2019 Media AOY Gold: Initiative flips the script

How the shop is rejecting traditional adversarial relationships with media companies to create more collaborative programs.

Helen Galanis says it’s easy to forget media planning is more than a two-way collaboration between client and agency. Too often, media partners are left out of the equation, says the Initiative president – but she wants her shop to be the one that brings them into the fold.

“Media partners matter so much more to clients than they did 10 years ago,” she says. “With all these important large digital players, they have capital that our clients want access to. The traditional relationships with media agencies and those partners have been kind of adversarial. I want to take a decidedly opposite approach to it and invite them in.”

There’s payoff for clients. Galanis says the closer it works with media companies, the more opportunities it has to create first-to-market work – such as the on-set drive-thru window it produced for Wendy’s on Corus’ Big Brother Canada.

Initiative is in the final year of a three-year plan to improve its reputation within the Canadian marketplace – it’s perhaps appropriate that 2019 culminated in a Gold Media Agency of the Year award for the shop.

“One term that comes back to me a lot is ‘partner,’” says Ishma Alexander-Huet, VP of client advice and management at Initiative. “I think people see us as a team that always wants to respond, wants to engage and tap into ideas, creating something together versus just transacting on a cost.”

One of the ways Initiative brought its “partner” identity to life this year was through its first “reverse upfront” in Canada.

The spring event brought together 150 marketing and media professionals with an upfront-style presentation showcasing Initiative’s best work while also focusing on broader industry trends and challenges.

The target was not prospective clients, but rather media partners such as Google, Amazon, Cineplex and Twitter, all of whom were in the crowd.

“Our partners have now seen below our hood,” says Alexander-Huet. “There are things we could just mention in a brief, but in that forum environment, we can let media partners in on what’s driving our clients’ business.”

And it’s not just media partners that Initiative is looking to develop stronger relationships.

The much-lauded “Go Back to Africa” campaign for Black & Abroad (see sidebar) was the result of a collaboration with creative agency FCB/Six. The agencies used media insights – social media users tell people of colour to “Go back to Africa” every three minutes – to hyper-target travel ads for 54 different African countries. The ads drove people to a curated content hub, driving brand awareness and fighting stereotypes.

“I liked the fact that we had such a short line to [FCB/Six] where we could jump into a room and hammer out a strategy so quickly. It was brave, but it was also just culturally relevant,” says Galanis.

Challenging conventions is something Galanis prides herself in, even when the convention is media itself. She says the agency has created a branded content series on Amazon’s video platform (see sidebar), which has been a bit of a change for a buying agency. Initiative is beginning to support the “creation of content in lieu of so many traditional paid media options,” says Galanis. “It’s challenged us to get smart about how content takes on virality, how people discover it and how it works on Amazon’s content ecosystem. If we’re only paid media experts, we’re limiting ourselves to our clients.”

Within its walls, Initiative is also informing more campaigns through econometric modeling, which has helped drive its business results mission home.

Market Mix Modeling (MMM) – which measures the effectiveness of marketing activity in terms of its contribution to metrics, such as sales volume – is nothing new, says Galanis.

“In fact, many of our clients have gotten those [business insights] through other sources.” But when a media agency handles the modeling, she says “[the insights] are not just look-back information. It allows us to change the way we plan. We can model [our plans] to foot traffic, to brand awareness scores, whatever the business KPI is. Every single client who has engaged in one of those projects with us has come back for more.”

Key new business
Keurig-Dr. Pepper, Travel Alberta, Revlon, Cineplex, Converse, Canada Goose

Key hires
Ryan Van Dongen, VP, client management; Ema Haracic, director, communications design; Raffaele Ricchio, director, communications design


Media AOY Cases

For Destination Canada, Initiative reached a new OTT audience with a unique docu-series, as told through the voices of inspirational Americans visiting Canada for the first time. Vacations of the Brave launched as the first-ever branded content show to be featured on Amazon Prime. Cut down videos of the long-form series allowed the brand to share some of the bite-sized experiences on YouTube, reaching those without a Prime subscription.

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For Black & Abroad’s “Go Back to Africa” campaign, the agency leveraged the creative concept’s inherently social power to deliver customized ads to potential tourists.

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Initiative invited people to participate in the creation of Lego’s “Mystery Mural” in Toronto during the holiday season, while live footage of the build was shared to reach everyone else.