The agency is No. 3 on the Ad Age’s 2020 A-List
In early January, the management team at Johannes Leonardo gathered at the Arlo hotel in SoHo over three days for some straight talk. The agency had just finalized an agreement to buy back a significant share of WPP’s ownership stake, reducing the holding company behemoth’s share from 49 percent to 25 percent. The meeting came amid a hotly contested pitch for Volkswagen’s U.S. creative account—but leaders still opted to take a time out to discuss just what kind of agency it wanted to be.
“We walked out believing that if you want to be truly effective there is only one way … and it’s through courageous work—not risky, self-indulgent creative work, but courageous creative work that is going to make sure you leave an indelible impression and overcome consumer indifference,” recalls agency Co-Founder and Co-Chief Creative Officer Leo Premutico.
The renewed focus paid off. Johannes went on to win the VW account and within months launched a campaign called “Drive Bigger,” which played a role in the automaker regaining its footing after its diesel emissions scandal. In total, the 200-person agency brought nine new clients aboard in 2019, including Kraft Heinz, Venmo and The Gap, helping to fuel revenue growth of $50 million, which amounts to the shop’s best year in its 13-year history.
Johannes Leonardo’s approach is to pitch big creative ideas that can last years, rather than incremental solutions. “What’s happening in the industry over the last few years is people have become so distracted by fads and trends—data, programmatic—everybody is looking for certainty, and they’ve done so at the neglect of brand-building, neglect of the power of brands, and that has always been our sweet spot,” says Jan Jacobs, co-founder and co-chief creative officer. “The need for that is arising again, and that is why people are coming to us.”
Volkswagen turned to the shop to help repair its image in the wake of the emissions cheating scandal that began in 2015. An ad called “Hello Light” confronted the crisis head-on, using the Simon & Garfunkel classic “The Sound of Silence” to portray the scandal as the impetus for VW’s aggressive move into electric vehicles. The larger “Drive Bigger” campaign promotes environmentalism, acts of kindness and other ideals. The brand reported that U.S. sales in 2019 increased 2.6 percent to 363,322 vehicles.
Scott Keogh, president and CEO of Volkswagen of America, who played a key role in the selection of Johannes, said in a statement to Ad Age: “Iconic brands with a clear mission make an impression and they inspire loyalty. When it hits right, marketing can capture that. It’s a challenge Johannes Leonardo fully nailed. With ‘Drive Bigger,’ we’ve established a powerful platform and look forward to building off it to make our brand matter more than ever.”
Johannes also continued to pump out work for Adidas, an account it has held for more than six years that in many ways put the agency on the map. Efforts in 2019 included a campaign plugging a collaboration with Italian fashion house Prada on a co-branded version of the Adidas Superstar shoe, and a Prada-inspired bag, each featuring both companies’ logos. A video showed a miniature version of a Prada factory that imagined the detailed assembly of each product. The push resulted in the most-shared Instagram post on Adidas Originals’ Instagram, and the most-engaged post on Prada’s Instagram in the last two years, according to the agency.
“We seek partners that share our mindset and JL is that partner,” says Ryan Morlan, global VP of Adidas’ brand communication. “They not only help us shape our brand, but also bring new and fresh ideas that push us to try new thinking.”
Johannes Leonardo’s move to become more independent from WPP is aimed at giving it leeway to make more decisions based on long-term goals, rather than face pressure to take on a client purely for revenue reasons. “It gives us the freedom to select clients based on a mindset, based on an ambition, based on a chemistry,” says agency President Bryan Yasko. The most telling stat on that front is the shop’s decision to turn down 23 pitch opportunities last year.
The agency also made gains on the talent front. Additions included creative directors Ray Smiling, who came from BBDO, and Rachel Fredrick from Droga5. Helping to fill the pipeline is Debra Sercy, who left executive search firm Grace Blue to become the agency’s first chief talent officer.
“If you get the talent right, a lot of your other problems kind of solve themselves,” Yasko says. “We got to a size where [recruitment] can no longer be just a thing shared by me and the rest of the management team.” He adds: “We know we want to be the best creative agency out there, period.”