Breakthrough Agency of the Year: Venables Bell Is the Next Great Creative Shop

With stellar work for clients like Audi, its star is rising fast

Cultural relevance can be bittersweet, as Venables Bell & Partners learned in 2016. Just as the agency and client Audi were negotiating to use David Bowie's "Starman" in a Super Bowl ad, the rock icon tragically passed away at 69. Then the independent agency scored a chance to work on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, only to see her lose in what founder and chairman Paul Venables calls a "heartbreaking" election.

But it was, in all, an astounding 12 months for the San Francisco-based agency, which came into 2016 buoyed by global acclaim for its work on REI's "#OptOutside" Black Friday campaign and then quickly set the stage for a strong year with its "Commander" Super Bowl spot, Audi's tender tale of an aging astronaut who relives his glory days during a night drive with his son.

"There were no gimmicks: no dancing Chihuahua, no talking primates, no breakdancing babies," explains Venables. "We did it in our style, which is craft and storytelling. It was an exciting way to start the year."

The Big Game appearance marked a high point for a shop whose namesake entered the ad industry in that most humble of roles: Madison Avenue receptionist.

Venables says he knew from his first days behind a front desk in Manhattan that he eventually wanted to launch his own agency, and he left his job as a creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in 2001 to do just that. After struggling to stand out in the early years by focusing on every detail of his creative work, Venables had an epiphany: If he could attract and retain the right talent, everything else would eventually fall into place.

It paid off. This year, VB&P was one of the few truly independent agencies to consistently generate stellar creative, public attention and critical acclaim. For the eye-catching caliber of the agency's work throughout 2016, Adweek has named VB&P its Breakthrough Agency of the Year, an award honoring shops that have exploded beyond their previous expectations and reached dramatic new heights of creative achievement.

The art of good timing

In the midst of a 2015 holiday marketing brainstorming session, outdoor retailer REI's head of merchandising had a big idea: "We could never do it, but what if we close on Black Friday?" The rest, as they say, is history. "['#OptOutside'] is the antithesis of a Super Bowl spot," says Venables, adding, "Every single client and/or new business prospect that has come in the door since then basically said, 'We want some of that.'"

The agency doubled down on this calendar-centric strategy in 2015 and 2016. "Obviously Black Friday hit a big cultural nerve," says the agency's creative leader, Will McGinness. "We've been a little bit more focused on key cultural moments with a number of our clients."

The Google City Gym campaign, for example, debuted during last year's Pride Month at a time when transgender rights had sparked a cultural debate in the U.S. Flagship client Audi aired an escapist tale highlighting its collaboration with Airbnb on the 2016 Emmys broadcast, still a key moment in ad-driven live television despite a recent ratings drop. And as this contentious election season neared its end, Audi ran a compelling spot centered on a battle between two archenemies during the year's most explicitly partisan performance: the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Big-event campaigns drove VB&P's larger strategy, but the team's brilliance shone through in other projects like "25,915 Days," a Reebok ad that traced one woman's life in reverse by way of the moments she spent running, and a March campaign pitching PlayStation's Vue TV service as an escape from "the evil clutches of Big Cable." McGinness, who helped create a style guide for the agency's social media work this year, says VB&P adapts to each client: "You should not see the hand of the marketer. It should feel like that company's brand, not the marketer or the agency behind it."

Not all those efforts pan out, even for a shop on a hot streak. VB&P's first beer client MillerCoors nixed its debut work for Leinenkugel's after some distributors voted against the new ads. But Venables took it in stride: New efforts will launch in the months ahead, and the agency's work for sister brand Blue Moon went down more smoothly.

New leadership makes its mark