Building the Home of the Brave

LOS ANGELES One day, the story goes, two young David&Goliath employees, dressed in identical agency-branded hooded sweatshirts, were minding their own business in the office elevator. That is, until a fellow building tenant razzed them about apparently having to “wear uniforms.” One of the dng employees stared the man down. “We wear them because we want to,” she told him.

That esprit de corps earned the employee a literal “bravery badge” from founder and CCO David Angelo. (Reminiscent of college football helmet stickers for outstanding plays, the badges are worn on the hoodies.) They’re just one sign that Angelo still wants dng to be seen as a “brave” challenger brand, interested only in courageous clients willing to back bold campaigns.

This positioning was reflected in last year’s move from expensive Brentwood, Calif., to 33,000 square feet of bleak, relatively cheap El Segundo, Calif., office space. The atmosphere is pointedly collegial, with office parties attended by Hollywood and music-biz types, and frat-style new-employee initiations such as mandatory potato-peeling contests in front of the shop’s 100-plus personnel. (Total manpower has risen from around 75 since managing partner Russell Wager, who joined from independent shop Doner in February 2007, came aboard.)

Angelo contended the agency is “smarter” for its challenger mind-set as well as stronger in that it’s broken free of the cult-like following of a single creative leader found at many smaller shops. Dng has become a fully integrated agency with expanded direct marketing, promotions and Hispanic marketing departments as well as a sizeable digital wing and a burgeoning in-house production facility.

The growth in those new areas is buttressing more than mainstay client Kia Motors America, says Wager.

According to Angelo, with the addition of two Bacardi brands, more Universal business, New York New York Hotel & Casino, Discovery Network’s Travel Channel, Zoo York and Anchor Blue, the undisclosed fees from Kia (on a $285 million 2007 spend, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus) now represents just 55 percent of agency revenue, down from 80 percent in 2004.

The “brave” positioning, he adds, will alter the agency’s approach to new-business pursuits and creative development.

“Internally, every creative brief asks the question, ‘Is this an act of bravery?'” Angelo said. “And in our last four pitches we’ve asked the clients to tell us who their ‘Goliaths’ are. Then we come back to them with a solution or plan of attack to overcome them.”

“We’re all fighters with a similar work ethic,” said ecd Colin Jeffery, the Volkswagen creative director who joined the agency last year from Arnold. “David likes the trenches, to roll up his sleeves and get dirty. Asking if clients are brave or have the potential to be brave gives us a clear focus on who we need to be, too.”

Clients don’t seem to feel the bravery boast is marketing drivel. Kurt Kostur, svp of marketing for Universal Orlando, remembers that it was chutzpah that distinguished dng’s pitch during the 2001 review for their business. “They were the only agency that challenged us on our brief,” recalled Kostur. “They said, ‘Don’t talk about the theme park: You’re a world-class resort that happens to have two great theme parks.’ That may sound like a small nuance, but it is actually a critical point in positioning us.” The insight led to a campaign in which a trip to rival Disney was seen as “for the kids,” in contrast to a Universal vacation “with the kids,” Kostur said.

Five years later, dng added Universal Studios Hollywood and struck again, recalls Larry Kurzweil, president and COO, with the “entertainment capital of L.A.” strategic positioning. “Why is that bold and brave?” Kurzweil asked. “We don’t own the City Walk, the amphitheater, the hotels and clubs. But that positioning made the destination uniquely aspirational and larger than life.” Moreover, Kurzweil said, “[the agency creatives] have the courage of their convictions.”

Far from feeling its status as top dog in the shop threatened (something that Kia is up front about requiring in its agency), KMA credits dng with being “a big part of our growth,” said Tim Chaney, director of marketing communications at Irvine, Calif.-based Kia, which broke back-to-back sales records in April and May while many of its competitors foundered. “We love their smaller independence, that they’re not part of a holding company operation. We think of ourselves that way. We think we can take on the big boys in some respects, that we’re bigger and bolder and take a little more risk.” Chaney predicts up to 30 percent more ad spending in the near future, despite the market doldrums, and no change of disposition towards the agency in the wake of the departure of former svp of marketing Ian Beavis. Angelo, Chaney said, has been “in many ways the heart and soul of the Kia brand for many years.”

Todd Turner, principal analyst with Car Concepts, Thousand Oaks, Calif., agrees that Kia may have selected dng on price years ago, but that the agency has evolved beyond bargain brand. “They’re no longer ‘the cheapest’ agency,” Turner said. “In fact, they’re similar to the Kia brand itself, offering a level of quality and value.”