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Agency Profile: Rethink

Posted on July 26, 2005 and read 1,377 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: RethinkBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2
ihaveanidea


For those who haven’t paying close attention to this site in recent time, ihaveanidea recently hosted Portfolio Night in Canada III. Imagine a party/portfolio review being held in seven different Canadian cities simultaneously (or as simultaneously as five different time zones will allow). For the first two years of this event, I was a part of the Toronto soiree, but this year I had an opportunity to accompany Julie Pratt from First Light, (Our amazing sponsor and partner), to help out with the Vancouver event. You can read all about Vancouver’s Portfolio Night here but our trip also allowed us to visit a number of Vancouver’s incredible ad agencies and design shops. Here is Brett McKenzie’s Vancouver-ganza!


After our morning at DDB Canada, Julie and I had some time to kill before our afternoon trip to Rethink, another of Canada’s most heavily awarded agencies. We went back to the hotel and took the Aquabus over to Granville Island for lunch and to pick up supplies for Portfolio Night in Canada. Granville Island is a cool place that attracts both locals and tourists, with a public market, galleries, theatres, and its own microbrewery. But there wasn’t much time to explore, and soon we were back downtown, on our way to the offices of Rethink.

Rethink is located in a rather nondescript two-storey building in the northwest side of downtown Vancouver. While I can almost guarantee that the surrounding buildings obstruct anybody from having a breathtaking view from their office window, I don’t think that’s really an issue for anybody at Rethink. Especially when Coal Harbour Park is only about a block or so away, and Vancouver’s famous Stanley Park is fairly close as well. From the very moment you open the door and enter Rethink’s reception area, there’s no mistaking it for a multinational mega-agency with mahogany wall panels and $5000 loveseats. For one thing, the entire agency is floored in bright green indoor/outdoor carpeting. When Rethink partner and co-creative director Chris Staples comes out to greet us, he explains his agency’s décor. “The offices of ad agencies are almost always fancier than those of their clients, and that drives clients crazy. So we said to ourselves we’re going to invest our money in smart people— and more of them— instead of spending our money on our offices. We still wanted everything to be cool, just done cheaply. All of our furniture is Ikea, and this Astroturf stuff is like, seven bucks a square metre, the cheapest carpeting you can buy. That’s our offices, cheap and cheerful.”

Before we sit down to chat about everything that makes Rethink what it is, Chris takes us on a whirlwind tour of the entire agency. We quickly note that Rethink is an open-concept workplace, where not even the principals (Chris, Ian Grais and Tom Shepansky) have their own closed-off offices. It’s also interesting to learn people aren’t separated into departments, as far as seating is concerned. Creatives sit amongst suits; designers sit amongst print and production people. “In most agencies, it’s unheard of that you’d split your creative department up, and have your creative people and account people all mixed up,” says Chris. “That’s because in most agencies, the creatives and the account people are archenemies who battle each other from their own little base camps. We don’t have that here at all, because everybody’s here for the same reason: to create great work that gets talked about.”

And getting their work talked about is very important to Rethink. “Our whole Rethink mission is to do great work that gets talked about, locally, nationally and internationally,” Chris explains. “If our ads are getting talked about at family barbecues and around office water coolers, chances are they’ll get talked about in the press, and chances are they’ll get talked about at the award shows, and chances are they’ll get results. Our job here is to get everybody talking.”

Now open offices are great, but sometimes you need a little more quiet space, a little more privacy. Fortunately Rethink has this covered, with many rooms off to the side where you can close the door and work with fewer distractions. Most of these rooms have different themes, (i.e., tropical, forest etc) and are lined with both corkboard and blackboard paint on which to post ideas. And if you need to make a REALLY private phone call (maybe your doctor has figured out the reason for that burning sensation you’ve been having), there are prison-like sound proof rooms designed for this purpose.

After touring both floors of the place (including the bathrooms to observe firsthand that Rethink does indeed have showers for their employees) we grab one of those extra rooms and I ask Chris to tell us, in his own words, the philosophy behind Rethink. “Our name says it all,” he replies. “We think that traditional agency model needs to be rethought. We think it’s broken. There are too many layers, too many people who care about titles. It takes too long to produce ads, too many people are involved in the process, it’s too much of a science, creative people aren’t involved enough in the strategy. We’ve tried to rethink all sorts of things like that.”

The whole mixing up of the various departments is only one way Rethink has rethought the agency model. “We’ve tried to break down the traditional walls and change the makeup of the agency. Most agencies have twice as many account people as creatives. We have about a 50:50 ratio. We have eight creative teams here at Rethink, more than almost any agency in Canada. We don’t have a lot of support staff, so people make their own coffee, send their own faxes and arrange for their own couriers.”

So what’s a day in the life of a Rethink creative like? “We’re an early morning agency,” says Chris. “I myself usually arrive at 8:30 AM, and by that time there’s already a lot of people here. People here in Vancouver come in early and they work really, REALLY hard. There aren’t a lot of people who come dawdling in at nine or ten o’clock. People here don’t often take coffee breaks, or even go out to lunch often, eating their lunch at their desks instead. You work really, really hard and you go home at 5:30 or 6:00 PM.”

But how does one get to go home at decent hours on a regular basis? “We believe in being super organized, anticipating problems so that we don’t have to pull all-nighters. There’s never been an all-nighter at Rethink. I always tell people that nobody came up with a Gold Pencil idea at 3:00 AM. If you need to work, come in at 6:00 AM and get it done. I find you’re way more productive at 6:00 AM than at 9:00 PM.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Chris! You’re asking creative people to be organized?! “I believe most creatives end up working insane hours because they’re not very good at time management,“ he replies. “They tend to procrastinate. I believe if you and your partner crack down and lock yourself in a room, by the end of two hours, you should have ten good ads, end of story. If you don’t, then there’s something wrong, and that ‘something wrong’ is usually because you’re wasting time.”

“Rethink is not a country club at all. A lot of people will tell you it’s really intense during the day. Not a lot of time is wasted here.”

Staples, another former PJer, is also a strong believer in the simple sketches that come out of the Peer Review process that DDB follows to this day. Not surprisingly, it’s a process that he feels saves creatives a lot of time. “I’ll only look at ideas that have been scribbled out in black and white. No colour. No storyboards, only scripts. And NO computer comps. Here, art directors aren’t allowed to go to their computers until an idea has been sold to a client. At other places, art directors waste so much time when they say ‘oh, I’ll just whip this idea up on the computer’, and the next thing you know, they’re staying up all night. That’s insane! All these hours on a computer and the idea hasn’t even been sold?! A good idea is good on a napkin, and if it’s not good on a napkin, it’s not going to be good as a finished ad. So by sticking to our ‘no computer’ rule, we find our art directors save 200-300 hours a year.”

Now I know by now, some of the people reading this might be feeling that Rethink is solely about hard work. However, Chris believes in all Rethinkers having plenty of time for a personal life.

“I feel bad advertising is often the result of not getting enough outside stimuli,” he says. “You’ve gotta go top the art gallery, you’ve gotta travel, you have to see lots of movies and watch tons of TV in order to make really good ads.”

“And take holidays!” Chris exclaims. “Everybody who works at Rethink gets three weeks vacation in their first year, and we insist that they are taken. If they don’t want to take them, there’s something really, really wrong with them. I’ve physically put art directors on planes and sent them on holiday. It does absolutely no good to have overworked, burnt out people around the

office.”

Even within the agency environment, it’s not non-stop intense work. Many of Rethink’s employees find time to stretch at the yoga studio next door, or go for a quick jog along Vancouver’s seawall before coming back to work (hence the aforementioned agency showers.) Once a year, Rethink goes on a retreat to Whistler. They also have a ‘Rethink Afternoon’ a few times a year, where the whole agency goes out go-karting, ocean kayaking, and snowboarding and other activities. Most recently Rethink had their very own ‘Amazing Race’ throughout Vancouver.

One thing Chris DOESN’T want his staff doing is getting wrapped up in the advertising world. “We encourage our people never to look at CA or any of the annuals, because that won’t help them create their own good ads. And we encourage our people not to spend any time on ihaveanidea.“ [Yes, Chris Staples, a Portfolio Night in Canada sponsor and ihaveanidea supporter, said this to me for this very article appearing on ihaveanidea!] “What you’ve done with ihaveanidea is great, but watching the whole merry-go-round of this business, the ‘who’s getting fired, who’s getting hired, who’s winning what award and should they have, what accounts are shaky,’ all of that is bullshit. It doesn’t make for better advertising. We tell our people to forget all of that, focus on doing great work, and at night, go out and get stimuli.” This ‘focus on ones own work and forget about the other people’ line of thought seems prevalent throughout the Vancouver ad scene, where socializing with other agencies only really happens at the Lotus Awards, the big British Columbia ad award show.

Wow, it sounds like the Rethink way is pretty intense place to work, and definitely not for someone who just wants to get by. But a low turnover rate (in Rethink’s five year history, only four people have left for other agencies) and a whole pile of awards seem to indicate that they’re doing something right. But would the Rethink method work elsewhere? Could Chris, Ian and Tom export the Rethink structure and philosophies to another city? Chris believes so. “I believe there’s nothing particularly ‘Vancouver’ about Rethink, although having to make due with Vancouver’s traditionally small budgets have certainly helped us form the “low budget” aesthetic our offices are designed around. We’re used to having almost no money to spend on producing TV commercials, and that is the future of advertising everywhere, not just here. Smaller budgets are going to become the new norm, and that will come as quite a shock to a lot of bigger agencies in bigger markets. We love it! The moment you get a big TV budget, way too many people get involved, all worried about the risks of it. If you’re only spending $50,000 on a commercial, a lot of the times the client won’t even show up at the shoot or focus test anything.”

“Back to the original thought, our Rethink model COULD work anywhere, but we certainly have no plans to open an office in Toronto any time soon, or anywhere else for that matter. Our model is what Wieden + Kennedy did for many years, which was to stay in Portland. Half of our business is outside of this market, but we like it here in Vancouver.”

As the clock creeps closer to Rethink quitting time this afternoon, I figured we’d give Chris the last word on his own philosophies on how to be successful, the way Rethink has been. “There’s a huge misconception that in order to get to the top in advertising, you have to be a

workaholic and/or an asshole, and neither of those things are true. You CAN have a balanced life, you CAN go home at 6:00 PM, you CAN take holidays, you CAN ensure you stay fit and healthy and STILL win gold at the One Show. I don’t know why you’d do it any other way. Why would you have an agency environment where teams are pitted against each other in gangbangs, or where you’re expected to stay until, eight, nine eleven o’clock, or where pitches are completely disorganized things where you need to pull all-nighters in order to pull them off? That is all BULLSHIT. There’s more to life than advertising, and when you realize that, your advertising gets better.”

Thanks to Chris Staples and the rest of Rethink for spending the afternoon with us. All aboard! Next stop on Brett McKenzie’s Vancouver-ganza: Grey Northwest.






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