THE OPPORTUNITY TO WORK on the rebranding campaign for mun2, the bilingual Latino youth network, came indirectly by way of the 2004 independent comedy Napoleon Dynamite. The Miami-based ad agency la comunidad had worked with Aaron Ruell, the movie's still photographer, on a general-market Virgin Mobile spot in April 2005. And when the cable channel wanted Ruell's quirky vision for the multimedia campaign, the commercial director insisted that he work with the edgy creatives at la comu, as it's commonly known. The NBC Universal-owned mun2 (pronounced moon-dose, meaning "worlds") embraced the idea, even forgoing the usual pitch process.
The agency won the account in August for upwards of $5 million.
"La comunidad was the perfect agency for our branding campaign," says Ricardo de Montreuil, mun2's creative director of on-air and off-air promotions, who also worked with the shop while a senior art director for MTV Networks Latin America. "They had worked with other channels aimed at the same demographics, and for the last two years have been doing an amazing job, winning a lot of awards."
Says Ruell, "I love working with those guys because they're really smart in their comedic choices and I truly respect their opinions, which makes the collaboration process really great. I am always looking for the next la comunidad gig just because they're so solid in their concepts."
The mun2 campaign, which breaks Feb. 15, will consist of on-air spots, print, out of home, online and guerrilla-type grass-roots efforts. The action is centered on the idea that "young U.S. Latinos can have their daily dose of Latiness at mun2," says de Montreuil.
La comu is bracing for the effects of unprecedented business wins, with billings up 60 percent to $46 million in 2006. The shop won five new accounts and was successful in three out of four pitches, including Walt Disney World in February, Rémy Martin in March and Miller Genuine Draft in July. The agency's wins in 2006 were the highest since la comu launched in Buenos Aires in October 2000 and in Miami in March 2001. Existing clients Best Buy, Citibank, Perry Ellis, Subway and Virgin Mobile contributed an 11 percent growth.
The agency's growth record, its diverse client roster and outstanding creative are why Marketing y Medios has named la comunidad Agency of the Year.
Behind these achievements are la comu's founding brothers and a community of full-time employees, 28 in Miami and 35 in Buenos Aires. With three creative teams based in Miami, la comu promotes a constant exchange of creative teams.
In 2000, Joaquín Mollá, 37, left the post of creative director at Ratto/BBDO in Buenos Aires, and José Mollá, 40, departed Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., where he had risen to the post of international creative director for the Nike account. After sailing around the Virgin Islands, the brothers, whose father and grandfather owned ad agencies in Buenos Aires, decided to start up la comu serving Argentina, the U.S. and Latin America.
When the Mollás left their respective high-paying jobs, they could not anticipate the extraordinary difficulties that would surface. Barely a year after opening its doors in Buenos Aires and Miami, the 9/11 attacks took place, and "Argentina was hit by the worst economic crisis I have lived through in my adult life," recalls Joaquín Mollá, who's is based in Buenos Aires. Both la comu's offices had to let go of a big percentage of the small staff they had established by the end of 2001. "It was a difficult moment, but it has strengthened us," he says.
The Mollás also learned to deal with unexpected antagonism. La comu's offices in Latin America and the U.S. have given the shop creative range, but has also made it one of the most envied agencies in the U.S. Hispanic space. Competitors have snickered that "it is not fair" to compete in the U.S. Hispanic market employing Buenos Aires-based creatives. José Mollá is familiar with the negative feedback.
"In this profession, most people want everybody else to fail," he says. "[But] there is room for everyone. It is about doing your thing. It is a race against yourself."
Meanwhile, the prescient executives have generated a trend that is slowly picking up. There are Hispanic agencies in the U.S. trying to adopt a similar model and work with creatives based in Argentina (such as Firefly) and Mexico (OLE).
Following an agency review in early 2006, la comu won the Walt Disney World U.S. Hispanic account, worth $10 million-plus. Thirty-second TV spots showed that a trip to Disney World meant more to Latinos than to general amusement park visitors: People are shown first happily enjoying the park, then swapping diplomas on the wall at home for family photos from their Disney World adventures. The campaign had a national run, but la comu was not involved in media planning and buying for the project. It was the kind of creative that appeals to Latinos' sense of luck to be living in the U.S.
Spots created for the $5 million-plus Spanish-language Miller Genuine Draft (MGD) campaign play off the tagline "Experience Is Golden," or "La Experiencia Vale Oro." Gold-lined images of soccer players, musicians and surfers ride the brewer's wave in digital form. La comu produced the Hispanic creative for two TV spots that ran on Spanish-language networks, two radio pieces, print and a historical overview of the beer, from distillery to ice-cold bottle, on the newly launched mgd.com.
ElHood, an online community of musicians and music fans, launched in second quarter 2006 with offices in Buenos Aires, Miami, Los Angeles and Madrid. It chose la comu in December to "start the public face of [the site]," says Demian Bellumio, president of Hoodiny, elHood's parent company. The portal will invest more than a million this year on online advertising and marketing in the U.S., among other strategies currently in development by la comu. "Some of the best creative work today is coming from Argentina," says Bellumio. "If the talent comes from a lower salary basis, that's better."
For some clients, there seems to be only an upside in working with an agency with offices in different places, though that was not the main reason elHood partnered with la comu. Having worked for clients such Virgin Mobile USA, and MTV and Rolling Stone magazine, both in Argentina, la comu's team has the right creative edge to work with music and youth, Bellumio says. "After we saw what they did, we pretty much knew they were the ones."
The same goes for mun2. What's produced between both cities benefits the work. "Argentina has a very successful advertising industry and good prices," says mun2's Peru-born de Montreuil, referring to cheaper production costs. "Being able to use resources from Buenos Aires is a plus."
That "plus" infrastructure has widened la comu's scope of work and piqued the interest of non-Hispanic-targeted clients.
La comu has been working as the lead agency for Rémy Martin since spring, following an agency selection process conducted by Santa Monica, Calif.-based Select Resources International, including finalists StrawberryFrog from New York, Boston-based Modernista, Arlington, Va.-based Muse and Austin-based Sanders/Wingo.
"We chose la comu because they are smart and passionate, but more importantly, when you examine their body of work, you can see that they have a different point of view. They develop unique creative solutions" that go beyond mere advertising, says Steve Hissam, category director for Rémy Cointreau USA Inc.
In November, Rémy executed a soft launch of the print and interactive campaign called "When Things Start to Get Interesting," which is also the site address. The slick portal shows party photos of primarily African-American consumers enjoying the premium cognac and different kinds of music geared toward the group. "While it is too soon to measure the impact, the feedback from our distributor and retail partners, as well as internal stakeholders, has been very positive," Hissam says.
With a budget of more than $5 million, this is the first lead agency win in the general market for la comu but hopefully not the last, says José Mollá. "The Hispanic market is not a limited box. It is a platform to go further." He takes it a step further himself saying that the Hispanic market as we know it now will eventually disappear. "The old approach to the Hispanic market as a separate thing will not be relevant anymore."
At la comu, the focus is to widen the conversation beyond Hispanic, beyond advertising. It wants to redefine multiculturalism."The discourse has to change," says Alain Groenendaal, general manager of la comu in Miami since November 2005. "Previously, people were justifying the necessity of doing something [to target the Hispanic market], but that justification has converted into crutches. What matters now is good work, thinking about brands differently. [Hispanics] are part of it, not the reason for doing it."
The current management team was not put in place until late 2005. New York-born Groenendaal, 44, left a 21-year career at Leo Burnett for the challenge of a major role in a small, independent and unconventional agency in Miami, he says. "In multinationals, you have schemes, formats, support. Here it depends on us to make things happen."
Having worked in various managerial roles in the U.S. and Latin America, the executive, who is fluent in five languages, was enticed by la comu's reputation as a "creative boutique with heavyweight client names." Groenendaal recalls that when he came on board, la comu was still hurting from personnel changes in previous years.
"It wasn't too serious, but the agency had a group of people who didn't work well," Groenendaal says. "Being a small shop, nobody gets away slacking because we don't have three layers of other people to fix problems."
Jennifer Patterson, who joined la comu in 2005 after working with José Mollá at Wieden + Kennedy's London office, says the restaffing was a positive. Today, the account planning director has a staff of two, and her team will grow this year.
La comu will have new hires across the departments to handle its growth. Laurie Málaga, executive producer at la comu in Miami, is searching for a new producer. Like Patterson, Málaga joined la comu in 2005, after working on production at the music division of Propaganda Films in New York.
"Everybody is really interested in advertising, but they are not defined only by their jobs," says Málaga, who has worked on U2 and the Rolling Stones videos. "They have personal interests they bring to the job that make them more interesting. People make the place."
That's the overall vision and one of the overriding principles for the Mollás. To nurture the community environment, la comu, currently in a spacious, one-floor house with a pool in a residential section of Miami, provides a home-cooked lunch three times a week to the staff. Yoga classes are available twice a week on site; painting lessons come once a week. Massages are a monthly routine.
"Obsession about advertising is not healthy," says José Mollá, a new dad who enjoys kite surfing on the weekends. "It is like a dog chasing its own tail. It is claustrophobic."
Perhaps that's why Joaquín Mollá, who's also married with one child, sets aside advertising to write poetry at home in Buenos Aires.
There's always a way to find creative outlets, such as in December when la comu curated and hosted exhibits at Miami's Art Basel, the American sister event to the annual international art show Art Basel in Switzerland.
In addition to hosting three art installations in the 20,000-square-foot warehouse that will be the future home of the shop in the hip Wynwood section of Miami, la comu encouraged creatives to explore ideas. Copywriter Gustavo Lauria and art director Alberto Ramos, who work in tandem in Miami, covered a bathroom with 30 different tiles displaying colorful pictures of eyes — most of their colleagues. "All the energy coming from Art Basel motivated us," Lauria says.
That's why the agency looks for business that will stimulate their creative juices and inspire daring work. The overall feeling is not every account is suited for la comu's culture.
Late in 2005, la comu declined to participate in a pitch process for the Hispanic creative account for Hyundai Motors America, citing a difference in approach. In the summer, la comu also said no to Wal-Mart, based on not wanting to associate with the behemoth retailer and also a potential conflict of interest with Best Buy, an account that la comu's Miami office has been handling since 2003. The agency was a finalist in the pitch for the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. Hispanic account that eventually was won by Y&R's New York-based The Bravo Group, which also runs a Y&R shop in Argentina.
For now, la comu doesn't look back, only forward — particularly to settling in its new home by the end of the year.
The shop is studying how best to use the enormous warehouse space amid its immediate arty surroundings. What is clear is that one of the three separate spaces will house the agency and a second will have an art gallery. "La comu is part of a net of influencers that includes not only advertisers but artists and designers," Groenendaal says.
The Mollás' ambitions are finally realized — to establish a workplace that contemplates the importance work plays in an individual's life and living life to its fullest.
"I am part of the last generation who submitted their lives to the companies they worked for," Joaquín Mollá says. "Today, companies with the best talent are the ones that recognize both hemispheres of people's brains."