If Bruce Springsteen ran an ad agency, it might look a little like Boston-based Sleek Machine. The agency’s name references the lyrics of “Jungleland,” from the album Born to Run (“The magic rat drove his sleek machine / Over the Jersey state line”). The Boss’s unpretentious aesthetic permeates the office. Cofounders Eric Montague, Sleek Machine president, and Tim Cawley, chief creative officer, wear Converse sneakers and jeans and decorate the walls with Pearl Jam posters, graffiti murals and their employees’ favorite album covers. “We are never going to spend money on a $3,000 chandelier or an expensive piece of art,” says Montague. “I wanna be like the caveman of advertising,” says Cawley, who grew up on the Jersey Shore consuming a musical diet of Springsteen and hair metal.
In 2013, after working together for a year at Mullen Advertising, Cawley and Montague founded Sleek Machine. “In the beginning, we felt this Pinocchio sense of ‘When am I gonna be a real boy?’” Cawley says. Despite Montague’s decade at Mullen, most recently as senior vice president and group account director, and Cawley’s pile of medals—including from Cannes and the Webbys—the pair weren’t sure their new agency would be taken seriously right off the bat. They insisted on not displaying their past work on Sleek Machine’s website—“like not wanting to accept money from your parents after college,” Cawley remarks—even though their client list had included international brands like Dunkin’ Donuts, JetBlue and Miller Lite. The startup gained steam after hiring Dorothy Urlich, a former colleague of Cawley’s at Hill Holiday, as chief marketing officer, and Jeff Marois as the agency’s first copywriter.
Now Sleek Machine’s clients include such brands as Century 21 Real Estate, Bertucci’s, the Connecticut Association of REALTORS Inc. (CTR), the Boston Celtics and men’s fashion line Ministry of Supply. With a sixteen-person staff, the ad agency rebels against the bureaucratic, stratified structures of bigger agencies that can slow down production and hike up budgets. As a one-stop shop that offers earned media, brand strategy, design, filmmaking and community management services, it can cut out the middleman and work quickly with lower production budgets without sacrificing quality. Describing itself as “half ad agency, half production company,” it emphasizes efficiency and speedy productivity. “We conceived Sleek Machine as this factory of ideas that goes very quickly from concept to production—that would be the ‘machine,’” Montague says.
This machine-like approach drew inspiration from Cawley’s experience directing and producing From Nothing, Something, a 2012 documentary about the creative process. Featuring the likes of comedian Maria Bamford, novelist Tom Perrotta, and Sara Quin of singer-songwriter duo Tegan and Sara, the documentary made ripples on the festival circuit. It also supplied Cawley with a fresh perspective on the ad-making business. Cawley says that at most big agencies, “[when] you go into work on Monday to shoot a simple tabletop spot, you’re told you can’t do it for less than $250,000.” But making a feature film over the course of two years cost “not even a third of that,” he observes. “All of a sudden, I had this dangerous knowledge of how much it really costs to make something and who to call to make it really good.”
Companies often stress about their advertising choices because of the cost. “But when budgets are slightly lower and timelines are shorter, the client doesn’t get nervous,” Cawley says. “When people really care about what they make, they don’t need to earn $100,000 a day—nobody does!”
Growing up in the town of Lincroft, New Jersey, Cawley was “always the kid putting on magic shows. I played in a heavy metal band called YNOTT and wrote a magazine about creek exploration,” he says. “When I saw the movie Nothing in Common—starring Tom Hanks as an ad guy, wearing jeans, playing guitar and shooting films at work—I was like, ‘That’s a job? That seems good.’” He went on to major in advertising at Syracuse University.
Cawley recalls that he struggled to get a job after graduating. “I didn’t really have a portfolio,” he says. He freelanced at Pagano, Schenck & Kay, but was intimidated by his colleagues’ more advanced portfolios. “I thought, ‘I have to just out-hustle them somehow.’ But I never thought about money. I was never a careerist. I was always, like, a workist.” Now Cawley has out-hustled many. Lürzer’s Archive ranked him as one of the top ten US writers of all time. “I’m still always gonna think about the work and trust that the clients will come,” he says. “I hang old Skid Row band posters from my childhood in my office to remind myself: Don’t be a big fancy ad guy. Stay in touch with that kid who wanted to make weird little videos.”
Weird little videos constitute a big chunk of Sleek Machine’s digital media–savvy work. Since most Internet users do their utmost to skip over ads to get to the next music video, cute cat photo or funny meme, it’s crucial for ads to not immediately announce themselves as ads. “Sometimes we’ll say, ‘Ugh, that kind of feels like an ad,’” Cawley remarks. “I don’t want stuff to feel slow and old-fashioned.”
Fluent in “Internetspeak,” Sleek Machine uses the language of social media to make its ads double as music videos, cute cat photos and funny memes. For example, Sleek Machine used Photoshop to dress up cats and dogs in medieval knight armor—complete with chainmail, plumed helmets and shields—to promote Lawn Doctor’s Yard Armour Mosquito and Tick Control. “Protect Your Pet,” the banners say. A necessary, but not cute product—pesticide—somehow seems adorable by association. “It was hilarious, out of the box, unlike any ad for the lawn care business,” says Chris McGeary, head of marketing at Lawn Doctor. “I’ve been at this for more than 20 years, but can count on one hand the number of folks I’ve worked with who do what Tim does as well as he does. He doesn’t just come with creative ideas, concepts and storyboards—he marries them with media strategy.”
For Lawn Doctor, that strategy involved making more than 50 pieces of targeted creative—all shot over the course of two days—instead of one unified campaign. In addition to armored pets, Sleek Machine created a silly music video featuring a sad torch singer crooning about missing his yard and a series starring various “lawn doctors” with names like Dr. Wiffleheat and Dr. Hammocknookie. The agency seeded other ads as unbranded social posts and disguised them as clickbait, with titles like “Dog learning tricks in her yard gives her owner an AMAZING surprise!!” The “surprise” is a clever Lawn Doctor plug. Since the Internet likes prank videos almost as much as it likes cute animal videos, it was an effective strategy that subtly commented on the predictability of click psychology. In another series, titled “Embarrassed,” a man grills burgers on a patchy, dry lawn while wearing a brown paper bag over his head. Stripped of its context and judged as a cinematic clip, it’s funny and slightly surreal, making viewers ask, “Why is that guy wearing a paper bag?” The answer comes twelve seconds later as a textual punch line: “Don’t be embarrassed of your lawn.”
“If you lined up a bunch of different creatives against a wall, you’d be hard pressed to determine which one’s which,” McGeary says. “They all start to look alike. But Sleek Machine is unique and fun. We’ve got a little swagger.”
Ever the antisnobs, Sleek Machine’s writers pride themselves on coming up with out-of-the-box, entertaining spots for unsexy products and industries. “We tend not to hire from the cool kids’ table,” Cawley says. Instead of courting talent from top creative agencies, Cawley looks for people like the “22-year-old version of me who felt he had to prove himself, who was happy to work on anything and who tried to rise above his assignments.”
For CTR, Sleek Machine created a clever out-of-home campaign that parodied traditional real estate signs. “Buying a home and stressing about the picocurie?” one sign asked. “Stressing about not knowing what ‘picocurie’ is?” Each introduced a term from real estate jargon, like “puffing” and “muniment,” and reassured viewers that CTR’s experts would take care of the obscure details of home buying.
“Sleek Machine’s team throws a lot of ideas out there when we plan campaigns,” says Lisa Governale, vice president of communications at CTR. “They don’t bring one or two suggested plans; they always bring several really different ideas. Some are more conservative and traditional, while others are way out there.” Sleek Machine’s next campaign for CTR stars World Wrestling Entertainment wrestlers helping families move their stuff. “Not what you’d typically expect to see in a real estate spot,” Governale says.
In a Century 21 Real Estate campaign titled Empty Nesters, the strategy included releasing commercials to coincide with college and high school graduations. The short clips feature bird parents in their empty nests, overdubbed with reactions to their chicks’ leaving home. A pair of crows in a leafless tree squawk, “Brian! Listen to your mother!”; a father stork tries not to cry about “Mikey moving out”; a woodpecker calls into the empty “room”—or hole in a tree—of her college graduate.
“It was a humorous take on the range of emotions that parents experience when their kids move out,” says Mike Callaghan, vice president of Digital Marketing at ProSight Specialty Insurance Group Inc. and a former client of Sleek Machine’s at Century 21. “It ended with a strong call to action that Century 21 agents are here for what’s next—in this case, finding a smaller home or condo.”
The idea of limitations as drivers of creativity is baked into the company’s ethos. On Montague’s desk sits a shot glass imprinted with a portrait of Joe Grimaldi, former chairman and CEO of Mullen and his biggest influence. “Grimaldi always said, ‘Don’t let what you can’t do limit what you can do,’” Montague says. “A very simple phrase, but the more I thought about it, his words were like permission to play.”
“The ad industry today is a sea of sameness,” McGeary says. “Many agencies are too timid or lack the creative firepower to help brands break through the media clutter. But not Sleek Machine. It’s a true partner—bold, brash, highly creative and, most important, the team gets it. The team understands that the creative is not the end product—it is what that creative can do to help elevate brands and exceed their business objectives.” Sleek Machine, it’s safe to say, has become a “real boy.” ca