Hispanic Agency of the Year

Austin, Texas-based LatinWorks has cause to celebrate, with multiple account wins, buzzworthy creative and awards at Cannes

In a radio spot from last year created by Austin, Texas-based agency LatinWorks, a woman with a crisp English accent recalls that British Prime Minister David Cameron warned in a speech that European men were suffering from baldness as a result of eating chicken. As poultry contains a heavy dose of female hormones, consuming it could easily make Englishmen gay, as they experience the “degradation of their manly being.”

A male speaker then chimes in that Cameron couldn’t possibly have said such things (lest he be committed to an institution for observation)—before going on to point out that the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, did, in fact, publicly make such remarks. The tag for the spot, promoting Austin’s Cine Las Americas International Film Festival: “If this is our Latin American reality, imagine our films.”

Such attention-grabbing creative also attracted the notice of judges at Cannes last year, earning the agency a gold Lion, one of two awards it picked up at the festival and the only U.S. Hispanic shop to be recognized there. (The agency also won a bronze Lion for its print campaign in support of client Active Life, an Austin-based nonprofit that promotes healthy lifestyles.)

Since it was founded 13 years ago, LatinWorks, Adweek’s Hispanic Agency of the Year, has achieved a reputation for both its creativity and its strategic insights, drawing marketers such as General Motors, Anheuser-Busch, Kimberly-Clark, Domino’s, Lowe’s, Wrigley, Mars and Post Foods.

The agency is known for work that transcends ethnic stereotypes, and that has great crossover appeal. LatinWorks’ recent Bud Light spots featuring Cuban-American hip-hop artist Pitbull ran on both English- and Spanish-language broadcast networks in the U.S. Its commercial featuring comic Carlos Mencia teaching a group of immigrants how to order a Bud Light in American slang was among the most popular from the 2007 Super Bowl and won LatinWorks a bronze Lion at Cannes the same year. Meanwhile, the agency’s spot for Starburst in which a young man and a llama feed each other candy became one of the most watched commercials of 2009, according to Nielsen, and earned the shop a silver Lion at Cannes.

“The Census truly validated the importance of the Hispanic consumers and how they are woven into the fabric across this country,” says LatinWorks CEO Manny Flores. “For a marketer introducing a product or advertising in California, Florida and Texas, they absolutely need a Hispanic component. Beyond that, instead of being an ethnic segment, it’s becoming part of a larger multicultural transformation of America.”

Competition for business is especially intense for Hispanic agencies like LatinWorks as more general market shops go after expanding Hispanic marketing budgets. Not that LatinWorks has had to worry. The agency, in which Omnicom has a minority stake, has continued to grow its client roster with high-profile accounts, even in the toughest years of the current downturn.

Last year, LatinWorks added Capital One, Heinz, PepsiCo, T.J. Maxx and Fox Hispanic Media, helping year-over-year revenue grow by 11 percent to an estimated $23 million. It was a year in which the agency also invested in a significant proprietary research project aimed at crunching the latest Census data.

“LatinWorks never misses on creative; they are relentless in coming up with great ideas,” says Russell Weiner, chief marketing officer at Domino’s. “But unlike some agencies, they’re not just building their books and cashing your checks. You really feel like they’re in the business with you. It’s not just the account people. [Chief creative officer] Sergio [Alcocer] is one of the best creative directors at any agency. He keenly gets the creative process, but he could be an account guy because he so well understands our other business prerogatives.”

Weiner notes that in 2010, the year in which Domino’s revamped its pizza and marketing strategy, sales rose 9.9 percent and another 3.5 percent in 2011. Over the past few years, Domino’s has become a market leader among Latinos in the U.S.

“They certainly helped me achieve that growth with their communications to Hispanic consumers,” Weiner says. “I couldn’t have done that without LatinWorks.”

Last year was the first full year that LatinWorks handled General Motors’ Chevrolet nameplate, now the agency’s largest account and one that reunites it with Joel Ewanick, the automaker’s global chief marketing officer, who previously hired the shop when he was at Hyundai.

A major LatinWorks initiative in 2011 involved introducing the new Chevy Cruze compact to the Hispanic market. While some 20 percent of all cars sold to Hispanics are compacts, GM’s earlier entry in the category, the Cobalt, didn’t manage to connect with Hispanic consumers, earning less than 3 percent of market share even as its rivals, the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, achieved more than 20 percent apiece.

The agency’s work on Cruze underscores its determination to avoid cultural clichés. The creative features images of young American Latinos—a target identified by LatinWorks as “the Unstoppables,” those consumers who are unwilling to compromise on the things that matter most to them and who want a car that will keep them moving forward, and who happen to be Hispanic. One spot features a group of young men getting into a Cruze, a Great Dane looking all forlorn as he gets left behind and the garage door slowly closes. The final shot shows the dog happily ensconced in the backseat, as the voiceover points out that the Cruze sports more interior space than either the Civic or the Corolla.

“We treat our audience as humans, not stereotypes,” Alcocer says. “It’s the difference between a mirror and a window. Traditional Hispanic advertising shows who those consumers are, where they came from. With a window, it’s not just a reflection—we want to open the world to them, to show the potential, the future. It’s no longer about immigrants looking for the American Dream—it’s about market growth from people born in America.”

Since its launch in October 2010, the Cruze has attained a 9 percent share of the Hispanic compact category and has been a driving force in overall sales for the Chevrolet brand, which grew 33 percent last year.

A key move toward better understanding the market was the hiring last year of vp, strategic planning Christian Filli, former managing director of Landor Associates in Mexico City. Filli directed a proprietary research initiative focusing on young consumers, as the median age of U.S. Hispanics is 27, compared to 41 for non-Hispanics.

“We started with what everyone had—the Census results—and then made an unprecedented investment to go deeper into that data for richer insights,” Filli says. “The Census numbers only tell part of the story.”

Agency CCO Alcocer concurs: “The U.S. Hispanic marketplace requires that our agency have a very definite point of view. There’s nowhere else in the world, no benchmark like the U.S. in terms of relevant thought leadership. Seventy-five percent of third graders in Texas are Hispanic. What will things be like in 10 years?”

Those insights were a major draw for Javier Farfan, senior director of cultural branding at PepsiCo. Last year, Farfan led a Hispanic agency review that led to LatinWorks’ hire on brands including Sierra Mist, SoBe, Aquafina and the soda Manzanita Sol.

“LatinWorks had the most forward-thinking approach to the Hispanic marketplace, and they had very good strategic thinking about branding and creating [consumer] archetypes,” Farfan says.

The agency just introduced its first work for Manzanita Sol, a black-and-white TV spot picturing two men in a café arguing the merits of boxers versus briefs. Another young man—shot in color—walks in with a bottle of the soda, at first appearing to be nude. Only after the other men shift their menus does it become clear the third guy prefers neither boxers nor briefs but sumo garb. The tagline: “Not everything is black or white.”

Last year, LatinWorks also hired Todd Widell, a veteran of general market agencies such as TBWAChiatDay, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Team One, to head its new creative initiatives unit. The group is not tied to a particular client budget, thus allowing the agency to explore ideas beyond a marketer’s scope of work, which can often skew toward more traditional media.

One of the group’s first efforts was for client Livestrong Foundation, promoting a 100-kilometer fundraising bike ride in Marfa, Texas, that benefits Livestrong and Marfa Public Radio. The campaign featured posters personalized by 100 cancer survivors, Livestrong employees and volunteers who also rode stationary bikes for one kilometer in support of the event.

LatinWorks’ creative initiatives group “gives us the opportunity to come up with ideas that are more than what we are typically asked to do,” Widell says. “We can explore digital, social, tactical, experiential, guerrilla. It’s changing the way others perceive us and the way our people think about the way we approach our work.”

That way of thinking has expanded the agency’s client relationships beyond just creative partners.

“With clients like Marshalls and Domino’s, we handle everything from the communications strategy to creative to experiential to media planning and buying,” says Christy Kranik, managing director at LatinWorks.

Last year, for example, Lowe’s asked the agency to improve Hispanic customers’ experience with the retailer. The agency became involved with everything from the recruitment of employees to in-store interaction with shoppers regarding issues such as how they are offered assistance and how to deal with language differences.

That deep involvement in client business hints at the backgrounds of senior management at the agency. LatinWorks was founded by chief executive Flores, former vp, marketing development at Anheuser-Busch, and CMO Alejandro Ruelas, former head of ethnic marketing at the brewing company. Before joining LatinWorks, Kranik worked in marketing at Dell, where she was responsible for consumer and global brand strategies. Filli is a former marketing communications director at Reebok.

Ruelas says that while at A-B, he felt that many of the agencies he worked with weren’t meeting the brewer’s needs. As a result, he ended up doing a lot of the work on strategy and creative idea generation himself. He decided to leave the client side to set up LatinWorks with Flores and, later, Alcocer.

Ruelas says that more than ever, agencies working in the Hispanic marketplace cannot afford to be complacent.

“Today, Hispanic clients are becoming more sophisticated and savvy, and they can express their expectations better than ever,” he says. “They are much more demanding. One of the reasons you see agencies in our space becoming smaller and disappearing, in some cases, is because general market agencies are becoming smarter about the Hispanic marketplace.”

Alcocer, who earlier worked at Leo Burnett and Y&R, says while he has no interest in becoming a general market shop, he believes the future of LatinWorks depends upon its being as good as the bigger agencies.

“We’re not trying to validate our existence by showing the Hispanic consumer is different,” he says. “Judge us by how good an ad agency we are first and foremost. We want to be known as a great agency that has a very keen expertise in Hispanic consumers and be judged by the standards of any agency. We want to be known for world-class creative and world-class expertise in a market segment that is booming.

“The objective,” he adds, “is to bring multicultural sensitivities to Main Street.” 

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