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Agency Profile: Rethink Toronto

Posted on December 21, 2010 and read 8,797 times

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brendanarticlepic Agency Profile: Rethink TorontoBrendan Watson
Director of Education

From day one Rethink was designed to be a small shop. The partners estimated that they would top out at a 40 person team. However in 2003, four short years after opening on Canada’s west coast, they had built a strong client list and an even stronger agency culture. The small start-up was also about to surpass it’s initial staffing projection.  Hovering around thirty-eight staffers, agency partners Chris Staples, Ian Grais and Tom Shepansky where faced with adding 30 percent more space to their modest office to accommodate an influx of staff to handle work from Bell in western Canada. Expansion was something that had to be handled delicately to not upset the winning formula.

For anyone paying attention to industry publications or award show results over the past seven years, taking on that additional staff proved to work out just fine for Rethink. They have survived and thrived by way of additional growth not only in Vancouver, but also by recently adding an office in Toronto.

r Agency Profile: Rethink Toronto

Rethink has always had its sights set outside of their hometown. Since ’03 over half of its revenue has been coming from outside B.C. Not being part of an agency network has meant that Rethink could pitch business anywhere without the worry of stepping on the toes of a sister agency. The end result was a strong client base in Toronto. Over the past few years, Rethinkers have racked up their fair share of air miles visiting such Toronto based clients as Sobeys, Solo Mobile and Sympatico. So in the end it just made sense to set up an operation on this side of the prairies.

“Cheap and cheerful,” is a term that gets tossed around a lot at Rethink. They’ve never been about overly fancy offices. They’d rather spend their money on talent. So when they first opened up in a run down building at the Coal Harbour end of downtown Vancouver, the space was carpeted with astroturf – a floor covering that’s not only fun, but extremely cost effective. When shopping for a boardroom table the partners bypassed the elaborate solid oak options and instead elected for something a bit more versatile – a ping-pong table. Transplanting this mentality from Vancouver to Toronto was not only important, but economical. A second floor office was sourced on the edge of Chinatown and a trip to IKEA outfitted most of the office. The recently polished hardwood floors at the new location meant that the partners opted out of the astroturf, but they still had an area rug made out of the green stuff as a nod to the early days.

wallart Agency Profile: Rethink Toronto

Despite spending so much time in Toronto, it was decided that none of the founders would actually move there to open the office – a curious decision considering the importance culture plays at Rethink. However, when it was announced that Pema Hegan would be Partner and Managing Director in Toronto, it became clear why no one had to pack up and move cross-country. Hegan not only had the digital chops Rethink was looking for, but he had also spent time at Rethink Vancouver in 2004. Most recently Hegan created and then sold GigPark and prior to that, was Founding Editor and Chief at Dose.

Finding a creative counterpart for Hegan was only a phone call away. At the time Dré Labre was Creative Director at Tribal DDB. The two had been friends since Hegan’s tenure at Dose and had always seen eye-to-eye on things like culture, technology but most importantly how the ad industry is changing. So the chance to work with an old friend combined with the agency’s creative reputation made signing on with Rethink an easy decision for Labre.

Bringing in two digital heavyweights to spearhead the opening speaks volumes to Rethink’s vision about the future of advertising. No sooner had the press release gone out announcing the imminent opening of the Toronto office and Labre and Hegan were boarding a plane for South By Southwest Interactive. The two (along with staffers from Vancouver) spent five days in Austin, TEXAS quite literally looking into the future while fielding countless excited tweets welcoming them to Toronto.

sxsw Agency Profile: Rethink Toronto

Matt Gomes, Dré Labre and Pema Hegan debrief
on the Interactive extravaganza at SXSWi 2010.

It’s not just Toronto area creatives who’ve been excited about Rethink’s addition to the creative landscape. Clients too have taken notice. Since opening in early April, the company has added Masterfile, Metro, Tilly Endurables and the Egg Farmers of Canada to its roster.

The $2.7 million, “News Worth Sharing” campaign for Metro has been alarmingly insightful. The ads which include TV, radio, out-of-home, digital, stunts and in-paper advertising feel like they’re based on my daily commute. I guess I’m not the only one who’s caught up on the sports scores by way of a stranger’s paper, unbeknownst to him.

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Advertising is changing now more than ever and digital is playing a larger role with every passing day. This attitude is now being echoed by Rethink’s internal initiatives. In the past the agency has created a beer brand, an award winning pylon-shaped light and even a table wine. However, most recently the agency created an iPhone/iPad application. Called Realizer it is essentially it’s an app to help prototype other apps. The program allows users to upload application designs to the Realizer site which essentially acts as a content manager. From there the image is mapped, buttons are activated and actions are added so that when it’s pushed to a device it acts like a working application. Clients needn’t imagine how their app might behave because now it’s in their hands. Although Realizer initially started off as the creation of an internal resource to help Rethink clients envision their apps, the agency decided to offer it as a free download from the Apple App Store in an effort to give back to the community. The giving didn’t stop there either. During the Rethink Retreat this past November, every staffer was given their own iPad.

As I walked through the seven-month-old agency, Labre pointed out a photoshoot happening in the boardroom. The ping=pong table had been folded up and pushed aside. A charcoal gray photographer’s seamless was unrolled from it’s permanent location at the front of the room. Labre describes the culture as DIY. Multi-purpose rooms, like the boardroom and a meeting room, which doubles as a recording studio, ensures that every square foot is maximized and unnecessary outsourcing is minimized. In fact, when looking to decorate the new office with a giant mural, Rethink looked no further than it’s own creative department and asked Art Director/Artist Carson Ting (also known as Chairman Ting to make it happen.

wall Agency Profile: Rethink Toronto
The making of the RethinkTO wall mural by Chairman Ting.

There was a very real fear back in 2003 that expansion beyond forty people would threaten the Rethink culture. A similar feeling must have permeated the company when they finally decided to join the M postal code. You can use a similar colour scheme and buy the same office furniture, but ultimately, the culture of any company is the sum of it’s people. As Labre pointed out, building and maintaining a culture goes far beyond the look of an agency, it’s more about the feel. A number of ex-Vancouver Rethinkers have visited 110 Spadina and unanimously agreed, that it feels like Rethink 2.0.

Labre and Hegan are now getting ready to expand the Toronto office. Currently they’re sitting at 20 people and by next year they’ll be closer to 50. That’s going to push Rethink, between the two offices, to a head count of almost three times their initially projected maximum. Thankfully, they didn’t stop at 40 Rethinkers.

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