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At the Rethink offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, gleaming, intricately carved elevator doors glide open to a vaulted-ceiling lobby of glass walls resplendent with sweeping views of rugged Coal Harbour. Two reflecting pools, long rectangles studded with iridescent pebbles imported from a small village near Prague, boast exotic, vivid koi. Above a sprawling, curved bamboo reception desk, six floating plasma screens show the current times and climates across the world. Soothing, melodies lilt through the cavernous space, a specially commissioned soundtrack by Groove Armada...

Well, not quite. Not even in the ballpark. Rethink’s offices are definitely anti-office, basement chic, frat house with file folders. “We think our offices shouldn’t be fancier than our clients’,” explains founding partner and co-creative director Chris Staples. No worries there.

Emblematic of the agency’s philosophy of work—creative and otherwise—their environment is pared down to the essentials, only with clever, inspired-thought infused throughout. Instead of springing for wallpaper, for example, Rethink thinks of wall-sized world maps purchased for $100 off the Internet. Instead of fine art for decoration, framed Rethink work, musings and memorabilia from parties and events hang on the walls.

“Clients are sick of it—sitting in fancy offices, where they know they’re paying for the oak and marble. They love this—for meetings, we sit around a Ping-Pong table that cost $400,” Staples says. AstroTurf in friendly grass-green replaces pesky wall-to-wall carpeting. And when viewing rough-cuts or reels, forget the flat screen, fabulous sound system fanfare. A metal rack on wheels, reminiscent of av departments in community colleges everywhere, holds a basic 20-inch screen TV and a VCR/DVD player. “We say to clients, ‘This is the how the majority of your customers see TV, so this is how you should see it.’”

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What the clients won’t be seeing is PowerPoint presentations, elaborate storyboards, computer layouts or animatics. Rethink staffers show their ideas the old-fashioned way, as pencil roughs (remember those?), partly so that a last-minute, fabulous idea won’t have to die because the presentation has been illustrated within an inch of its life. In client meetings, notes and brain-storming sessions are conducted on wall-sized “chalkboards”—with special black paint that can be scribbled with notes, then erased. Any leave-behinds are tucked into blank white folders, DVD covers or booklets stamped with a small backwards circle R—the Rethink logo. Even business cards are strictly generic; they, too, are plain white with spaces for the handwritten name of the staffer and a phone number or e-mail address. The Rethink Web site is a white screen with a small glyph saying Web site.

It’s all part of the Rethink way of doing business. Ian Grais, founding partner and co-creative director, explains, “The only thing we can control and over-invest in is the creative. Our pared-down structure has removed the layers of account people. We don’t have time sheets, which we felt were a waste of time at other agencies where we’ve worked. We invest in our people—we have profit sharing, three weeks of paid vacation and if someone wants to study something, we pay half.”

Staples, Grais and Tom Shepansky started Rethink in 1999 after working together at Palmer Jarvis, which had recently become Palmer Jarvis DDB (now DDB Canada). The departure was big news in the Canadian advertising world because these were three of the top staff at arguably the most prestigious agency in the country.

Although they had no clients when they opened their doors, by 2003 Rethink was named Agency of the Year by Marketing magazine and again in 2006 by Strategy magazine, the Canadian equivalent of Adweek. At the time of the Strategy awards festivities in Toronto, the agency was scheduled to go on retreat. So instead of collecting the trophy themselves, they sent three older, female actors dressed in native Ukrainian costumes, claiming that they were Shepansky’s relatives. It was pure Rethink for two reasons: it was a twist on expected agency behavior, and they wouldn’t have rescheduled a company retreat to pick up an award.

The wins were highly satisfying, especially because Rethink is the result of nine months of careful consideration of what works and what doesn’t work in traditional advertising agencies. While they were still at Palmer Jarvis DDB, Staples, Grais and Shepansky planned their exit carefully. Basically, the three wrote a wish list of what the ultimate ad agency model would look like and then proceeded to make it happen. In one anti-agency move, they decided to actually be accountable for the work they produced. For retainer clients, up to five percent of the budget is set aside until the end of the year, as a kind of rebate. Client and agency then sit down and review the year. After analyzing the year’s work and results, the client is free is to give the agency part, all or none of the funds.

Ideas are brought to life seamlessly across disciplines by creative teams, avoiding the need for stand-alone divisions.” — Ian Grais

Their convictions are evident in every decision, like how to attract new business (although they’ve never had to actually pick up the phone to solicit clients). Shepansky explains, “We don’t have a business person. We have simple criteria: Do we believe in the brand? Do we respect and like the people? And, is there a creative opportunity?” They don’t believe in offices, even for themselves, preferring to allow free exchange across cubicles. Telephone booths on each floor allow for private phone calls and a few small lounges with doors serve as quiet thinking spaces for creative teams. And for an agency that’s clearly driven by creative, they’re highly disciplined about the business of the business. “Our picture of growth is one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake,” Shepansky says. The one belief that trumps all others is that the idea is king. Along with saving lots of money on elaborate décor and layers of staff, which may ultimately add nothing in the greater scheme, each piece of their identity is a well-thought out execution of their corporate DNA—the idea is everything. Grais explains, “Ideas are brought to life seamlessly across disciplines by creative teams, avoiding the need for stand-alone divisions.”

Their culture is rooted in attracting and retaining great Rethink-ers. Rob Sweetman, art director and associate creative director, is one of five staffers who have earned the title of partner. He describes the climate: “When I got here, it felt like a place where I could work forever. It’s really empowering to know that if you have a great idea, they will do what it takes to get the idea done. The only thing you have to worry about is coming up with a great idea. They’ll take care of the rest. At the same time, they recognize that inspiration doesn’t come from within these four walls. They’ve got a really nice balance of pushing everyone to do their best and also have a life.” In the employee handbook, there’s a section devoted to “Personal growth and a balanced life.”

Teams consist of an art director, a writer, an account person and, if the project calls for one, a designer or Web specialist. The creative staff is the largest—24, at this writing—with 14 account people, 7 print and broadcast producers and support staff in operations and accounting. This means that the creative staff is fully half the agency. “Our ratio is 50/50 because of our cheap and cheerful surroundings,” says Staples.

There are no account planners, and this fact informs the way the agency approaches work. “Planning is a process, not a person,” says Shepansky. “I think planners can take a brief to a box that’s often too small. Strategy needs to take you part of the way and creative takes you the rest of the way. But if the box is too small, you’re not going to get great creative.” In fact, Shepansky says, if a strategy yields less than sparkling work, they throw the strategy out and start again. “Here, we’re all account person-slash-planner, creative-slash-planner. We all need to get our hands dirty and work on the solution. Planners can be a crutch. It creates a divide between ‘thinkers’ and ‘doers,’” he says.

Clients are sick of it—sitting in fancy offices, where they know they’re paying for the oak and marble. They love this—for meetings, we sit around a Ping-Pong table that cost $400." —Chris Staples

Vancouver is a relatively small city, especially compared with bustling Toronto, so for local accounts, Rethink comes up with surprising solutions that are designed to grab attention and whenever possible, press. To introduce a new 3M product, Scotchshield, a treated plastic film that renders glass surfaces bulletproof, the agency placed a see-through box inside a bus shelter and filled it with stacks and stacks of dollar bills (most fake, but enough were real to pull off the prank). Passersby were then invited to try and break the glass and earn the money. Throughout the next 24 hours, willing participants kicked, beat, slammed into and otherwise tried to compromise the glass. In just over 24 hours, someone succeeded. By that time, enough Canadian newspapers, radio and television stations and one British newspaper had covered the stunt, earning 3M nearly a million dollars in publicity.

For Bell Mobility, a national account, the agency created the identity and advertising for Solo Mobile, a youth-targeted cell phone. Along with all the other pieces of the campaign, a bus shelter was once again employed. Mock-ups of Solo phones, almost as tall as the callers themselves, were placed in shelters across Canada, allowing passersby to make walkie-talkie connections to anyone who happened to be walking by on the other end.

One of the most-attention getting accounts in the last year was 1-800-got junk. The agency wanted to find a creative way to talk about trash. The result: The Rat Advertising Trials (RAT), with TV spots featuring white rats wearing little 1-800-got-junk vests scurrying off trucks in search of trash.

Notably, account people are encouraged to be as involved in production as creatives. Once they’re assigned a project, they see the entire job through. Partner and account director Joanne Turner says, “I love production. Getting scripts approved, looking at casting reels—there’s no job description here and you leave your ego at the door. Nobody’s at a higher level than anyone else. We’re all going for the same thing. I’ve never seen so much passion in every single team member.”

Rethink will have moved into a new space in Vancouver by this printing, but their surroundings will be just as inspired and frills-less, with one small change: “This time, we’re springing for red and blue AstroTurf,” advises Grais. ca

Julie Prendiville Roux is cofounder of Handmade, a full-service creative agency based in Los Angeles. Alongside her work in advertising, she is a screenwriter and author.


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