2013 U.S. Agency of the Year: 72andSunny

Nearly doubling revenue and pulling in marquee clients such as Smirnoff and Starbucks

The long wood table that 72andSunny partners John Boiler, Glenn Cole, Robert Nakata and Matt Jarvis share as a desk inside their Playa Vista, Calif., office says a lot about the agency and its recent success. You see, the desk is made of slats from the old floor of Pauley Pavilion, home court of UCLA’s basketball team, another perennial Southern California winner. This desk doesn’t symbolize winning, though—but rather, how you play the game.

“One of our big inspirations is John Wooden,” explains Jarvis, the agency’s chief strategy officer, referring to UCLA’s legendary head coach. “He never talked about winning or losing—he talked about performing at the highest level you’re capable of. And so, that has been a huge influence on how we look at channeling our competitive spirit in a way that’s productive, long term and sustainable.”

And though Wooden didn’t fixate on winning, he still won more than 80 percent of the games he coached—a fact that makes him an extraordinary and appropriate role model for an agency completing its most successful year ever. In 2013, 72andSunny not only expanded relationships with core clients Samsung and Target, but it also landed coveted slots on the creative rosters of world-class brands ESPN, Google and Starbucks. In addition, the shop dethroned JWT as lead global agency on Smirnoff, the biggest selling spirits brand in the world. In the process, U.S. revenue soared 81 percent to an estimated $85 million.

Creatively, the MDC Partners shop with the quirky name took big swings, particularly with Samsung and Activision Publishing, producing high-profile ads that blended celebrities with brands in unexpected ways. One long-form Samsung ad captured Jay-Z in the studio with producer Rick Rubin working on Jay-Z’s latest release, Magna Carta Holy Grail—of which 1 million Galaxy owners got an exclusive early download.

Another Samsung ad made great use of LeBron James in a warm family setting, with his wife using a Galaxy phone to film father and son at play. Finally, for Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts, 72andSunny partnered with Eminem, who supplied music for the game and a video that teased the November launch. Call of Duty even one-upped itself: The launch ad featured the music of Frank Sinatra and a four-second cameo from Megan Fox, who subsequently blew up as a global trending topic on Twitter twice within 24 hours of the ad’s release.

Clearly, the shop, which Adweek has crowned U.S. Agency of the Year, feels comfortable on a big stage, whether launching another $1 billion video game franchise or tweaking Apple in a series of Samsung ads that created a tech war reminiscent of the classic cola wars of the 1980s and ’90s. The only difference here is that Samsung actually overtook market leader Apple in global market share of cellphones. Pretty impressive for a nine-year-old agency with just three offices.

Then again, three of 72andSunny’s founders—CEO Boiler; CCO Cole; and design director Nakata—grew up at Wieden + Kennedy, a world-class agency known for taking big brands to even greater heights. Boiler and Cole credit their experience at Wieden for raising their game. “We play our best under the big lights, and you get used to it after a while, being raised the way we did, working on global Nike stuff and other big brands,” says Boiler, a former executive creative director who spent 11 years at Wieden. Cole, whose tenure at the shop lasted 10 years, adds, “I certainly can’t think of a better training ground, that’s for sure. And I can’t think of a better mentor than [co-founder] Dan [Wieden].”

Clients certainly notice that effect. “The thing I like best about them is they’re all in,” says Eric Hirshberg, CEO of Activision Publishing. “They throw themselves into the business and a partnership in a full-contact sort of way. They’re smart, they’re creative and all jacked-up to do something great. Our business requires that kind of engagement, and they’ve always been up to the challenge. I love that about them.”

Yes, these sons of Wieden certainly have flourished since opening 72andSunny (a reference to the ideal weather conditions for humans) in May 2004. Over time, the agency has earned a reputation for creating buzzworthy campaigns for challenger brands like Carl’s Jr. and K-Swiss.

Likewise, Samsung was an underdog when it hired 72andSunny in 2011 to advertise its mobile devices. The Korean company was producing phones with the latest technology, but to most consumers, the market was Apple and then everybody else. The agency changed that perception with a series of seven ads that ran from late 2011 into 2012, skewering the idea of Apple fans waiting for that company’s next big product when, with Samsung, “The next big thing is here.”

Todd Pendleton, CMO of Samung Mobile, credits 72andSunny with capturing the essence of the brand and constantly finding new ways to tell its story. “Together we deliver work we are extremely proud of,” he says.

Indeed, the shrewd “Next big thing” campaign has transformed the Samsung brand as well as the agency, fueling its meteoric growth and opening the door this year to additional golden opportunities.

First came ESPN, as the sports leader sought another creative option beyond longtime lead agency Wieden. The company needed to draw attention to WatchESPN, an app that enables fans to view live sports on mobile devices. The agency’s resulting campaign showed two animated characters, Steve and Vic, using the app to come through in the clutch for sports-hungry friends. The February launch was followed by a quick-cutting campaign for College GameDay that likened the hijinks of college football fans to the moves and catchphrases of show commentators.

The juicy supporting role on ESPN came without a pitch. The agency’s passionate approach to developing work has earned the respect of ESPN svp, marketing Aaron Taylor, who describes the shop as “honest and authentic. There’s no bullshit and no pretension. And it’s just a very open, collaborative and fun relationship.”

Around the time the ESPN relationship began, another exceptional opportunity arose—one that didn’t turn out the way the agency wanted but still represented a high-water mark of sorts. For the first time in 26 years, American Honda Motor Co. put its ad account into review, attracting submissions from about a dozen agencies. Honda executives visited seven shops in January before selecting four finalists: The Martin Agency, Mullen, longtime incumbent RPA and 72andSunny.

The agency was in the midst of onboarding more than 20 new staffers—fortuitous timing since it created the capacity needed to pursue the mega marketer, which spends more than $800 million in media annually. 72andSunny’s leaders loved the work they pitched, but the shop came up empty, as RPA kept Honda and Mullen won Acura.

Understandably, the troops were down when Boiler gathered staffers in a common area following the decision. The CEO’s message, however, was decidedly upbeat. “John did call it—without any irony—‘our finest hour,’ and I think everybody knew that was true,” Cole recalls. Boiler describes the intense pursuit of Honda—a game well played, if you will—as a galvanizing moment, noting how his agency “just lifted, performed and really outperformed what I had ever seen.”

Moreover, existing clients felt no drop-off in service or energy, testament to the shop’s “love the one you’re with” business mantra. “I realized, of course, that they were bringing in key clients, they had a healthy level of growth and the place was buzzing,” says Tim Ellis, Activision’s CMO. “But I never felt that they weren’t paying attention to us as a client. I never felt that they weren’t focused or weren’t thinking as deeply about the business as they did before.”

It helped that the shop turned down more pitch opportunities than it accepted, even though, by Jarvis’ estimation, 72andSunny received about a dozen calls from marketers each month. When Diageo put its global Smirnoff business into review, however, the agency jumped.

Here was a leading brand that the Los Angeles-area office could pitch jointly with its smaller operation in Amsterdam, and which represented a coveted global creative platform. Besides, Diageo marketing execs had already shown an interest in the agency, offering a digital project in 2012 that 72andSunny declined, given its preference to handle all facets of a brand’s marketing. Knowing that Smirnoff executives were attending the Cannes Lions festival in June, Boiler, Cole and company arranged a breakfast meeting with them at the Hotel Martinez.

Despite the Cannes sitdown, Smirnoff initially declined to add 72andSunny to its final list of agencies to consider. But three weeks later, it relented and invited the shop in—only on the same time schedule as everyone else. In just five weeks, 72andSunny challenged target audience assumptions in Smirnoff’s brand manifesto and won the account with work that “you had never seen before or thought of seeing,” recalls Matt Bruhn, Smirnoff’s global brand director. “It just felt new.” Some of the pitch concepts will be produced for a campaign expected to break in the first half of next year.

In contrast to the Smirnoff sprint, the courtship of Starbucks lasted several months. Like ESPN, the coffee empire wanted to add an agency for several assignments. But this time 72andSunny had competition, though it didn’t know who the other contenders were. Adding to the thrill of chasing a behemoth brand was the chance to meet the legendary founder of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, who participated in the initial and final meetings with agencies.

To prepare for the first meeting, Jarvis devoured both of Schultz’s books. It must have helped because 72andSunny advanced to the final round, which culminated in a 90-minute pitch inside a boardroom at Starbucks’ Seattle headquarters in October. After Boiler, Cole and Jarvis presented, Schultz did what few company leaders ever do in a pitch: He made a decision on the spot, interjecting, “OK, are we doing this?” Stunned at first, the agency’s leadership gathered themselves, stood up and proceeded to hoot.

And just how did they seal that coveted deal? An exuberant Cole raised his hand for a high-five but settled for a fist-bump with a hero instead. It was the most satisfying moment in an incredible year.

The Work
72andSunny is an agency that takes big swings, creating memorable ads that blend celebrities and brands in unexpected ways. Agency leaders, including CCO Glenn Cole and CEO John Boiler, attribute that success to their working at one of the most respected agencies ever: Wieden + Kennedy.

01. Samsung
A fly-on-the-wall look at Jay-Z and producer Rick Rubin honing the superstar’s latest album.

02. Activision
The teaser for Call of Duty: Ghosts features the music of Eminem.

>

03. Activision
The explosive launch ad turns Megan Fox into a trending topic on Twitter.

04. Samsung
LeBron James is seen as a doting father at home with his wife and kids.

05. Google
Its Chrome browser is “For Everyone,” even nettlesome cartoon characters like Stewie from Family Guy.