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Canadian Invasion: Rethink’s Aaron Starkman on putting people over growth

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By Webb Wright | Junior Reporter

July 20, 2022 | 6 min read

In this series, The Drum speaks with a collection of agencies hailing from the Great White North to learn about their origins, their unique approaches to solving problems, their plans for growth and the challenges they’ve had to overcome. Here’s a look at how Rethink is, well, rethinking the rules of marketing.

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Rethink is redefining how an ad agency should work – while respecting the work-life balance of its employees / Rethink

During the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, ad agencies around the world worked busily to invent new messages that would light some fires of joy and hope in the minds of millions of homebound viewers (as well as, obviously, motivate them to keep buying stuff). Many of these quickly turned into empty platitudes; “we’ll get through this together” and “it’s always darkest before the dawn” became much of ad world’s go-to rallying cries.

But where many agencies saw an opportunity – to put it bluntly – to capitalize on a global crisis by trying to fix everyone’s eyes on the much-hoped-for light at the end of the tunnel, one agency saw something else: puzzles.

Everyone, it seemed, suddenly started falling in love with puzzles. Like baking bread and Zoom-based yoga classes, puzzling quickly emerged as one of the world’s most cherished lockdown-era pastimes. Rethink – an agency headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia – noticed this and promptly got to work building something that would strike a chord with millions of puzzlers around the world.

The result? A 570-piece puzzle for Heinz, each piece the same shade of the brand’s beloved ketchup. Rethink designed what it describes on its website as “what might be the slowest puzzle ever made” in a tongue-in-cheek nod to Heinz ketchup itself, famous (or perhaps infamous) for its honey-like viscosity.

“We hypothesized that people around the world would love it – [that they would] find it funny in a not-so-funny time,” says Aaron Starkman, Rethink’s chief creative officer. That hypothesis proved correct; the campaign won a Clio award in 2020 in the “real-time response” category, and “the puzzles ended up being permanently on sale at Walmart,” according to Starkman.

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In many ways, the Heinz Puzzle illustrates Rethink’s signature creative approach. It started small, with just a social media campaign and 57 puzzles to be given away, and then grew over time (to 570 puzzles) when it became clear that it was working. Starkman calls this the “go-then-grow approach,” a formula that he says can both save time and lead to more effective long-term outcomes. “You don’t need a massive budget, with every piece of [a] campaign tested and scrutinized,” he says. “We go out with something that could be as simple as a social post, see how people react to it ... and then we invest time, resources and budget into the idea.”

“Go-then-grow” is one of Rethink’s trademark stratagems, all of which are products of its ongoing efforts to – that’s right – rethink virtually everything about how an ad agency operates. “Rethink is a one-word business model,” Starkman says. “From day one, the agency set out to rethink what a typical agency is – its process, its priorities and its relationships with clients.” All this rethinking is primarily aimed at eliminating what Starkman calls “wheel-spinning” – ie wasting time.

The agency’s commitment to waste less time is matched by a commitment to respect its employees’ lives outside of work. “We never, ever want [our] creatives working until midnight ... and we don’t want them to work on weekends,” Starkman says. “We need [our] people to have a life outside work. If they don’t, we believe their work will suffer.” Feeding that need, the company instituted what it calls ‘No-Meeting Mondays,’ designed as a healthier alternative to the Monday client meetings that are prevalent throughout the industry and that all too often fill weekends with long hours of work. That trend, according to Starkman, has been spreading: “It’s become a bit of a movement across the industry, this No-Meeting Monday.”

Rethink has grown significantly since it was founded in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1999. It currently has three offices in Canada (in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal), and an office in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood – one of Manhattan’s glitziest districts. It was named by AdAge as the Creative Agency of the Year in 2021, and also was the #3 global independent agency at the most recent Cannes Lions festival. It’s working with bigwig clients, including Ikea and Molson Coors.

And yet, according to Starkman, growth for the sake of growth is not currently one of the agency’s top priorities. “We’re not going to expand for financial reasons,” he says. “The only reason for expansion is if it actually helps our people do the best work of their careers. We’ll only consider expanding to different markets if it lines up with our values.”

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