If you’re ever in need of an over-the-top cliché, head straight to an advertising industry event. You’ll hear that the old models are broken. Audiences are fragmented. Silos must be ground into dust. And just about everything is dead. Then comes the irony. After describing this post-apocalyptic wasteland, the participants adjourn to $200 tasting menus and posh rooms at the W.
But while all are trying to adapt to the new realities of the business, few have gone to quite the same lengths as Anomaly, a twelve-year-old upstart—and now a 400-person global agency. You probably know the agency from its tear-jerking “Puppy Love” and “Lost Dog” Super Bowl spots for Budweiser. You may not know that the agency took an early ownership stake in EOS, which today makes a popular lip balm. And you almost certainly don’t know that EOS and Anomaly hired a different agency to promote the product after its initial (and highly successful) launch. When that campaign won an Effie, Anomaly became the only agency ever to win an effectiveness award as a client.
Did we mention the agency also produces a TV show? Its Emmy-winning series Avec Eric features famed chef Eric Ripert. If your head is spinning, rest easy. It all makes sense, once you get the basics.
A NEW BEGINNING
Anomaly traces its roots to 2002, when founding partner Carl Johnson was relaxing on the beach in Australia. A former COO of TBWA\Worldwide, he had also helped lead the revival of TBWA\Chiat\Day’s New York office in the late 1990s. But the events of 9/11 wore on him. He felt he had done pretty much everything he could in traditional advertising, and he decided to retire. “If I was going to come back,” he says, “it had to be for something f**king interesting.”
It turned out that former employee Jason DeLand had ideas in that direction. DeLand had been working as the senior vice president of marketing at Hong Kong Telecom, but 9/11 had a strong effect on him as well—it made him want to return to New York. After interviewing for a few months, DeLand realized he didn’t want to work for just any agency. He wanted to start a new one, based on a new, entrepreneurial approach.
Over the course of two years, DeLand and Johnson had a series of conversations, looping in like-minded people. The pair eventually came up with a set of three principles that have guided Anomaly ever since. The first was that they would not create a marketing or advertising agency. They would solve business problems. If communications achieved that, terrific. But if the client needed a new product instead, that’s exactly what they would provide.
“If you’re set up like us, you don’t care what the answer is,” says Johnson. “If a client says, ‘We want to have an ad campaign,’ we can say to them, ‘We thought it through, and an ad campaign will not really solve the core business issue.’ For example, we might say, ‘You should create a pop-up store, use it as an activation center and distribute it socially.’”
Their second principle was that, unlike other agencies, they would not bill for time. Their logic here was simple. If you’re charging by the hour, you always have an incentive to take longer. You may care about your clients, but you are never completely aligned with them. Instead, Anomaly charges a fee to work on a problem and takes a bonus if it solves it. That gives the agency a reason to both work quickly and produce an effective solution.
“We want to be the most premium-priced agency you ever hire,” says Johnson, “and the best value you’ve ever had.”
The founders’ final principle was their most risky and ambitious. If they were going to solve clients’ business problems, they also had to understand what it was like to walk in their shoes. In other words, they must create their own intellectual property. Anomaly would invest a substantial portion of its profits in new ideas it would then sell.
To understand how it comes together, we can start with a problem the company addressed for Budweiser Canada. A few years ago, its rival, Molson Canadian, won the right to sponsor the National Hockey League, which in Canada is a lot like sponsoring Canada.
That suited Anomaly just fine. Mike Byrne, a founding partner with a role akin to that of a chief creative officer, says, “When we heard about it, we said, ‘This is great. Now we don’t need approval from the NHL. We can go after hockey in a completely authentic way.’”
One of Anomaly’s quirkiest ideas leveraged its experience as both a product developer and a brand communicator. The agency created a retail product sure to please hockey fans—a Wi-Fi-enabled replica of the red lights that light up on a hockey net whenever a team scores. Owners of the device could select their favorite team, and whenever it scored a goal, the light would glow right in their living room (or bar). The lights debuted in a pop-up store in Toronto, were quickly picked up by social media and became a craze throughout Canada.
A more touching project for Budweiser came with a beer league promotion in 2012. In Canada, it costs so much to rent ice rink time that recreational hockey games typically take place very late at night, without any friends or family present. You have to really love hockey to play in them.
Anomaly and Budweiser decided to celebrate this love with two lucky teams, who were told they were being featured in a documentary about beer league hockey. Instead, at one of their games, the agency brought in mascots, commentators and busloads of fans, who cheered every play just as though it were Toronto against Montréal. A powerful commercial highlighting the event ends after showing one of the players sitting on the ice, overcome by emotion, with a commentator intoning, “This is hockey. This is hockey.” Problem solved.
CELEBRATING THE ORDINARY
Converse, the agency’s longest-running client, presented a different kind of problem. Its Chuck Taylor sneakers needed little introduction—and certainly no celebrity sponsorship. “It’s a brand that is cool in and of itself,” says Byrne. “Marketing won’t make it cool, so you have to be careful not to get in the way of the brand.”
Converse wanted to support its fans’ subcultures in an authentic way. So Anomaly started with the insight that Chucks are made out of canvas and people always modify them in their own way. Painters paint on them, graffiti artists decorate them, and just about anyone can scribble a name or number on them.
Based on this, Anomaly created a campaign called Made by You. It invited thousands of people—from celebrities and urban explorers to zombie-movie extras and just plain folks—to send in their shoes. The agency expertly styled and photographed 200 pairs against a white background, displaying them as works of art. The images were printed out and have since surfaced everywhere from subway stations to a pop-up “gallery” of light boxes in New York’s Flatiron District. Social media, of course, has taken them around the world.
What really sets Anomaly apart, however, is its approach to intellectual property. The agency forms partnerships and launches entrepreneurial ventures that run the gamut from entertainment to consumer packaged goods. This may not sound unusual. After all, many agencies have created products. But few have been willing to take millions off their bottom line over the years to invest in risky ventures that fail more often than not.
“Nearly all [innovation] fails,” says DeLand. “We know it’s a rough road, but we decided to do it because it would make us a better company. It creates a more commercial culture.”
Anomaly’s failures have included a mobile payment system—“We got crushed,” admits DeLand—and a partnership with one of the earliest YouTube celebrities. But it has had stunning successes too, the most striking of which is EOS. That venture began when a group came to the agency with a new brand of women’s shaving cream. When Anomaly decided to invest, they looked to extend the brand elsewhere in the cosmetics market and identified a product ripe for innovation: lip balm.
Starting with the insight that most people like fruit, they created a berry-shaped package filled with new flavors like blueberry acai and strawberry sorbet. EOS soon turned into a sensation and eventually passed ChapStick to become the best-selling lip balm in the United States.
A different example comes with the show Avec Eric. Its star, Eric Ripert, is the chef of the famed Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City. He came to Anomaly with a simple request: he wanted to build his personal brand. The obvious answer was TV, but that brought a bigger problem. Although few cooking show hosts, or human beings for that matter, are in Ripert’s league as a chef, he was far from a natural on camera. Under the direction of founding partner Justin Barocas, Anomaly created a travel-and-cook show that plays to Ripert’s strengths, chief of which are his curiosity and utter lack of pretension. His travels focus primarily on things he doesn’t know, such as how to make gin or kimchee. His genuine interest in learning is compelling (if you’re into food, anyway), as is watching how he takes that as inspiration for making something new. The critics agree. Two seasons of Avec Eric have won Daytime Emmys.
AN ANOMALOUS FUTURE
With successes like these, Anomaly has expanded into offices in London, Toronto, Amsterdam and Shanghai—and it continues to grow. But rather than basing their decisions on what will bring in the most money, Anomaly’s partners take on only those projects they want and open offices only in cities they find interesting, so it’s not clear where they’ll go next. What is clear, however, is that they won’t change the way they do things. They’ve upended the model, and they’re not going back.
“We’re driven by curiosity and a desire to create something special,” says Johnson. “The world is just too damn interesting not to be a part of it.” ca