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No, they’re not Johannes Brahms and Leonardo da Vinci. They’re today’s equivalents—in the agency biz.

From left to right: Leo Premutico, chief creative
officer and cofounder, and Jan Jacobs, chief
executive officer and cofounder.

Founded in 2007 by two Saatchi & Saatchi alums—Jan Jacobs, born and raised in South Africa, and Leo Premutico, an Aussie expat—who were joined by Italian-born creative director Ferdinando Verderi, Johannes Leonardo is now a $26-million plus agency with its own light-filled floor in a classic cast-iron building in Manhattan’s NoHo district. There, 125 creatives and account people—more than half foreign-born, and 65 percent women—are committed to disrupting the status quo and grabbing attention on behalf of their clients, which include adidas, Amazon, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Bleacher Report, Chanel, Google, MassMutual and the New York City Football Club.

“We went into business because we felt the big agencies weren’t changing fast enough to keep up with the consumer,” says Premutico. “We wanted to start a new paradigm in which the consumer is part of the creative community, sharing and reinterpreting our work on social media.”

“Everybody warned us not to do it,” adds Jacobs. “So of course we did.”

“Our philosophy is ‘the consumer is the medium,’” Premutico says. “Our work gives people something valuable to think about, talk about. What can we put out there that’s compelling and believable?” he asks rhetorically. “What’s the argument that will connect the brand with the consumer?” By answering those questions with bravery and originality, Johannes Leonardo has won every major award in the business, including being named number four on Ad Age’s 2018 A-List.

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Like many legends, this one has a birth story. Jacobs and Premutico, who first met at Saatchi & Saatchi’s London office, worked together in Saatchi’s New York office for two and a half years before deciding to start a business together. On day one, they had a client list numbering exactly zero.

“What are we going to do?” they recall asking each other. The not-so-obvious answer: “Let’s do a page covered in lips.” They made a video of disembodied lips talking about the new kind of creative community they envisioned: “We harness the energy of the masses by creating ideas that acknowledge them as the medium, not just the destination... That way, millions of people are empowered to promote your brand ... So that the brand has the freedom to express itself and the security to take risks.” A press release was sent out. There was a flattering story in Ad Age. Nevertheless, the phone did not ring.

So they went knocking on doors. Not just any doors, but those at the executive suites at Coca-Cola, Google and TED. It didn’t hurt that the “Talking Stain” commercial that their team at Saatchi & Saatchi New York made for Procter & Gamble’s Tide to Go stain-remover pen had just won a Silver Lion at Cannes, was voted a people’s favorite Super Bowl XLII ad, and helped get Saatchi & Saatchi New York named Agency of the Year and Procter & Gamble named Advertiser of the Year at Cannes.

When the executive suite doors opened, the story that Jacobs and Premutico told was simple: “Hey, we heard you might be looking for a new agency. We want to show you the future of advertising.”

The strategy worked. The edgling agency’s first client was Chris Anderson, the magazine and website impresario who was transforming the TED franchise from a California-based annual conference into a global force with TEDx talks all over the world. Johannes Leonardo’s first assignment was for Pangea Day, an initiative by Jehane Noujaim, the Egyptian American documentary filmmaker who won a 2006 TED Prize by positing that world peace could be brought about if people in different countries watched short films about each other’s lives and cultures. Inspired by the Pangea concept—that the continents had been one big landmass before they’d been divided by tectonic shift—Johannes Leonardo landed a contract for a series of spots in which the choirs of various nations sing the national anthems of other countries (i.e., France sings the United States of America, Japan sings Turkey, Kenya sings India).

We wanted to start a new paradigm in which the consumer is part of the creative community, sharing and reinterpreting our work on social media.” —Leo Premutico

“This, Johannes Leonardo’s first piece of work, generated millions of views with no media spend,” Premutico says. “But we couldn’t have done it alone. We are the creative strategists—the nucleus of a much broader community, including production companies and music people.” That, of course, is the hallmark of big-agency work, startup or not. A typical 30-second spot requires a million-dollar budget and the services of the agency and the actors and musicians—as well as a director, a cinematographer, a costume designer, a composer, executive producers, production designers, crews in several locations, editors, sound mixers...

The result in this case: Pangea Day’s annual number of YouTube views exceeded eight million.

Lots of new work followed.

For Nomis, a line of Australian football boots (or as we Americans call them, soccer shoes), Johannes Leonardo’s “Damn Boots” commercial cleverly traces the evolution of a blister caused by wearing the wrong shoe from getting injuries to losing confidence and games to losing sponsorships, contracts and, ultimately, a young hopeful’s dreams. The result for Johannes Leonardo: Clios and Gold Lions for best film and best use of music.

“Since the early days of Johannes Leonardo, we’ve treated music as a message in itself,” says Verderi. “Our founding philosophy—that the consumer is the medium—means that we put forth ideas that communicate on a deep emotional level. Music is the most shared type of content, and a message is much more powerful when it’s delivered by a piece of music. Whether we compose original lyrics or reappropriate iconic tracks, we let the music speak for itself.”

“Over the next few years, major pieces of business rolled in,” Jacobs says. One of them was for adidas. Johannes Leonardo is in its fifth year as adidas Originals’ agency of record. Its adidas Originals commercial starring Snoop Dogg rapping, with a remix of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” aired during the 2017 Grammy Awards show, dominating the brand’s resultant social media. Part of adidas Originals’ Original Is Never Finished campaign, the spot demonstrates that even the most overused cliché—a song covered by almost everybody— can be reimagined and appreciated by a new generation, just like a classic shoe that’s been around forever. The layered, often dark and blurry visuals show Snoop at the soundboard, kids in masks dancing under elevated tracks and occasional glimpses of shoes. Why, one might ask, do the complex, highly produced images flash by so quickly, cut to give the viewer barely a second to register them when there’s so much to see in each frame? “We give people reasons to come back and see the ad again and again,” Jacobs says. “That’s one of our ways of respecting the audience. Consumers share and comment on everything we do. When we listen to them, we learn that every time they come back, they get more out of it.”

Music is the most shared type of content, and a message is much more powerful when it’s delivered by a piece of music.” —Ferdinando Verderi

The press and competition judges are listening (and watching) too. Matt Edwards and Wes Phelan, creative directors on the adidas account at Johannes Leonardo, have amassed an impressive pile of Lions and Clios. “We want to do the greatest work we can,” they assert. Both thrive on the excitement of being in the center of advertising and culture in New York and working with stars and influencers like Pharrell Williams, Rita Ora, David Beckham and Snoop Dogg, who all have contracts with adidas. “Every adidas shoe has a different personality, from athleisure to high fashion, from back-to-essentials and functional styles to cool kicks for urban kids,” says Edwards. He explains that it’s never boring to work on this one account—they’re always creating different tactics for each shoe. For example, last year Johannes Leonardo did a stealth video that hinted a certain shoe would be sold from garbage bags on 57th Street. People lined up around the block before dawn.

At Johannes Leonardo, even a category some creatives might find mundane, like life insurance, gets reimagined. For MassMutual, Emily Wilcox’s account planning team undertook a two-month-long research process, during which they interviewed many different stakeholders to find out how they relate to insurance. The campaign that resulted, Live Mutual, puts forth the idea that insurance is for living now, and not just for providing benefits to survivors. Megan Piro’s communications strategy group determined how the campaign would roll out, which was during “big TV moments” when they’d get “millions of eyeballs” to view scenes of people giving each other a hand with things big and small, like helping someone fix a bike or change a light bulb. There is no “sell”—no call to action. Instead, the campaign is a subtle educational process that seeks to build understanding and goodwill. “Our special sauce is to take consumers on a journey they will remember for years,” says Piro.

“The idea of living mutually is inherent to human nature,” adds Kasia Canning, creative director on the MassMutual account. “If you give to others, they will help you. Our Adopt-a-Runner initiative [for MassMutual] during the New York City Marathon is an example. With posters along the marathon route and a social media sign-up, we got hundreds of New Yorkers to show up and cheer for a runner from another city or country.” The campaign built an emotional connection to the brand—and drummed up news coverage.

“We are not in service of selling stuff,” says Premutico. “We are in the service of reflecting and changing culture. We’re making brands relevant to people’s lives and giving them bigger and more important roles than just [providing] things to buy.” ca

Ellen Shapiro (visualanguage.net) is a graphic designer and writer based in Irvington, New York. The author of The Graphic Designer’s Guide to Clients (Allworth Press) and nearly 200 magazine articles about design, illustration, photography and visual culture around the world, Shapiro has been contributing to CA since 1991.

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