This year’s Cannes Lions festival was the ultimate creative coronation for Burger King. The fast-food chain was feted as Creative Marketer of the Year, honoring its legacy of great advertising going back decades, to “Subservient Chicken” and other seminal work out of CP+B. The King even showed up, dancing idiotically and palling around to the delight of Instagrammers up and down the Croisette.
Except BK’s lead global agency, David, wasn’t quite as interested in the brand’s history as everyone else. That week in June, the WPP-owned, Ogilvy-affiliated hot shop made the best argument it could for BK being a creative force today—by winning the coveted Grand Prix in two separate categories for two wildly different BK campaigns.
These weren’t dusty relics of the past. These were bold, surprising, subversive campaigns made just months earlier.
In February, David audaciously collected real photos of Burger King restaurants on fire—and slapped the headline “Flame Grilled Since 1954” on them. The print ads, titled “Burning Stores,” went on to win the Print Grand Prix.
In April, David crafted an ambush ad for The Tonight Show in which a BK employee said, “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?” This caused Google Home devices across America to spring to life—whether their owners wanted them to or not—and rattle off the Wikipedia article about BK’s signature sandwich. (It also irritated Google, adding fuel to the PR fire.) The sneaky “Google Home of the Whopper” stunt won the Direct Grand Prix at Cannes.
Five months later, the timing of those big Cannes wins remains a special memory for Anselmo Ramos, David’s co-founder and chief creative officer.
“It was amazing. We couldn’t believe ourselves,” he says. “[BK clients] Fernando [Machado] and Axel [Schwan] gave their speech on how to suck less as a client, which was really funny. But just being there with them, celebrating the partnership, that was very special. And winning those Lions was our way of saying they really deserved this.”
For Ramos, though, 2017 would also turn out to be his swan song on BK. He and fellow David co-founder Gaston Bigio announced last week that they will leave the agency in February to start their own venture. (A third co-founder, Fernando Musa, who also serves as CEO of sister agency Ogilvy Brazil, will run David for now as chairman, until new leadership is installed.)
It remains to be seen how well an agency built around three specific executives can weather the loss of two of them. But 2017 was a breakthrough year for David, and may provide a foundation for a bright future. It was a year when David grew significantly, and also cemented a creative approach it had been working toward ever since opening in São Paulo and Buenos Aires in 2011, and adding Miami in 2014.
The agency says it has boosted revenue by 30 percent this year. It would not give a precise revenue number, citing WPP rules, but Greg Paull, founder of international consultancy R3, estimated it at $25 million for 2017. Headcount is up to 140 across the three offices. (Miami had just 28 staffers at the time of the Cannes festival, yet the agency walked away with 26 Lions—an incredible ratio. Miami has since grown to 40 people, with São Paulo counting 62 and Buenos Aires 38.)
Creatively, the agency has become known for what it refers to internally as “David specials.” They are ideas that are often undefinable but are engineered specifically to generate buzz. They often transcend advertising and drift into pop culture, echoing the old approach of CP+B, another Miami agency that made its name on Burger King, largely by thinking in terms of PR headlines.
David had done buzzy campaigns before, like “Proud Whopper” for BK in 2014. (Ramos himself was the creative lead on Dove’s universally lauded “Real Beauty Sketches” when he was at Ogilvy Brazil.) But David reached a new level of creative prowess in 2017 and displayed a remarkable consistency, churning out hit after creative hit.
The mini network is closely knit and shares many clients—notably BK, for which David has been global creative lead since 2014. In fact, some of David’s most celebrated ideas have originated in one office and been executed in another.
“Proud Whopper,” the LGBT campaign tied to Gay Pride festivities in San Francisco and New York, was dreamed up in São Paulo and executed in Miami. The famous “Man Boobs” campaign for MACMA, which subverted social networks’ ban on female nipples by demonstrating a breast self-check on a man instead of a woman, was created in Miami for a Buenos Aires client.
The offices share talent, too, giving staff the opportunity for growth within the network. Associate creative directors Juan Peña and Ricardo Casal—the Adweek Creative 100 stars who were integral to “Man Boobs,” “Google Home of the Whopper” and another big hit, Heinz ketchup’s “Pass the Heinz” ads—moved from Buenos Aires to Miami. Another lauded creative pair—senior art director Jean Zamprogno and senior copywriter Fernando Pellizzaro, known internally as ZZ Top—recently moved from São Paulo to Miami.
Along with finding new leadership, David—which was named for David Ogilvy, whose widow, Herta Lans, approved the moniker—is focused now on growing in the U.S. market. The agency has been involved in a few pitches over the past year, but has been growing more through referrals, with its breakthrough work serving as a de facto new-business department.
“Pitches are hard. We don’t do well in pitches, actually,” says Ramos. “Instead of pitching, we prefer ‘dating.’ You get together and talk. You see if your ambitions are aligned. Then you have a second date, and you go, ‘Hmm, I kind of like this client. They want the same things as we do.’ Then, on the third date, you go, ‘OK, let’s have a project. Let’s work together.’ That’s how we’ve been growing—by getting together with clients and seeing if we have chemistry.”
The agency recently added two beer clients this way—Budweiser in the U.S., and Modelo Especial in Mexico—after Anheuser-Busch InBev and Grupo Modelo took note of David’s creative success.
“Budweiser called and said, ‘Give us some David specials.’ Our focus with them is earned media,” says Ramos. “It’s about buzz, talkability and generating brand love long term.”
‘Pass the Heinz’
David also continues to work with longtime clients Coca-Cola (on projects) and Heinz, for which it handles ketchup, mustard and barbecue sauce. Heinz, in fact, was the beneficiary of a David special this year—the “Pass the Heinz” campaign.
The ads were built, “Got Milk?” style, around the absence of the product. Stark print executions showed french fries, a hamburger and a piece of steak—with no ketchup in sight. “Pass the Heinz,” said the headline.
The irresistible hook, though, was that the idea didn’t come from David at all. It came from Don Draper of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the fictional agency on AMC’s Mad Men—as dramatized in a Season 6 episode that aired in 2013. Heinz passed on the ads when Draper pitched them in 1968 but approved them in 2017, unchanged from how they looked on the show.
“We said, let’s do the opposite of what every brand wants to do, which is insert itself in a TV show. Let’s take that campaign and run it in real life, without changing a thing. It’s reverse product placement,” says Ramos.
The media buy for the Heinz ads was modest—three billboards in Manhattan, plus full-page ads in the New York Post and Variety. But the delightfully defictionalized work generated tons of earned media—in a year when Heinz was reining in spending, having skipped the Super Bowl following its well-received David spot, “Wiener Stampede,” on the game the year before.
Between convincing the client and negotiating with AMC, Lionsgate and Matthew Weiner, it took two years to bring “Pass the Heinz” to life. But Ramos kept pushing the idea. “We are very stubborn in that sense,” he says. (Ramos’ personal mantra is “No retreat, no surrender,” which he borrowed from his personal hero, Jean-Claude Van Damme.)
Also, “Pass the Heinz” was more than just a stunt. The ads were certainly PR friendly, but they were also perfectly on brand. Hidden inside the pop-culture high jinks was a solid business strategy—another hallmark of David specials.
“They are obsessed with understanding the brands they are working for,” says Fernando Machado, svp of global brand management at Burger King. “Client understanding, creative ambition and the ‘No retreat, no surrender’ mantra … seem to be the engine behind the work David produces.”
Machado rejects the idea that “David specials” are merely one-off stunts.
“Our TV spots all around the world come from a campaign created by David in Miami,” he says. “A stunt is something that cannot necessarily be replicated. Most of the things we have developed together can, in fact, be replicated, so it feels pretty sustainable to me. If we can have blockbuster ideas that make our brand relevant and talked about everywhere, why not tap into that?”
Another remarkable David special this year was BK’s anti-bullying ad, shot in March but released in October for National Bullying Prevention Month. A hidden-camera video showed a high school junior being bullied at a California BK. At the same time, a rogue employee (actually an actor) was “bullying” Whopper Jr. sandwiches by punching them and serving them to customers. Vastly more patrons complained about the state of their sandwich than the bullying of the kid.
The “Bullying Jr.” video, which was picked up everywhere, was true to the core of BK’s brand positioning, and was product centric to boot.
“We work on day-to-day briefs—a new sandwich or a new promotion. But in terms of these brand punches, we know what the brand is. We don’t need to wait for a brief,” says Ramos. “The theme of Burger King is ‘Be your way.’ We welcome everyone. We accept you the way you are. That becomes our ongoing brief. Bullying is the opposite of that. Then one day we had this idea of bullying Junior. It’s a bold idea. It has the product at the core. It’s courageous. It’s irreverent. It has all the brand values in there.”
Kim Kardasian tweeted that the video made her cry. And schools have been using it in their anti-bullying efforts. Those two reactions show the range of a David special—how it can deliver a pop-culture spike but also have a deeper, more meaningful effect for the brand.
It’s an approach David hopes to apply next for Budweiser, another iconic American brand calling on an agency that specializes in them. Bud still counts Anomaly as its lead agency, and also uses VaynerMedia for projects. But David will aim to produce something for Bud that really gets people talking. After all, anything less would be a failure.
“When we got together with Burger King and Heinz, they weren’t necessarily doing iconic advertising. Their advertising wasn’t as iconic as their brands,” Ramos says. “That’s the thing about working with iconic brands. If we don’t do great stuff, it’s 100 percent our fault. The clients want it. They’re great brands. They have money. What’s our excuse?”