How ‘America’s Most Dangerous Agency’ Went From Launch to the Super Bowl in Just Over a Year

Bullish makes a name for itself

Michael Duda and Brent Vartan's agency snagged a spot in this year's Super Bowl. Christina Salazar, L'Effrontee

It has been a busy 15 months for New York agency and consumer investment firm Bullish.

Deustsch veterans Michael Duda and Brent Vartan launched Bullish last January in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn—and now the agency has a Super Bowl spot under its belt.

Bullish would have had two ads in this year’s big game, but the NFL pulled client GNC’s spot at the last minute, citing the chain’s sale of supplements containing substances banned by the league. Duda called that decision “tremendously unfortunate for a brand trying to become more empathetic to the plight of the consumer.”

The team’s work for GoDaddy did run, however—and according to Vartan, it marked the beginning of an extended campaign for the web hosting company. CMO Barb Rechterman told Adweek that the campaign’s protagonist, cleverly named The Internet, doubles as “the backbone of GoDaddy’s marketing platform this year.”

Rechterman, who previously worked with Vartan while he was at Deutsch, reached out to him to discuss the evolution of GoDaddy’s brand platform over the summer. Impressed by the agency’s strategy-first approach and its honest feedback, GoDaddy eventually selected Bullish as its AOR. The Super Bowl spot introduced the client’s new website-building tool GoCentral with the insight that “nobody knows the internet like GoDaddy,” Rechterman said.

The campaign recently entered its second phase with a series of digital spots playing on a daytime talk show theme. This extension was created by Onion Labs, which built on the creative direction established by Bullish.

Duda and Vartan call their company “America’s Most Dangerous Agency” (and claim to be in the process of trademarking the phrase), citing its performance-based compensation model, “honest approach” and venture capital fund as key differentiators.

“One of the things we do really well is getting creative about how we’re compensated,” said Vartan, who described Bullish as a “a strategy first creative shop.” He added, “The type of risk we take on isn’t vanity risk, it’s real risk and we believe it changes the type of work you do.”

Duda sees the operation as a response to an industry “frustrated with itself on all sides of the equation.”

“We don’t need the Accentures, we already have those people,” he explained. “We’re at the intersection of business strategy and creative, literally putting money on the line. There’s no one bridging the gap between consultancy and creation like Bullish.”

The partners said Bullish’s venture capital fund, a separate entity known as Bullish LLC, is very selective. Duda estimates they received about 12,000 inquiries last year, investing in only four or five of them. New inquiries followed the GoDaddy Super Bowl spot, and the agency added two recent investments.

"The type of risk we take on isn’t vanity risk, it’s real risk and we believe it changes the type of work you do."
Brent Vartan, co-founder of Bullish

The shop is staffed with a diverse array of expats from financial, analytical and creative backgrounds, drawing talent inquiries from both VCU Brandcenter and Harvard Business School. Vartan said his team’s creatives all have a “fascination with things outside the business,” adding, “we only want to work with people who understand the strategy of ideas.”

Despite its recent inception, the agency’s genesis dates back to Duda and Vartan’s working relationship at Deutsch.

“Bullish was decided when Mike and I figured out that everything we were trying to do couldn’t be done in the agency environment we were in,” Duda explained. “I’ve never had a stronger relationship, other than my wife, than with Brent Vartan.”

The duo launched a venture called Consigliere Brand Capital but quickly realized that it wouldn’t be viable within a publicly held ad agency. Vartan said Bullish was born when he went on paternity leave and “reached a place emotionally where I couldn’t keep going without giving this thing a chance.”

Since launching, Bullish has grown from a team of three to 16 employees, purportedly turning down inquiries from an unnamed holding company in the process. Next month, it will move to a new office in Chinatown.

Future plans for the company could include both “world domination” and “taking things one day at a time.” It all depends on which founder you ask.

This story first appeared in the April 24, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.