How We Did Some of Our Best Work Yet During a Pandemic

Lessons learned from a year of challenges

Every day around 5:30, I chat with Mike. (Mike Dubrick is Rethink's ECD in Toronto, by the way). It's a quick "What's up?" call that we've been doing since the pandemic hit. When we get on this call, we do a funny bit where we just loudly exhale on purpose and then we talk about how things are going. 

But right after the new year, the call was very different. We both talked about how we've never been more excited to get back at it after a break like this before. We were calm, generally smiley, and full of optimism. We took a few minutes to look back on the work, the new business, and how Rethink came back from some dark days early on. We both concluded that there's no doubt that this was Rethink's best year.

Mike and I reflected on what Rethink had accomplished and how we all did it. Historically, our agency has done well when faced with major problems. And in 2020, as everyone has experienced, it was one problem after another. Mike and I chatted about the solutions Rethink had across the country when the sh*t really hit the fan.

This article is basically that conversation written out in about 800 words or so. I wanted to share what Rethink did when faced with a variety of challenges, in case others are faced with similar issues in the weeks and months ahead. Here goes: 

Challenge: In March, one of our largest clients put their business up for review.

What we did: During the pitch process, and leading up to the final pitch presentation, something serendipitous happened. We've always felt that Rethink was one long hallway between our three offices. But as soon as we entered a Zoom world, it obliterated any remaining remnants of geographical barriers. Our three offices got to know one another in a hurry, bond, and support each other's creative and strategic thinking. Now, when we look at which teams are available on certain briefs, we consider who's right for it, as opposed to who's available in the city the project is briefed in. 

PS: We won the pitch, which turns out wasn't the prize at all. It was the culture-boosting, efficient process that it unlocked.

Challenge: The kind of work we do was nowhere to be seen. 

What we did: As we all remember, it seemed every TV spot was a piano-based "We're here for you" ad, complete with empathetic voiceover. We ultimately decided, "The hell with it—we'll get even more scrappy than usual." We presented fun work early and often to stand out in the market. 

Below are some examples of work that went out in the world. (I'm going to stay on the whole problem/solution thing as I go through it.)

Challenge: People were stuck at home and bored.

What we did: When people looked for ways to stay entertained for long periods of time, we created the slowest puzzle ever for Heinz Ketchup in the middle of a sudden puzzle frenzy.

Challenge: Spotify's free version with ads was causing crankiness with newborns (and new parents).

What we did: For parents with newborns at home, baby sleep playlists are a must. But without paying for Spotify Premium, loud ads were suddenly a new problem. So, we did this idea with Ikea.

Ikea Shhh
Challenge: Covid or no Covid, pumpkin spice culture is really annoying.

What we did: We stirred the pot (while it was filled with KD mac n' cheese).

Challenge: Kraft Peanut Butter suddenly didn't need to advertise but was locked into a media buy.

What we did: Peanut butter was flying off the shelves, so we suggested Kraft hand over all of their ad space and social media accounts to small businesses under their "Stick Together" platform. Since Kraft launched this initiative last April, a number of other brands have followed suit. 

Challenge: Production shut down in Canada.

What we did: We worked with some of the best directors in the world on their turf. We did this Ikea job with Adam Berg in his home country of Sweden.

Ikea | One Little Thing

We did this shoot in Italy (while on Zoom) with talented director Leigh Marling. While Marling isn't from there, the hilarious talent was, and they were uncharacteristically available because of the pandemic.

Challenge: Molson is no longer the best-selling beer in its home country. Budweiser is. 

What we did: We had Molson call on its Canadian brewing competitors to join forces and create the most Canadian case ever. 

Challenge: Creating chemistry in a Zoom pitch.

What we did: We closed out 2020 by winning Scotiabank, the biggest pitch win in Rethink history. We did it by starting off the meeting not focusing on ourselves. The time was tight, and we worried that in a Zoom meeting, without natural moments of interruption, it would feel like a monologue. We asked the clients questions, and they said that this in itself was refreshing, especially in a strange Zoom pitch environment. Also, because of all the work we did in 2020, there was a lot to talk about (without having to rely on our hits of the past), and we related some of that recent work to the issues Scotiabank was facing. 

The most important thing we did this year.

As I was writing this article, I mentioned our staff, the product we put out in the world, and our financial health. That order was intentional. The fact is, that's how we conduct business at Rethink. We refer to it internally as the Three P's—people, product and profit, in that order. The Three P's are not unique to Rethink by any stretch, but they have helped with every major decision the agency has ever faced. The Three P's have saved our ass over the years, and they did again in 2020. 

It turns out that the best way to handle a year like this was simply continuing to go about doing things the way we always have.

Aaron Starkman
Aaron Starkman is national chief creative officer at Rethink.

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