The city of Chicago has a history with three-time champions. The legendary Bulls dynasty of the 1990s “three-peated” twice, earning six NBA titles. The Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups over six years in the 2010s. And now, there’s a new Chicago three-time champion banner to hang from the rafters: ad agency Highdive has captured the number-one ranking on the USA TODAY Super Bowl Ad Meter an astonishing three years in a row.
The agency has thrice conquered the hearts of the hundreds of millions of viewers who tune in every year for the Big Game. But despite the enormity of that success, it’s just one day of the year. For the other 364 days, Highdive is launching global work, creating transformative 360 campaigns for clients like Jeep and the National Hockey League (NHL), and building its trademark healthy client relationships. Like an authentic, all-toppings-included Chicago hot dog, this agency is loaded.
Seven years ago, Highdive’s founders and co-chief creative officers Mark Gross and Chad Broude left the big agency life because they wanted to start their own shop. Gross explains their motivations: “Chad and I were looking around and saw a need for smaller, more nimble creative shops that cut out some of the layers.” They walked out the door of their jobs with no clients in tow. “It’s crazy to think about it now,” Gross says, “but I’ve been in the business a long time. I knew people would pick up the phone. We took our contact book and hustled.”
Remember as a kid when you first climbed to the top of the highest diving board at the community pool? It took guts and courage to dive off. Gross and Broude found obvious parallels to what they were doing at the time. An agency name was staring them in the face. “Sure, it’s a metaphor about starting your own business,” says Broude. “But for us, it was the perfect metaphor for the type of work we wanted to do: the daringness, the spirit it takes to climb up the ladder and get to that space where you can create work so powerful it can’t be ignored.”
They jumped, and Highdive was born.
With a name established, they now needed a central purpose. Gross says, “All my experiences in advertising where we’ve done killer work, it’s been with a healthy agency-and-client relationship.” So they made it a tenet: building healthy client relationships will lead to amazing work.
“The reason for healthy client relationships is that you get a better creative product—there’s actual science behind it,” Broude explains. “When you have good relationships and build trust, the ideas [flow freely] back and forth, which allows for better work. It [lets] us say things without fear for how clients will react, and they can do the same.”
When asked about potential dream clients they’d like to add, they both said it’s not about the who; it’s the why. “We want daring clients who are aligned with us and love the challenge of brand transformations,” says Broude. “What we don’t love is that cruise control mindset.
“[Chief marketing officers] like to work with us because we’re very keen on removing the ‘ta-da moment,’” Broude continues. “Traditionally, an agency would get briefed, go away for a while and come back with the one shiny campaign. That’s not our style at all. We like to bring our clients in early and often. We leverage their expertise; they’re brand experts who live and breathe the brand 24/7. We aren’t going to pretend like we understand their brand better than they do. We keep them in the process every step of the way.”
“When clients come in for a creative presentation, we’ll have the entire strategy laid out on the wall,” says Gross. “It’s very much a work session, and that leads into the work.”
One huge fan of Highdive is Olivier François, global chief marketing officer and brand chief executive officer of Abarth and Fiat at automotive company Stellantis. “Highdive’s creative ambition is without limits,” says François. He’s seen firsthand the impact that the agency has had on his brands across a variety of media and projects. “Between its work on Super Bowl campaigns such as Groundhog Day to product launches including Jeep Wrangler 4xe and Grand Cherokee 4xe, to our recent partnership between the Jeep brand and Jurassic World: Dominion, [the ad agency] consistently and enthusiastically delivers creative magic. On top of that, they’re genuinely good people who are lovely to work with day in and day out.”
François’s trust in Highdive led to the assignment in 2018 for Jeep’s Super Bowl spot. The ad agency created a reprise of the classic movie Groundhog Day featuring Bill Murray, netting it its first number-one Ad Meter ranking.
It wasn’t a new experience for Gross, though, having won multiple number-one Ad Meter placements earlier in his career. Has he uncovered the secret formula for creating the perfect Super Bowl spot? He outlines some of the key features of a great Big Game ad. “It’s not a time for inside jokes and having a pretentious voice,” Gross says. “It’s about populist humor and storytelling that everyone can love. [More than] 100 million people are watching. If you look at all the top-ranked spots, they all feature great relatable storytelling that appeals to the masses.” In the 2022 Ad Meter winner for Rocket Mortgage, Highdive found a way to take the current realities of the home buying market and relate it to an All-American classic, Barbie, as the famous doll tries to buy her “Dreamhouse.” Actress Anna Kendrick lends her humor and charm to the spot, with the storytelling highlighting the product all the way through.
Another veteran of Super Bowl advertising is O Positive Films director Jim Jenkins, who worked with Highdive on the Groundhog Day-themed Super Bowl spot. While making the commercial, he said to Broude and Gross, “The best ad of the game is usually the best ad,” a sentiment that the two agree with. “He [meant] that the best ad is the one that clearly articulates the brand’s values in the most memorable way,” Broude adds. “What people miss are the fundamentals. People want to feel something about the brand after the end. You watch the game—it can be a lot of bells and whistles, and viewers lose sight of the clear brand message. It’s rewarding for them to go through the journey.”
Each of Highdive’s number-one ranked spots involves that marquee Super Bowl ingredient: celebrities. Broude and Gross have learned that it’s key to get the most out of them. “You have to use [celebrities] properly and understand they have a brand to protect; know their strengths and weaknesses,” says Broude. “It’s amazing how many people misuse celebs. We always try to make the celebrity enhance the concept and the story, rather than the other way around.”
It’s also important to remember that the Super Bowl is no longer a one-day event. “This is a commercial that has to last for our clients all year,” Broude adds. “Identifying that celeb is really important. Yeah, they might be great for the spot, but how are they great for the content you create pregame and postgame to keep fans engaged and entertained?” To see an example, do a quick YouTube search and watch the hilarious teaser video they made with Seth Rogan and Paul Rudd to hype up Lays’s 2022 Big Game spot.
Is a small agency winning the number one distinction three years in a row a new trend, or is Highdive an outlier? “No one our size has ever done this; usually, it’s the giant holding companies with the huge client rosters,” Gross says. “For us, doing it at our size, we’re really proud of it.”
“We’re in the business of building brands. Success helps us build our own brand,” Broude adds. “When we win the Super Bowl three years in a row or launch a global campaign, it gets a lot of attention and strengthens our brand. It also makes people feel something when they hear the name Highdive. It helps the new business pipeline too. There’s a positive brand association with our reputations.”
If the Super Bowl work is Highdive humor at its best, then recent ads for the NHL likely qualify as the ad agency’s showcase for the dramatic. Starting with the Nothing Regular campaign that debuted during the 2021–2022 season and culminating with three Stanley Cup–themed ads airing during the playoffs, Highdive created an iconic series that won the hearts of hockey fans. The spots weren’t just powerful; they were effective too. The Nothing Regular campaign resulted in a 61-percent increase in ad awareness since prior seasons. Making content that’s both creative and effective is part of the Highdive DNA and its blueprint for success.
The two think about future agency growth but feel confident it will take care of itself. “The only thing that’s important to us is we want to stay who we are,” says Broude. “We want to maintain our culture; our world-class creative; and our super positive, healthy relationships with clients. If we do that, the sky’s the limit. But we’ll never grow at the risk of forgoing any of that.”
“For us, it’s about careful growth,” Gross adds. “I don’t think we’re greedy. We want to work with clients who do great work and make sure our employees are happy as we grow.”
Their employees’ happiness means everything to them. “Many of the people here wear Highdive hoodies or swag as a badge of honor,” says Broude. “Until you start an agency, you don’t really have a sense of how rewarding that can be. We’re providing jobs for almost 100 people. It’s pretty magical.”
So, are Broude and Gross thinking about earning four-peat status at this year’s Super Bowl? Of course, they say. And don’t be surprised if they pull it off. But Highdive’s Ad Meter wins are just part of its story. “We have a lot of success in the Super Bowl, and it keeps us top of mind, but it’s a single day,” says Broude. “The rest of the year, we’re launching national and global campaigns with very aggressive goals and key-performance indicators. We take every challenge with an open mind. That goes a long way. That’s the Highdive way.” ca