There are places that are full-fledged characters in their stories, not mere backdrops. The mansion in Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. The city of Los Angeles in Chinatown. The Enterprise spaceship in Star Trek. Austin is such a place. A bastion of the arts, it’s also home to some of the most forward-thinking businesses. It even has its own soundtrack: live music at all hours; bits of conversation bubbling up from the largely outdoors lifestyle; and the constant call and caw of two species of grackles, blackbirds with personality-plus, who seem to understand that Austin is the place to be. As composer Glen Galloway observes, “Austin, in general, is an amazingly creative place. Everyone’s trying to color outside the lines.”
DOOR NUMBER 3
Although this boutique-sized agency is technically located in downtown Austin, Door Number 3 sits at the top of a sloping hill surrounded by graceful vintage homes. It’s housed on the first floor of a two-story, small condo-style building. All around are calling grackles, lush green trees and, on this July day, a wetness in the air, with a cool breeze. Inside Door Number 3, there’s a homey feeling; although the space has the clean lines of a design-oriented space, there’s also a whiteboard inviting staff to vote on a refreshment drink they should (or should not) stock.
Comprised of twelve full-time staffers, the agency’s size is part of its winning formula. Door Number 3 (also called Dn3) has the usual creative, account and media representation—it’s just that it has pared it down to essentials. Nimble and streamlined, it seeks out brands it deems to
be challengers. Owner and chief creative officer Prentice Howe explains, “Challenger brands are small but mighty. We empower them to have a big megaphone.” To achieve that, Howe and his staff look beyond the brief to bigger thinking. “There will be 100 times you can give a client something they were expecting,” says Noah Davis, executive creative director. “Our strategy is to surprise and delight. That can be a strategic position.” Howe adds, “Give them what they ask for and give them what they didn’t think of. That’s going to be the most important job—something they didn’t think of.”
Mark Seiler didn’t think he needed a thing. As president of Maine Root, an organic beverage company, he was relying on his sales roots. “My sales training had brainwashed me to think that companies that spent a ton on marketing were wimps,” he says. “Then I got a call from Prentice basically asking me what I was thinking with our old website. He told me to shoot the lock off my wallet, stop being an idiot and get with the times. We sucked at telling our story online. Our story didn’t need to be fabricated; it just needed to be told. Door Number 3 was able to bring that story to life in a way that’s true to our roots.” The agency decided the most compelling aspect of the brand was that it was just plain good, from its sourcing practices to its taste. Creating the positioning “Rooted in Goodness,” it generated point-of-sale, print, out-of-home, social and digital. One ad showing Maine Root blueberry soda reads: “Where tongues dye and go to heaven.”
For Mighty Swell wine spritzers, the agency declared “Let’s Swellebrate!” in a very crowded landscape, to great results. Jason Bronstad, president of Mighty Swell, remembers, “We discussed our project with companies of all sizes, and what we found most favorable about Dn3 is that their size allowed for fast and transparent conversations. Prentice and the team were open to discussing feedback and taking it seriously. They were the consummate professionals. The fact that we could collaborate and openly disagree with a common end point allowed us to complete the project in record time.”
Howe, who has lived in Texas half his life, has worked in more-traditional, larger ad settings for clients that include Anheuser-Busch, Minute Maid and the UPS Store. But he clearly thrives in the “challenger” space. He wrote a book, released in 2017, titled The Empowered Challenger Playbook: How Brands Can Change the Game, Steal Market Share, and Topple Giants, which details his methods and illustrates them with case studies. Similarly, Davis, who is from Austin, worked in New York for years on brands like Diet Coke, Oreo and Samsung. Both find that this Texas city and its mind-set are the right fit for their mission. “Austin is the cool kid on the block,” says Howe. “It’s got everything going for it: health care, consumer products, tech—there’s a cache.”
Senior copywriter Mark Killian went from graduating from portfolio school to working on a shoot in his first month at Dn3. “After my first time working here, I went off and experienced other atmospheres. I’m so glad I kept in touch with Prentice, and now I’m back. Back in a place where humor and personality are wanted.” Ines Morel is head of design and an art director. She says, “We all work for the same purpose. And we all get a voice, from concept to pitch to execution—everything.”
The challenger rallying cry seems to be at work among the staff as well as the clients—empowering the small to be mighty. Seiler says, “Prentice has an eye for finding brands with a strong, competitive spirit. Brands that are crazy enough to battle with the biggest in the world.” That eye goes for those behind Door Number 3 too.
Springing up from a merger and acquisition in 2010, Proof Advertising began fully formed with $60 million in billings, long-standing clients and a staff numbering 65. Taking up three floors in a soaring downtown Austin bank building, the agency is bifurcated by departments. Assignments, however, are not. There is no automatic pairing of copywriter and art director—unless a job calls for it. More regularly, a social media person will team with a producer, or a media person will pair with a writer.
Creative director Claire Jordan explains, “Coming from a traditional ad agency, I’m seeing a much closer relationship among all the departments [here at Proof]. When we get a new assignment, we’re all in the room, giving our perspectives. It cuts down on time, and it’s much more efficient.” In this way, the agency delivers on assignments with ideas the client perhaps never envisioned. Because all departments are weighing in from the beginning, a campaign may be driven by media or research, for example. “A substantial amount of our media wins have been won by a creative solution, and many of our creative awards may have been driven by a media insight,” says Bryan Christian, president. And the ideas can come from anyone. Craig Mikes, executive creative director, says, “A week ago, I shot a piece because the interns had a fun idea for a social campaign. The client bought it.”
“They will veer off the brief, but they’ll tell you they’re going to do it,” says Carrie Lumb-Dewey, formerly with Stubb’s Bar-B-Q sauce. “They’ll bring one campaign that’s close in, and then they’ll bring in a campaign where you can tell they had a ball. That one may not be on strategy, but you’ll just love the energy and feeling.” The sauce’s homemade recipe, formulated in the sixties (and probably earlier) by late barbecue icon and blues lover C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield, was long on a passionate, authentic origin story, but short on awareness and sales. One fun fact is that before Stubblefield launched his company, he’d pack bottles of his homemade sauce into the trunk of his Cadillac and pass them out as he went from town to town. Proof managed to imbue the brand with a small-batch, straight-from-C.B.’s-kitchen feel, coupled with up-to-the-minute relevance, when they uncovered one simple truth: folks eating barbecue cannot read a recipe book at the same time. Too messy. Enter Ask Stubb. Unearthing archival recordings of C.B.’s actual voice, Proof created a hands-free barbecue manual. The result is a colorful, soulful pistache of C.B.’s musings, favorite tunes and tips on barbecuing, and it’s even a way to order more sauce.
Led by Christian and Mikes, Proof has a client list that includes, along with Stubb’s, the American Heart Association, E. & J. Gallo Winery, Mouser Electronics, Subway, Texas Tourism and the US Army. Ad Age has recognized Proof with four Small Agency Awards. Like many advertising people in Austin, Christian and Mikes both arrived here having worked in many other markets, and for stellar clients. Both feel that Austin is a great fit for their creative endeavor. “When recruiting, I usually lead with, ‘We’re in Austin,’” says Christian with a laugh. “Austin gives you a business-friendly life. There’s no shortage of talent of any kind.” Their name comes from Mikes’s prior life, as a leader in a different agency—SJ&J Advertising, located in a vintage warehouse space complete with a gorgeous full bar. Row upon row of spirits fueled the idea: “Proof, nothing watered down.” After SJ&J merged with Proof, the team kept that space as an annex of their buttoned-up bank-building selves. There, they hold parties, events and retreats.
Proof has a penchant for experiential solutions for its clients. For the American Heart Association, the agency rigged up a Scream Booth on a busy city street, where passersby could step inside a soundproof booth and let out all their frustrations. The point was well-taken: reduce your stress; improve your health. And in one of many initiatives for Apothic Wines, E. & J. Gallo Winery’s run at targeting millennials, Proof turned a smartphone into an interactive palm reader. After users scanned their dominant hand with their camera phone, a fortune was given. “If your palm reading said adventure or calm or extrovert, we added a cue to the wine that aligns. The tool itself was not created to directly sell the wine; it served to create an engagement with the brand and fuel word of mouth,” Mikes explains. Christian adds, “Apothic has become a creative reputation maker for us. It took the sum total of our talents and put them into action—everyone working at the peak of what they do. It’s the kind of client we built the place for.”
Lumb-Dewey says, “Proof’s process has the ultimate goal of doing the best creative that gets the client results. I loved that they weren’t afraid to challenge me as a client.”
GREATEST COMMON FACTORY
“All the things that get in the way, went away,” says John Trahar, cofounder of Greatest Common Factory (GCF). He’s referring to his years at GSD&M in Austin and Ogilvy New York. Karen Jacobs, cofounder and director of production, worked with Trahar at GSD&M, where he was a creative director and she was executive producer. She had also served at J. Walter Thompson in San Francisco and DDB in London. Operating with a small staff, their East Austin agency has peeled away the layers to end up with an agency that has no titles per se and lots of hats residing on each head. Trahar serves as lead strategist and creative director, and also directs most of the work. “The key is to hire a good director of photography. I let them do their job,” he says. Jacobs adds, “There are people who need five people, and there are people who are five people. We were both frustrated with the traditional agency model, and we tested out our concept.” One title they abolished: account person. “We let the client find their point person,” says Jacobs.
They put this theory into motion eight years ago. Scrappy, nimble and resourceful, the result has captured the loyalty of clients who appreciate efficiency that doesn’t have to sacrifice ideas and talent. Anthony Abernathy, who spent thirteen years at Nike, first worked with GCF on an app whose purpose was to give aspiring athletes training tips. “At Nike, we had a deep bench of athletes across all sports,” Abernathy says. “We would make transcriptions, and GCF took that on, keeping track of all these interviews, all this footage. It just so happened that this mixed martial artist, Jon Jones, was up and coming. I said, ‘Hey, GCF, I need some B-roll.’” The agency took that project on, which was to film segments of the boxer to use as filler between interviews or other segments—that’s what B-roll is used for. But they also developed a script. Abernathy remembers, “They had been faithful to us, so I said, ‘Let’s see what you can do behind the camera and in editing.’ It turned out really solid.” The piece GCF created, one of a series of training videos of athletes, is emotional, powerful and beautifully shot.
Similarly, Nike’s Jordan Brand asked GCF to strategize and create content for a mobile platform for elite high school athletes, to be unveiled at invitation-only events across the country. The agency conceived the Breakfast Club, a series of videos based on basketball star Michael Jordan’s dedication to adding an early-morning extra practice to his training regimen. Having rolled out to wider use, inspiring videos of athletes’ and coaches’ regimens and philosophies can be accessed by athletes right from their phones. Jacobs says, “These kinds of shoots take lots of planning. We have to think, ‘What might we need that we don’t know we need yet?’” For all their Nike work, they have to meticulously plan around athletes’ schedules. “GCF knows when to be flies on the wall and when to go in for a close-up,” Abernathy says.
Tyler Crelia is an excellent example of one who wears many hats. He started as an editor in the agency’s in-house post suite. One day, he had an idea for their client SafeAuto. “I said, ‘Hey, can I direct on this round?’ They said, ‘Sure,’” he says with a laugh. “I like to do everything, and this is one of the few places that allows that. They’ve done a good job of hiring people who can do a lot of things. Things you would never be able to do in bigger places.” GCF’s SafeAuto work is funny, at times whacky, and attention-getting. In the insurance landscape, SafeAuto is a small player, so its aim is to break through. The campaign Fârnhäan spoofs Alexa with an at-home electronic helper that gives terrible advice and nonsensical answers to everyday questions. The announcer then says, “That doesn’t sound right. But SafeAuto can get you a great car insurance quote in just three minutes, and it could save you up to 25 percent.”
Composer Glen Galloway of Singing Serpent, a music and sound design firm, has worked on many projects with GCF, including Golfsmith, Nike and SafeAuto. He appreciates the lack of layers at the agency. “You don’t get the feeling they’re running everything through 50 focus groups. It’s not death by committee. At the end of the day, the best creative comes out of partnerships where everyone trusts each other. Let’s find the most direct route between A and B to do the best work.” For GCF, that route starts in East Austin. ca