2 Minutes With … Aaron Starkman, Global CCO of Rethink

On WestJet, the Unburnable Book, and when an agency really is a family

Aaron Starkman, global CCO at Rethink, is this year's Global Creative Leader of the Year, according to Campaign magazine. He helped the agency become the 2022 Global Independent Agency of the Year (Campaign), the No. 1 Independent Agency in the World at the Clios 2022, AdAge's 2021 Creative Agency of the Year, the No. 2 ranked independent agency in the world at D&AD, and the No. 3 ranked independent agency in the world in Cannes (for two years in a row) with 23 Lions.

Other than industry accolades, Aaron's work has been singled out by the mainstream press (Buzzfeed named one of his ads the No. 1 commercial in the history of the Cannes Lions festival, and Ellen Degeneres declared one of his TV spots as her "favorite of all time"). 

Aaron also tries to inspire young industry professionals from around the globe with his podcast, IOFA. We spent two minutes with Aaron to learn more about his background, his creative inspirations, and recent work he's admired.


Aaron, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.  

I grew up and live in Toronto, Canada. 

How you first realized you were creative.

When I was 11 years old, the film Stand by Me came out. Kids at summer camp said I reminded them of Gordie, the shy character who came out of his shell to tell his friends creative stories. The kids in my cabin insisted I tell them a story every night. I even had some good ones (nothing as funny as Gordie's blueberry pie eating contest story). 

A person or people you idolized creatively early on.

Canadian funny people: Catherine O'Hara, Jim Carrey, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Mike Myers, Matthew Perry. 

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

Twelve hours before taking the LSAT exam, I spoke to a lawyer I knew. They said they were miserable at work and spoke about how it affected their life outside the firm. They went on to say how they wished they chose a career that was more fun and creative. The next day, instead of taking the LSAT exam, I started searching "how to get into advertising." Thanks, Ask Jeeves. 

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.

I love podcasts. I love them so much I decided to do my own. In it, I get to talk to other creatives and I find every conversation inspiring. Advertising is way more fun than accounting, dentistry and just about everything else you could get paid to do, and I want to remind people of that fact. I also wanted to have younger people in the industry hear tips and tricks from creatives who made it. And I certainly gain something from every convo as well. 

Your favorite fictional character.

The ultimate underdog, Rocky Balboa.

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.

We want people to do the best work of their careers (clients and employees). When Covid happened, we didn't change course on that thinking. We doubled down on it. We only took on new business that looked like it fit what we promised to our people. If the only obvious benefit to taking on something was revenue, we said no. And in the agency, we pushed for fun ideas that didn't start off with "In these troubling times, we're here for you..." The Heinz Puzzle is a good example.

One or two of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.

WestJet Desert Roulette. We had one shot to get it right. When it went off as planned, there were so many hugs and euphoria. I'll never forget that feeling.

WestJet Desert Roulette

Vim Prison Visitor. I have such fond memories of jamming on this brief that came from the amazing Shelley Brown, the incredible production experience with the Perlorian Brothers, but more than anything I look back fondly at the period when it happened. I've been at Rethink for a decade. The previous decade I worked at Zig with my bosses and teachers Elspeth Lynn and Lorraine Tao, my art director partner Stephen Leps, and so many others I remain close with all these years later.

Vim | Prison Visitor
A recent project you're proud of.

The Unburnable Book. I'm lucky to work with a lot of incredible people at Rethink, and I know it's a total cliché but for me Rethink IS a family. Sorry to get real, but I need to in order to answer the question honestly. Recently, while I was dealing with a death in the family, my partners and co-workers were there for me and it went way beyond typical co-worker stuff. While I was out, I saw one of our campaigns all over the news for Penguin Books and Margaret Atwood. The idea was conceived by some great creatives (and people), Caroline and Robbie and Mike Dubrick led it. I've known Mike since we were at Zig together 12 years ago when he was an intern. So many Rethinkers were involved on this project to make it everything it could be. I was never involved with it in any meaningful way. I heard the concept months before from the team, but it turned out better than I could have ever imagined, the press was bigger than I ever thought it would be, and I remember feeling a welcome emotional state during an awful personal time. That emotional state was immense pride. Pride in my co-workers, my partners, pride in the work, and pride in the scrappiness from everyone that made it happen. This is one case where work crept into my life away from work, and I was so fortunate that it did.

The Unburnable Book: The Handmaid's Tale
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.

This ad shot by Jonathan Glazer made me fall in love with advertising. Other than amazing craft and a world-class payoff line, it showed me how persuasive we can be. I would never think a small car could be safe. This ad made me rethink something that's been etched in my brain since before I could drive. 

Someone else's work you admired lately.

Apple doing Apple things. I'm so happy ad judges around the world have been awarding this simple product feature ad done flawlessly.

Your main strength as a creative person.

I have a good memory. And because I have an encyclopedia of '90s comedies, old SNL skits and basically anything related to past creative hits and misses etched into my neocortex, it helps me in many aspects of what I do. 

Your biggest weakness. 

Pizza (and also not having a calm, relaxed mindset at bedtime).

One thing that always makes you happy. 

My kids getting along. 

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.

I'd be a lawyer and hating every minute of it. 

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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Jessica MacAulay
Jessica MacAulay is a senior broadcast journalism student at the University of Colorado Boulder and a contributor to Muse by Clio.

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