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In an eponymous nutshell, ad agency 180LA is itself a 180: transforming the assumed into a fresh perspective. Thankfully, the clients it attracts have transformation stamped into their own brand DNA. And along the way, 180LA has created compelling, concrete examples of how agencies might fluidly move their clients’ stories from broadcast to online to print to experiential, never dropping the thread.

Travel, entertainment, athletic prowess, cars, music, recreation—these are all jumping-off points where 180LA takes routes less obvious. In 2012, for example, Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose was the youngest MVP the National Basketball Association (NBA) had seen. 180LA client Adidas—whose identity is wrapped into honoring athletes and providing the equipment, opportunities and experiences to help each player be his or her best—sponsored Rose, and it was a magnetically exciting time. Then, in a crushing blow, in the first round of the NBA playoffs, Rose tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), one of the main ligaments that keep the knee stable. An ACL tear is a devastating injury for a weekend warrior and is potentially life-altering for an elite athlete. His banner season ended in that one moment.

“I’ll never forget watching the game at home that night,” says Ryan Morlan, global director of communications at Adidas. “180 and I were on the phone immediately, talking about what to do. It was decided that we should embrace the moment. Follow Rose in his recovery.” That very night, the cameras started rolling, giving fans, and the world at large, access to an athlete who was at the top of his game—as he struggled to get back up. The project, “The Return of DRose,” turned into a documentary-style package of emotionally compelling messaging—a 60-second television spot; a weekly, six-episode web series; a Facebook presence; and a Twitter feed, #TheReturn. Rose is searingly real through all of it, from the buckling pain of rehabilitation to the uplifting glimpses of recovery. Throughout the campaign, fans tweeted nearly sixteen-million messages of encouragement to Rose.

A season and a half later, Rose was back on the court, but thanks to the campaign, Adidas was never out of play. It was transformation on many levels—Rose showed what an elite athlete who falls to an injury has to endure, lifting the veil for fans worldwide; fans were able to personally reach out to their hero; and Adidas gave a real-time life lesson in truly honoring an athlete, and not just on winning game days.

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William Gelner, 180LA CCO and a managing partner, says, “Doing good and doing good business aren’t mutually exclusive. Whenever there’s a chance for us to do good, we’ll go there.” For Sony, the agency turned an assignment to create a single banner ad into a film project that positively affected gifted science students in Compton, an economically depressed section of Los Angeles. “Today’s Sony VAIO laptop has more computing power than the first Apollo rocket to reach the moon,” Gelner explains. “So we decided to use it to build a rocket.” The agency recruited eight students from the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, a high school in South Los Angeles, and paired the academically gifted students with a mentor who guided them in designing, building and launching a rocket—using only a Sony VAIO laptop. The agency convinced Sony to transform a banner ad assignment into an extremely complicated film project. That’s pure 180LA.

Another transformative campaign was Find Yours, for Expedia. It began with an anthem-styled spec spot that 180LA created for the pitch, in which type treatments over scenes tell us: “Find your seat, find your view, find your innocence, find your memories, find your nerve … find your gratitude, find your past, find your future … whatever you’re looking for, we can help you find yours.”

After that compelling campaign intro, the agency made long-form films that dove into the real, life-changing travel stories of real people. Footage from the films was cut into shorter spots for social media, Expedia’s site and broadcast television. One spot, “Find Your Understanding,” is the story of a father who reluctantly travels from New Hampshire to California to attend the wedding of his daughter, Jill. She’s marrying her partner, Nikki. 180LA combined its own footage and narrative with found, actual footage of the wedding. In the film, we hear the father’s side of the story, his feelings about his hopes and dreams for his daughter’s future, which now seem lost forever. But at the wedding, he changes his mind. He sees how happy his daughter is. He sees that Nikki is a wonderful, warm presence. He says, “Once we got out to California and we saw how happy they were, all that trepidation just seemed to go away.”

180LA bought a three-minute spot so that the entire film could air just before the U.S. Supreme Court’s vote on the Defense of Marriage Act, on June 26, 2013. The client and agency feel proud that their film may have played a part in the Supreme Court’s ruling that to deny anyone the right to marriage is illegal. Another film, “Find Your Strength,” was made in partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. It’s an incredibly moving story of two teenagers who meet during cancer treatment, both feeling that cancer has led them to their soul mate.

Doing good and doing good business aren’t mutually exclusive. Whenever there’s a chance for us to do good, we’ll go there.”—William Gelner

The agency also developed a series of posters for the campaign. It’s telling that the individual works of art, each expressing a different end goal—Find Your Spontaneity, Find Your Nostalgia, Find Your Calling, among many others—are a huge hit among Expedia staff. Vic Walia, senior director of brand marketing, says with a laugh, “We’ve had to print the entire series a couple of times. People are hanging them in their cubes, taking them home, giving them to family. Employees will stop me and say, ‘Thank you for showing our friends and family why we work here.’ The campaign is meant to show what we think travel is: transformative.”

Founded in the Netherlands in 1998, 180 started with three Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam staffers in a classic advertising story: agency personnel splitting off to work with the client’s competitor, Adidas, as W+K Amsterdam continued the venerable Nike work. Chris Mendola, now a managing partner and the chairman of 180LA, and Guy Hayward had transferred from W+K New York, and Alex Melvin, who passed away in 2011, came to the Amsterdam office from Scotland. This international beginning was a harbinger of work that would follow, flavored by multicultural influences. 180LA, which opened in 2006, branched out with that global diversity deeply rooted in its own culture. For any given project, a team might consist of staffers from South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Scotland and Holland, just to name a few.

The agency, whose clients include Pepsi, Hewlett-Packard, Mitsubishi, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Academy), is based in Santa Monica, California, on two floors in a high-rise overlooking the ocean. The walls and cubicle dividers throughout the space are undulating, white, wave-like structures that bespeak the idea of a 180—turning a thought on its side. Managing partner and CEO Michael Allen occupies an expansive office, plenty big enough to hold meetings, plus he shares it with another staffer, whose desk is across the room. He tells of how the agency secured this picturesque, idyllic setting. “There was a real estate company here, and in fact, they’re still here, on the second floor, I think. We were in a really small office near here, and we kept coming by, asking him if he didn’t want to rent to us. He kept saying no, and we kept coming over. Finally, he said, ‘You know what? OK. You guys can move in and take some space. I’ll keep my office.’” That office is now Allen’s office. At the helm of 180LA are the three managing partners, Mendola, Allen and Gelner.

We wanted to be distinctive and memorable. We didn’t want a cookie-cutter approach. 180LA had a very smart approach. The strength of the design is that it’s fluid and adaptive.”—Christina Kounelias

The agency enjoyed mushrooming growth in 2013. By the start of 2014, its billings had increased by 34 percent, and many new staffers were brought on board. 180LA gobbled up more of its building’s space, too, adding a full complement of editing suites on the ground floor, dubbed “Melvin,” after the late founding partner. In-house editors are invaluable to this agency, whose signature is in evocative films that exceed that usual 30- or 60-second footprint of broadcast television. These films become brand bibles in sound bytes and visuals.

Christina Kounelias, chief marketing officer for the Academy, chose 180LA to recontextualize the organization’s identity and logo. “A central question asked was, what does the Academy mean to filmgoers and the world at large?” says Kounelias. “Everyone knows the Oscars and the Academy Awards. Only insiders, the membership itself and associated partners realize that the Academy also restores beloved films, provides education, and maintains a relationship with renowned filmmakers to keep the entire endeavor of film aspirational and inspirational.”

180LA placed the iconic Oscar statuette in the A of “Academy,” inextricably linking the two. In the design, the A shape confers a spotlight on the award that perfectly telegraphs what the Academy is: a benefactor and inspirational flame-keeper of film. Kounelias says, “It’s one thing to crack a campaign, or the brand, but then it comes down to, how do we use it? Is it flexible? Can it grow? It’s a constant vigil, keeping the bar very high. We wanted to be distinctive and memorable. We didn’t want a cookie-cutter approach. 180LA had a very smart approach. The strength of the design is that it’s fluid and adaptive.”

The Academy client win and subsequent relationship is somewhat ironic, since the agency’s name comes from a film reference. Director Francis Ford Coppola once said, “Whenever you get into trouble, keep going. Do a 180-degree turn. Turn the situation halfway ’round. Don’t look for the secure solution. Don’t pull back from the passion. Turn it on full force.” Those words, in raised white type, are branded into the white wall you first see when you walk into 180LA’s offices. There’s also a beach cruiser and a Dutch-style bicycle, reminding anyone who enters that it all started in Amsterdam—and that the agency’s global reach is still spreading, transforming stories and, therefore, listeners. ca

Julie Prendiville Roux is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles, contributing to magazines, public radio and other venues. She is owner and creative director of julieroux&company, which creates and produces radio, TV and print advertising. Julie has been writing profiles for CA since 1987.
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