Molson’s agencies helped land on the idea to combine brews from various beer brands in a single pack. In this instance, Painting says the “Transform framework was used to develop communications goals and tasks, facilitating the conversations with the interagency team, out of which ‘Make it Canadian’ was born.”

Collectively, all three processes fit into a larger, evolving strategy, Painting says.

“Try to think of it as an Apple iOS platform,” Braunston says. “It’s not fixed. You use iterations, so, as situations arise, there are things we’re adding to it all the time.” Ultimately, it isn’t just about media buying. “It’s about business growth. Being able to accelerate ecommerce activity is a business problem.”

Wavemaker’s goal – whether through media or other capabilities – is to find growth opportunities across the board. The system it’s implemented give its the the agility to not only navigate uncertainty, but to invest in product, people, and lines of business when and where those opportunities present themselves.

Painting says, “At Wavemaker’s core, we believe there’s always a better way to grow and we’re obsessed with finding growth opportunities for our clients,” a philosophy that has helped them stand out over the past year.

New business
Bumble, DeLonghi DHL, Dialogue, Government of Ontario, Internova, Invest in Canada, MGA, Narcan, SCI, The Wonderful Company

New hires
Cindy Goulart, Chimi Nwagbara, Jamie Smith, Kelly Young

Montreal, Toronto


Media cases


1. Competition was heating up for KFC when its competitor Popeyes decided to bring its chicken sandwich to Canada from the U.S. The plan was to steal the spotlight and remind Canadian QSR fans who the real fried chicken G.O.A.T is. The brand threw the first punch with a full-page ad that announced something big was coming from KFC (two weeks before Popeyes’ launch). It stayed in the conversation with TV ads during NBA games that interrupted its competition’s sponsorship. The agency also bought out OOH billboards near Popeyes’ restos and intercepted people in line with an AirDrop coupon for KFC’s sandwich.


2. Wavemaker helped Molson place a newspaper ad inviting Canadian breweries to join the brand in creating a special pack with local brews. The message also launched across video, display and social, and was picked up by the media.

Screen Shot 2021-09-07 at 2.21.52 PM

3. To show that cutting out dairy is easier than people think, the shop paired chefs with Silk ambassadors to “veganize” popular dishes using its products. Recipes in the content series were then posted to the brand’s website.