Breakthrough Agency of the Year: Troubled Brands Turning to Johannes Leonardo Is a Sign the Agency Has ‘Come of Age’

The shop produced strong work for Volkswagen and Gap and doubled in size

group shot of the entire team at agency Johannes Leonardo
This past year saw the agency double in size, by both staff and revenue measurements. Harlan Erskine

Key Insights

It’s not every day that—in the midst of an unprecedented crisis—one of the world’s largest auto companies turns to a creative shop of around 100 that was launched a little over a decade ago.

When Volkswagen named Johannes Leonardo as its lead brand agency, it was a defining moment for client and agency alike. At the time, Volkswagen was still reeling from an emissions scandal, with consumer sentiment at an all-time low.

“When the world’s biggest car brand comes to an agency like us with such a huge problem, it’s really a sign for us that Johannes Leonardo has come of age,” observes co-founder and CCO Jan Jacobs.

The stats

Key Wins: Gap, Volkswagen
Losses: None
New Assignments: Truly Hard Seltzer (prior to Boston Beer creative review), Venmo
2019 Revenue: $50 million-plus (a +110% top-line revenue growth from 2018)
Strategic Moves: Bought back an unspecified portion of WPP’s 49% minority stake; increased agency head count by 100%; brought on Jimm Lasser as creative lead; hired Samira Ansari as group creative director on Gap and MassMutual; hired creative director Hope Nardini to focus on MassMutual; hired Debra Sercy as the agency’s first chief talent officer; hired creative directors Alice Blastorah, Dan Grech and Ray Smiling; promoted Omid Amidi to creative director

That the agency was able to rise to the challenge with a campaign that turned around brand sentiment and drove summer sales highlights how Johannes Leonardo has doubled down on the importance of long-term brand building and the power of creativity to drive results for a range of clients. This past year also saw the agency win creative for Gap and double in size, by both staff and revenue measurements.

While it has been a respected agency since its 2007 founding, 2019 was the year Johannes Leonardo shifted into a higher gear, earning the title of Adweek’s Breakthrough Agency of the Year.

Driving into a new era with Volkswagen

Volkswagen’s mission for its agency partner was simple but far from easy: Make the brand matter again. They’d have to begin by addressing the elephant in the room.

The agency’s first work for Volkswagen openly acknowledged the scandal while committing the brand to an electric future, and audiences took note.

“After just a few short months of that campaign being live, we got the brand back to pre-scandal levels of consideration,” Johannes Leonardo co-founder and CCO Leo Premutico claims, with Jacobs noting that such sentiment added to a boost in summer sales while the auto industry as a whole was flagging.

Johannes Leonardo followed this up with campaigns for the Atlas, Volkswagen’s winter sales event and VW’s electric vehicle launch in 2020. Further work is anticipated before the end of 2019.

“It’s not a given that an agency can see the magic and capture it in an honest, compelling and inspirational way,” says Volkswagen of America president and CEO Scott Keogh. “Johannes Leonardo did. They’ve helped us take back our story, and we look forward to accomplishing much more together.

Johannes Leonardo knew it couldn’t convince audiences to trust Volkswagen again without addressing the dark cloud cast by the company’s emissions scandal. “Hello, Light” managed to openly address the issue while positioning Volkswagen for the future as it pivots toward electric vehicles.

Jacobs—who says the agency is “sitting on a very powerful brand point of view in the automotive industry”—explains that Volkswagen’s advertising has had two golden eras: its early efforts led by Bill Bernbach and its ’90s “Drivers Wanted” campaign.

“We feel we’re on the cusp of the next big moment for the brand,” he says. “‘Drive Bigger’ feels like the platform that can deliver that, especially in the context that we find ourselves in the world right now.”

Pivoting for each client

Volkswagen wasn’t the only struggling brand to turn to the agency in 2019.

This summer, Gap made Johannes Leonardo its first AOR since 2012, following a quarter in which sales were down an estimated 10%.

“Gap is a brand that’s always built itself through its products. It’s done such famous and iconic work in the past, but it’s always done it as a celebration of the best-in-class products that it produces,” Premutico says.

The agency’s holiday campaign, which tells an emotional mother-son story centered on Gap’s hoodies, hints at what to expect from that journey. Johannes Leonardo is on a “journey to return the brand to focus back on what it does best,” says Premutico.

“What I really love about [the agency] is their positive mindset and true innovative spirit,” says Gap CMO Alegra O’Hare, who also worked with the shop while vp of global brand communications at Adidas Originals.

The agency’s sentimental holiday ad for the retailer managed to tell a nostalgic tale celebrating the bond between a mother and her son while also returning the brand’s advertising to the strength of its core offerings.

Working with a diverse client roster, Johannes Leonardo can employ a range of styles appropriate for each brand’s voice.

“We’ve got a deep respect for the heritage of a brand [and] real humility in the role that we as an agency … play in the future and fortunes of that brand,” Permutico says, adding that it doesn’t have a creative model or style it imposes on clients but rather seeks to identify each brand’s core challenges, reorienting agency processes to solve them.

That means the agency is as comfortable crafting engaging microcontent for EA’s Madden franchise as it is creating the world’s smallest OOH campaign for MassMutual or heartfelt holiday nostalgia for Gap.

Laying the groundwork for success

The agency’s 2019 breakthrough didn’t come out of nowhere, but reflected a return on investments it has made in recent years.

Last year the agency recommitted to its independence, buying back an unspecified stake of WPP’s 49% minority investment in the shop.

This enabled the agency to invest in talent and other areas for the long term without worrying about short-term financial goals, New York president Bryan Yasko says. “Our independence gives us the ability to say no, and we do it a lot,” something he characterized as a major reason for the agency’s new-business success.

He estimates Johannes Leonardo turned down more than 20 pitches in 2019, while winning all six in which it participated, not losing a single AOR client and driving organic growth of around 20%.

“Creativity being valued once more has to start with us ourselves as creative agencies valuing what we do,” Premutico says, which ”means saying no to new-business opportunities if you feel like it is not valued the same way.”

Perhaps taking a cue from a famous Volkswagen tagline, Johannes Leonardo opted to think small for insurance company MassMutual with the world’s tiniest OOH campaign. The agency took over Churchill Downs with 20 miniatures designed to attract the attention of binocular-toting spectators at the Kentucky Derby and Oaks races.

Building for the future

“We spent last year and a lot of time this year solidifying our values and beliefs as an agency,” Yasko says, pointing to the agency “building around a talent agenda.”

One area Yasko says the shop wants to improve is hiring talent from outside the usual agency channels. For example, Johannes Leonardo recently hired Debra Sercy as its first chief talent officer.

Premutico attributes the agency’s accomplishments to its penchant for eschewing short-term trends in favor of big brand-building ideas that ask clients to commit to shaping culture rather than simply taking a brand position.

“When we started the agency in 2007, we created this phrase, ‘The consumer has become the medium,’” says Premutico. “I think that has kept us really on track to focus on the most important aspect of creativity, which is connecting with humans. … We feel like that’s where the true value of creativity resides and that if we do that as a business, then we will always be relevant.”

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.