Rethink's ideas were a welcome antidote to the heaviness of a COVID-weary world
Through the ups and downs of the 2020 roller coaster, when many brands reached out with messages of comfort and support, Heinz Ketchup did just the opposite: it tortured people.
With independent Canadian agency Rethink, the Kraft Heinz condiment decided to jump on the pandemic’s popular jigsaw puzzle trend. But instead of depicting a cute picnic scene, the brand’s famous bottle, or even a hamburger, its offering was 570 monotonous, mind-boggling pieces of red.
The ideas didn't stop there. Rethink also tried to get Heinz Ketchup recognition for all its famous Hollywood “roles” via its own IMDB page. It then dared to jump on the pumpkin spice bandwagon with Kraft Mac & Cheese, introducing arguably the brand’s most stomach-turning flavor (that is, until the agency came up with a candy-flavored variety for Valentine’s Day).
The shop also conceived a generous idea for Kraft peanut butter, which reallocated the brand’s media buy to ads for struggling local businesses.
Rethink also helped to "reimagine" the idea of rolling papers—as straws—for Truss Beverage Company, a new line of cannabis beverages from Molson Coors and cannabis producer Hexo Corp.
Off the supermarket shelf, Rethink came to the rescue of new parents for Ikea, buying up ad space on Spotify’s popular sleep playlists for babies and filling them with soothing sounds, so as not to disturb the little ones and their parents’ rest.
As a whole, Rethink’s ideas in 2020 were simple, delightful and attention-grabbing—a welcome antidote to the heaviness of a COVID-weary world. All the while, they managed to boost the brands they represent. It’s this kind of “responsible” fun and ingenuity that earns Rethink Ad Age’s Creative Agency of the Year honor.
Contrary to popular perceptions of creative shops, the agency’s process is rooted in discipline, what it calls the “Rethink Machine.”
“Our approach to creative is really structured and it saved our ass in 2020,” says Chief Creative Officer Aaron Starkman. “When people think of creative departments, they usually think of a bit of chaos, wacky creatives running around with no structure or guard rails. But agency founders Chris Staples, Tom Shepansky and Ian Grais developed a system that is the opposite of chaotic—a practice that has buoyed the agency since it opened its doors 20 years ago.
That system begins with requiring a simple, focused ask. “We talk to clients to ensure there’s only one ping pong ball on the brief” as opposed to six that would be impossible to catch, Starkman explains. From there, the agency brainstorms like mad. “We want as many ideas as possible from teams so we encourage them to go fast and loose early on,” he adds. Those eventually get whittled down to five to seven ideas that get presented to the client as “shallow holes” to explore. The client then comes on board early to dive further into one or two of those ideas to present at the traditional “Ta da!” meeting, Starkman says.
The point is “to eliminate wheel spinning,” he says. “Spin is the enemy of good creative. We follow our process religiously because it’s designed to have us create good shit and not get stressed out while doing it.”
The agency also practices precision via a “go then grow” approach, adds Executive Creative Director Mike Dubrick. “Instead of asking 'What are all the things we could do?' we ask 'What’s the least we can do to achieve our goal?'” he says.
The puzzle, for example, began as a small, “approachable” quick-to-execute production with modest media spend. But when the idea caught fire, Kraft Heinz increased production by ten-fold. Overall the campaign earned 1.25 billion earned impressions, leading to $22.4 worth of earned publicity. Most important, sales for Heinz Ketchup were up 17.9% over the previous year.
Nina Patel, VP of brand and innovation at The Kraft Heinz Co., says her company started working with Rethink in 2017 on just one brand, Kraft Peanut Butter. Since then, the relationship has grown to all of its iconic products in Canada. Together with Rethink, her company has been able to “get to ‘yes’ quicker,” she says. “An idea could seem a bit off the wall, or maybe it doesn’t check every box on the brief, but if there’s a nugget there, we don’t aim for perfection because perfection is usually the enemy of creativity. Behaving this way has built a sense of creative momentum, stronger trust and landed us some great award-winning ideas.”
While Rethink’s playful inventions on the surface might seem like one-offs, Dubrick says they're components that together "ladder up" to a broader brand message. Before the ketchup puzzle, in 2019 Rethink created a tilted Heinz label designed to show consumers the proper angle for the "perfect pour." In 2021, the strategic thread continued in campaigns such as “Draw Ketchup,” in which people were asked to do just that. (Most, save for a couple, drew bottles of Heinz.) Another effort forced consumers to wait 57 minutes for the Heinz Ketchup site to load, mirroring the slowness of the red stuff as it pours out of the bottle.
Rethink’s breakout ideas have become a calling card for clients south of the Canadian border. Starkman says the agency is currently working on projects for a number of well-known U.S. brands, though there are no official plans to open another hub down below. For now, he says Rethink maintains an “if they come, we will build it approach.”
Potential buyers have also come knocking, but to no avail. “The phone rings all the time—and we’ve been hanging up,” Starkman says. “We will never sell because we don’t want to be stressed out about a quarter. We don’t want to worry about answering to New York and having them dig into our books. We want to focus on our people being happy and our work being amazing.”