How Breakthrough Media Agency Canvas Worldwide Boldly Grew Beyond the Automotive Category

It launched with Hyundai 4 years ago and used that as a foundation to build upon

Group picture Canvas Worldwide
Paul Woolmington, Canvas Worldwide CEO (center in glasses), brings the energy to the bicoastal shop. Dean Zulich Photography

A little over four years ago, Canvas Worldwide dove into an already-competitive media agency landscape. As a joint partnership between Innocean and Horizon Media, the bicoastal independent, with main offices in both New York and Los Angeles, it had a good head start, opening with baked-in clients like Hyundai, Kia and, later, Genesis (Hyundai owns Innocean).

Over the years, the agency picked up several new brands and, in 2019, really hit its stride, snapping up Heineken (from Publicis) as U.S. media agency of record and being recognized as the fastest-growing media services agency in the U.S. by COMvergence. With those gains came a 14.5% increase in billings and a 23% rise in revenue. And it has yet to lose a client.

That combination of business performance, strong strategic moves and a culture of inclusion has earned Canvas the title of Adweek’s Breakthrough Media Agency of the Year.

Growing from the seeds of Hyundai

With a ready-made, massive client in the form of Hyundai—whose three accounts represent about half of the agency’s billings—Canvas could have very well cruised along without looking beyond the automaker. Instead, it used this foundation to build the agency.

Having won the U.S. account of luxury home-appliance maker Breville in 2017, Canvas became the brand’s global media agency of record the next year, helping Breville expand to Asia and Europe in 2019. It also worked with small but well-respected entertainment studio Annapurna (responsible for films like Vice and If Beale Street Could Talk), an account it has held onto even though the studio started a joint venture with MGM, creating United Artists Releasing. All told, Canvas helped impact over $250 million at the box office.

The Addams Family | Canvas leveraged Halloween-timed partnerships with General Mills, Hershey's and IHOP—and launched a TikTok song challenge—for the franchise reboot (the last film was in 1998). The movie reached more than a billion media impressions and $200 million at the box office in less than two months. A 2021 sequel is now in production.

Canvas also recently nabbed a piece of the lucrative McDonald’s co-op business.

Canvas works to “deliver the numbers and drive the impressions and exposures that we expect as part of the plan,” says Jonnie Cahill, CMO of Heineken USA. “But at the same time, they are engaged and entrepreneurial. We moved [to Canvas] from a massive international partner, and the concern was that they were smaller. But a year into it, that was ill-founded. They give us the best of both worlds.”

The agency’s growing roster is good for all involved, says Angela Zepeda, CMO of Hyundai Motor America.

“We love that they’re getting new clients. That makes any agency even better,” she says. “It provides an opportunity for their people to work on other brands and get another fresh perspective.”

A ‘scaled entrepreneurial company’

By behaving like a challenger brand, despite having started with a blue-chip client like Hyundai, Canvas set the tone internally for a culture of nimble problem-solving.

“Clients want inventive thinking,” says Paul Woolmington, Canvas Worldwide’s CEO, who joined the agency at its founding. “I would say that we’re more of a ‘scaled entrepreneurial company’ than a challenger brand, but we’re always thinking of how we can make things better and faster for clients.”

Hyundai | Location data is the holy grail metric for automotive marketing. Partnering with data company PlaceIQ, Canvas built a predictive model that accurately forecasts foot traffic associated with car shopping, focusing on those most likely to buy a Hyundai. Media was tied to the data, resulting in a 10% increase in showroom foot traffic.

Canvas was set up with a flat structure, for example, so employees can make decisions that can cross over into other areas of the agency.

“There’s stability that holding companies can offer,” says Kristi Lind, Canvas’ chief client officer, who joined two years ago and previously ran global accounts at OMD. “But there are a lot of silos. Canvas was truly different. It wasn’t about redefining and redeploying [an existing business model]. This was built from the ground up.”

The agency also believes strongly in prioritizing the client.

“I’m not pointing anyone out, but I think that a lot of the time, holding companies make decisions that are the best thing for the company and not the best thing for the client,” says Amy Ginsberg, Canvas’ chief investment officer, who previously worked with larger media agencies. “The decisions that I make are in the best interest of the client first.”

Diversity was part of the agency’s values from the start: Canvas has more than 400 people on staff, 42% of whom come from multicultural backgrounds. The agency also understood early on that being close to key U.S. markets—Canvas opened offices in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago and, most recently, Denver—would give it an edge. 

“The lazy thinking is that this country is homogenous,” says Woolmington. “But having these six offices spread across the U.S., with local insight, is most definitely a strategic advantage.”

Lind also notes that, based on RFIs, brands want a media partner that’s outside of the incumbents.

“Clients are looking for a change,” she says. “And we’ve heard that there is an interest in looking [for solutions] outside of the holding company model. It does speak to wanting something different, and that might be going back to a simpler model.”

Converting sales growth with transparency

Where Canvas seems to thrive most is in categories that are highly competitive, like automotive and beer. To Zepeda, the fact that the agency is focused and agile in all tiers (national, regional and local) is a huge plus for Hyundai. And it all comes down to lead generation, the industry’s bread and butter.

“They need to be responsive to the market and clients,” she says. “They are a big brand media company, but they’re also responsive to the regional teams on the ground. As an [automaker], you need both the branding and the regional business to drive sales at the local level. That understanding makes them a really smart partner.”

In a category that’s either flat or down, both Hyundai and Kia saw total sales grow by 6% and 4%, respectively. More telling is that wide-reaching branding combined with local campaigns have resulted in 16 consecutive months of sales growth for both brands.

Breville also saw double-digit sales growth in the U.S. in a highly competitive category.

'Now You Can' | For the alcohol-free Heineken 0.0, Canvas flooded the market with media in places where alcohol advertising is forbidden. Late-night talk show integrations, transit advertising and in-elevator marketing in corporate offices helped top sales goals by 22% and moved the more than 3 million samples in just six months.

But where Canvas may have made the biggest impact was for Heineken. In the struggling beer category, Canvas’ contributions to the successful rollout of Heineken 0.0, its alcohol-free offering, included a wide swath of branding and content. In New York, for example, the brand was plastered on the city’s transit system and advertised in office buildings. In both cases, alcohol advertising is prohibited, and Canvas saw 0.0 as an opportunity to bring the Heineken name to these new territories.

Other activations included partnerships with The Daily Show and The Late Late Show With James Corden, in which the hosts and correspondents drank the product live on the air.

This flood of content, combined with the trend in moderation and the sober-curious movement, helped Heineken sell out the more than 3 million units of 0.0 within six months of launch, topping the brewer’s sales goals by 22%. It also made 0.0 a viable product for distributors, who hold the direct line of sales between the brand and consumers.

According to Cahill, the tactics brought in an entirely new audience, with 12% of the sales volume coming from people who don’t normally drink beer, and a further 50% from beer drinkers sampling the product.

“When was the last time a beer-based product launch brought people back into the category? We’re taking an existing and accelerating consumer trend and solving the challenge with a great product wrapped in an iconic brand,” says Cahill.

These results underscore Canvas’ philosophy of not being media order-takers but rather homing in on what will make a difference to a brand holistically.

“We’ve been successful at work that not only the CMO cares about,” notes Lind, “but the CEO cares about as well.”

Key wins

Heineken, $425 million to $450 million; Churchill Downs Interactive, $10 million to $25 million; United Artists Releasing, $100 million to $125 million; Breville, $35 million to $50 million (after the agency won global duties); McDonald’s, $10 million to $20 million.


Strategic moves

Named Stephanie Corredino, formerly of MOcean, head of HR and talent management. Hired Phil Sloan, who led American Express at Digitas, as Heineken USA client lead. Hired Stephanie Mobley as Heineken USA group director from Mindshare, where she led the Unilever business. Brought in Brett Whelan as svp and client lead for United Artists Releasing (UAR). Added Keith Baker as vp of media strategy for UAR. Canvas is also making a significant strategic investment in customer journey technology.

$130 million globally, per R3 estimates, up 23%.

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This story first appeared in the Feb. 24, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.