Power of two

By AdNews | 11 January 2008
Gawen Rudder talks with southern hemisphere wunderkinds Leonardo Premutico and Johannes Jacobs in New York about start-ups, being scared and creative-client relationships. When Saatchi & Saatchi ECDs Leonardo Premutico and Johannes Jacobs left the New York agency in October last year rumours were rife. Join Droga? Return to UK, Australia even? Or start their own shop? The start-up option materialised and, a month later, Johannes Leonardo opened its doors in Greenwich Village, overlooking the Hudson River, with WPP taking a minority stake. With a pride of Cannes Lions and a mantelpiece cluttered with Clios, Leo Premutico is well known in Australia and New Zealand and can lay claim to being, at just 29 years of age, one of the most awarded creatives in the world. Jan Jacobs formerly partnered David Nobay when the two were creative directors at Bozell New York. Before teaming up with Premutico, Jacobs worked in his native South Africa where four Loerie Grands Prix contributed to TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris being named that country’s Agency of the Century. In fact, the pair contributed to their respective agencies being named Agency of the Year across three continents. I first met Leo as an AFA graduate trainee, fresh out of Charles Sturt University. Early in his time at Lintas (the agency that took on a 16-year-old Brett Whiteley in its art department), he confessed advertising might not be for him. He’d had offers to play club soccer in Europe – pretty tempting for a boy from the western suburbs. He did a short stint at then fledgling Brown Melhuish Fishlock and crossed the Tasman where he met up with another graduate trainee, Guy Rooke, at Colenso BBDO. Premutico takes up the story at this point: “As a grad, back in 1998, I saw the AFA program as my first real opportunity to get a feel for the role we play in solving our clients’ problems. A great way to find your feet, but when I was rotated into the creative department, I just didn’t want to let go . . . they wanted me to move on to the media department and I wouldn’t.” He was asked to leave Lintas (sacked perhaps) and later seriously considered the soccer-in-Europe option. But fate stepped in. “My body made up my mind for me.” The day he was to leave for Germany, his appendix burst. Paul Fishlock (now at The Palace) recalls Leo’s months at BMF: “While green – as we all are at the start of our careers – there was a hunger about him that gave you a sneaking suspicion he just might go all the way – as it turned out, faster than anyone (except Leo) could have imagined.” Working at BMF gave him exposure to a young agency on the cusp of becoming a Sydney success story. But he only really found his feet in Auckland. Mike O’Sullivan, then at Colenso and now Saatchi & Saatchi, had seen his book and, as Leo tells it: “ He saw one or two pieces he kind of liked and flew me over there for a month. I managed not to fuck it up and was thrown in the deep end with Toby Talbot who’s now ECD of DDB Auckland.” Working under such talented and nurturing creative directors, he started not too slowly, but surely, to make a name for himself. “But, in a way, I was really boxing above my weight,” he says. “The London move was me feeling like I had to improve other parts of my offering.” He longed for a bigger stage, bigger budgets and great directors who could work magic with scripts. It was also London where, at Saatchi, he met his new partner. Jacobs started at Y&R in Capetown, then moved on to Johannesburg with Ogilvy and eventually the much-lauded TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris where his career really started taking off. “I arrived at Bozell in New York two or three months before 9/11 . . . oh God . . . the next few years were pretty outrageous and you can imagine what happened to the economy and advertising. It was probably the toughest time of my career. “My first impression of Leo was that he was the kid from down under. But he’s changed dramatically over the past few years; he’s far more self-confident and understands advertising in a broader sense. There’s an eight-year age difference, which is interesting, and we’re both at different life stages – I’m married with two kids. “On the other hand, him being an Aussie and me being South African, we both have that laidback southern hemisphere attitude. “We want to do work that becomes part of people’s lives, work that moves people as well as product. We don’t see geography as containing us, and should be able to handle business virtually anywhere. The Commonwealth Bank Sydney and Goodby San Francisco are a good example of that. If, as happens today, you’re working in the digital space, the whole world can see your stuff and interact with it.” Premutico takes up the story again: “From my first day at Saatchis we haven’t looked back. Since we started working together, the dynamic of how our work is digested by the audience has changed so much, that’s what excites us. The value of good ideas has never been more important now that brands are back in the hands of the people they were designed for.” As soon as Leo Premutico starts talking about Jan Jacobs he moves from “I” to “we”. The change is undisguised. “We rarely try to sell work that doesn’t have a strategy that’s right . . . the best creative work is based on a real business problem, so the opportunity to talk our thinking process through with clients is something we like doing. The more you do it, the better you get at it.” As a junior, Premutico recalls going into meetings and presenting his precious little love child. If the client didn’t like it as much as he did, he’d be blind to the feedback. “It’s tough when a baby you’ve lived with and love [is] being exposed to criticism. But what we find now, however, is if client and agency are working to the same goal, client feedback can improve a lot of our work.” New York – or returning to New York for Jacobs – was never on the pair’s radar, but Saatchi suggested they might help fix (if that’s the right word) the office there. Little over two years later the record speaks for itself – since they arrived, the office became the second most-awarded agency in the world. It experienced something of a renaissance with significant new business success, including the JC Penney and Wendy’s accounts. The duo’s work for Tide this year resulted in Procter & Gamble winning its first Cannes Grand Prix in many years and their campaign for Wendy’s gave the brand a strong voice in the youth market. As Premutico puts it: “We want to back our ability and belief that our ideas were not creatively indulgent, but great business solutions.” Back in 2003, they found UK clients to be extremely savvy. But it’s amazing how quickly the world changes. It was still the era of the big TV idea where you had a captive audience and, unlike the US, consumers there still expected to be entertained during the commercial break. But arriving in the US, it was clear the old had given way to the new media landscape. “The value of creative people in the business world has never been so important. The notion of competition has changed. It’s more than buying the product. It’s buying into the idea behind the product,” Premutico says. The pair talk about enriching a brand and protecting it where necessary so it has the freedom to express itself and the security to take risks. Strategic planners? Maybe not. “We’ve always felt the best creative people are intuitive planners,” Premutico adds. “But we’ll grow and expand as we feel the need. At the moment we’re focusing on people who’ll make a massive contribution to brands. The public can not only absorb the brand, but also spread the message and become ambassadors for the brand. So it’s not just an agency working on their brand, but millions of people working on the brand message.” WPP’s involvement was instrumental in the launch of Johannes Leonardo, but the pair insisted on control. “We got a call from Sir Martin (Sorrell) and worked out a deal where Leo and I became majority shareholders, which was very important to us. We needed that control to do the kind of thing that we want to do,” Jacobs says. The move to help finance star talent as an independent unit is reminiscent of Publicis’ backing of David Droga in 2005 and Omnicom’s support for Cutwater, which launched this year with former TBWA\Chiat\Day ECD at the helm. “There’ve been quite a few start-ups here in the US recently,” Premutico adds. As there have been in Australia with Three Drunk Monkeys, Droga5, One Partners, Cubed, et al, and the challenge among these outside-the-traditional-ad-agency-box companies is how to describe and differentiate the new from the new and new from the old. “We straddle the space between digital and traditional shops,” explained Jacobs. “We’re not here because of the internet and we’re not an advertising agency.” When asked to describe the ideal client or client category it starts to get interesting. “The type of brand you work on,” they reply, “is less important than the individual in control of that brand. It’s the relationship that matters.” So the pair will focus on that individual within the client hierarchy who might have the foresight and control to make it happen. The individual, they assert, is more important than the category. This is reminiscent of a strategy successfully employed some decades back by Mojo who identified the key individual at clients like Tooheys, Toyota and Meadow Lea. “We found champions client-side at huge companies like Procter & Gamble and Wendy’s who bought into a single-minded proposition connected to a human insight – this has always been the key to success,” Jacobs says. “The thing today is the different ways of delivering that (rather than the old 30-second TVC). As we said, we try to harness the energy of the public who are very creative people themselves. We give them the tools. Successful bands like OK Go have become a phenomenon because of the visual ideas attached to them.” Once upon a time creatives were really important. What happened was they got hidden in layers of testing and media charts and management levels. That’s changed and the idea is back, not simply in advertising, but in the creation of business solutions. “We’ll be beyond media-neutral – that implies advertising is the solution, and media the option. The answer is not necessarily advertising,” claims Premutico. “Our work will acknowledge that the digital environment has affected every single piece of work we do.” “My experience in advertising [as a creative] is that your head has never been really on the block, so to speak,” adds Jacobs. “We love being responsible for our work, having our heads right there on that block. So yes, we’re scared, but we’re not asking clients to do anything that we’re not. We’re backing ourselves, backing creativity, and that means we have a healthy amount of fear. We’re a creative community – our construct is really about putting the brand at the centre of everything we do. In a sense, ideas might mobilise millions of people, think the Diet Coke and Mentos explosion – created by the consumer. Community doesn’t necessarily mean the social networking, Facebook thing. Communities are part of history, but collaborating with the consumer is probably new. “Digging for the truth and executing it in a way that inspires and excites an army of activists is also new. But getting consumer advocates to buy into the message, and make it better and spread it, is even more exciting. “What scares clients most at the moment is the idea that the consumer may not see the work. So all those endless hours in meetings, deliberating the strategy, the logo, the call to action, the website, etc, are only relevant if it reaches the consumer. More than that, it must pull people in and get them to become evangelists for the brand, rather than just recipients of the message.” Leo Premutico (with a nod to Marshall McLuhan) sums it up: “All our work will treat the audience as a medium for the message.” The future? They seem to be quite clear: “In a year’s time we want to have a piece of business out there that talks for itself, rather than us having to talk the talk. We can talk as much as we like, but it’s nothing until there’s work out there that proves to people what we can do. The proof is in the work, not the philosophy. “The days of formulas and agency tricks have gone, as has the comfort of that dedicated media audience of yesterday. Today it’s about creating work that has no precedent.” Gawen Rudder is manager of business services and advice for the AFA.

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.