The co-founder and co-chief creative officer of Johannes Leonardo on winning VW’s American business, how he won a client in an airport, and why the consumer is the perfect medium
In 2007, a South African and an Australian with pretty much zero business contacts in New York decided to open an advertising agency in New York. But Jan Jacobs (the South African) and Leo Premutico (the Aussie), creative partners who had met a few years before while working for Saatchi & Saatchi, had a belief that they thought could bring them success. The idea that the ‘consumer is the medium’ doesn’t sound all that new in 2019 but back then, in the age of the 30-second TV ad + billboard + print ad campaign structure, it was a way of working that they couldn’t flex without being their own bosses. And so, Johannes Leonardo was born.
Fast forward 12 years and the agency is one of North America’s strongest. It has handled the adidas Originals account for the past five years and, in February of this year, was revealed as the main agency for Volkswagen US under a WPP umbrella (WPP owns just a minority stake in the agency – earlier this year they bought back some control, reducing the stake to just 25% - allowing Jan and Leo to preserve their boutique approach). Its first work for the brand launched in June with a beauty of a spot directed by Daniel Wolfe. And there's more exciting stuff on the horizon as just last week Johannes Leonardo was named the lead creative agency for The Gap.
LBB’s Addison Capper spoke with Jan to find out more about the process of winning one of adland’s most prestigious accounts, how the agency got its first client in an airport, and why all good advertising is essentially an argument.
LBB> VW is one a client with an amazing advertising heritage. What can you tell us about the process of winning the business?
Jan> What a brand needs more than anything is an idea. It can only be fixed with an idea that resonates with people and brings meaning back to the brand. I think that's the sweet spot of our agency and the client recognised that. Scott Keogh [VW of America CEO] initially turned Audi around as its CMO, so he's a marketer, and he's publicly said that there are two things that are important to him. What the dealers think and the brand image. And that's why I think we got to pitch the business. We spent a long time trying to uncover what that point of view could be and came up with Drive Bigger. We had five or six presentations to VW, right up to the German board, and everybody said that it was the idea that the brand needed for North America.
LBB> Your job firstly is to help guide VW as they progress out of the emissions scandal of 2015. What were your thoughts on that heading into working with them?
Jan> We feel very fortunate for the opportunity. We're only the fifth agency in the US to handle this business, including Bill Bernbach, and I would say that there are two periods that were very successful for VW here. One was DDB and the initial Beetle 'Think Small' era and then 'Drivers Wanted' in the '90s. Both of those periods had a creative idea that tapped into the mindset of the people, the zeitgeist, and I think we have an idea that's going to do that now. On the surface of it it looks like a green idea - and yes that's a part of it. If you look at the bigger picture of the work that we've done, it goes way beyond that. There are 8 billion people on Earth now and in every facet we are heading down a path that's not going to turn out well for anybody. So this idea to drive something bigger than yourself means to consider yourself, consider your neighbours, if you're going to drive your kids to soccer practice, take five other kids with you, take a bicycle. It's incredibly brave for a car client to be willing to go out and say that but that's why the idea is resonating so well. Big, corporate giants like that are getting to a place now where they need to have a brand point of view and be meaningful to people and not just sell shit and make money.
The worst thing for a creative person or an agency is to sell something that you don't believe in. We all have to do it sometimes and I really struggle with it. It's really incredible what's happening in the VW organisation. That period of time has forced the company to become something else. If you look at their electric fleet, they're not creating hybrids and trying to find ways to extend the fossil fuel situation, they're going all-out down this path. They will have to sell combustion engines for a little while longer because the world isn't geared for fully electric yet but what they're building is going to revolutionise driving because it's going to be made available to other companies. The cars are going to be phenomenal. They are living it. They're spending around $800 million on a fully electric plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the plan for all of these things is to be carbon neutral. Even the factory will be run without emissions. The company plans to be carbon neutral by 2050 which is incredible and sets an example.
LBB> What can you tell us about the launch spot? Why was Daniel Wolfe the right director to bring it to life?
Jan> We had an incredible pool of directors pitch for the spot. It speaks to the power of the brand. People want to be associated with the VW brand from a marketing perspective. And secondly when people saw the creative they wanted to be a part of what it's trying to do. Daniel is an amazing director. The footage he shot is spectacular. There's so much on the cutting room floor. It's a shame, I'd love to cut a five-minute version because that's how much footage we have.
LBB> The agency has more than doubled in recent years and experienced a lot of expansion especially in the wake of the VW win. How have you dealt with that?
Jan> We've got a lot of people in our agency with car experience. Personally I've worked on BMW, Land Rover, Toyota, Lexus. That's not really the issue though, it's the rapid staffing. Cars, like adidas, which is our other biggest client, have defined schedules - a shoe drop or car launch or summer sales period. It's not like you win a piece of business and then you can plan - you have to hit the ground running. That's what's hard, to very quickly staff up with the right people while keep the company culture the way that it is. The way we did that was to take some of our staff that have been with us a long time and move them to Volkswagen, rather than putting in an entirely new team.
LBB> How have you dealt with the challenge of keeping company culture as the businesses expands?
Jan> I do think that we attract the kind of people that like working there - I can't phrase it any better than that. People come to our agency to do the best work of their careers, they've said that to us, I'm not making it up. I think the reason for that is that we try to do the right thing. The right thing by the brand, by the consumers and do amazing work in the industry. It's not a selfish thing about seeing how many awards we can win - that is just a natural consequence of if you get the first part right.
LBB> What inspired the launch of the agency in the first place? And how did you first meet Leo?
Jan> I got a job offer in New York in 2001 and arrived three months before 9/11. I'd never been to the United States. I was in New York for two years and advertising was, like the country, understandably depressed. It wasn't a true reflection of the industry in New York. I got offered a job in 2003 as the head of art at Saatchi London and I needed a partner. This portfolio arrived with the most amazing work in it, and it was Leo's. He was at Colenso BBDO in Auckland - we flew him over to London and we became a team. We were there for two years and they asked us to run the creative department in New York, under Tony Granger. By now the city had changed completely, it was positive again. We had a very different experience. We became agency of the year in Cannes in our second year and did very well on a lot of complicated stuff like P&G.
Keep in mind though that we had no contacts in the United States. No clients and we didn't grow up in that industry - but we did have a good amount of press in our last year there. We decided to set up the agency. Why? That's an interesting question. This is 2007 and I think that we got a sense that there was going to be a different way of doing things. The briefs we got in those days were two pages. The first page was the strategy and the second page was the media buying. It'd say two print ads, a billboard and three TV ads - those were the only things you ever needed. That's when we came up with this thought that the 'consumer is the medium'. Take that second page away for a second and say that we're just going to do something really amazing. With the rise of the Internet - in 2007 it was just beginning to blow up from a market perspective - and that thing will be blown up by people and find itself into necessary channels. The best example is the Colin Kaepernick Nike campaign. It's a poster and it was on every news channel in possibly the world. It was on every digital channel, blog, social media channel. It's a poster. The consumer as the medium has become more and more true over the years but that's the thought we had in 2007. That's the practical, rational reason.
The other reason is that we were really bored. Bored with doing the same thing and wanting to do the hardest thing we could think of. Let's start an agency in a country where we don't know any clients!
LBB> You're both creatives - often when agencies are founded it's a pairing of a creative and a more business-minded person. Did that cross your mind at all when setting Johannes Leonardo?
Jan> Perhaps naively, we believed that ideas can overcome anything, and if we walk into a meeting with the best idea then we could win the business. But it's just not that simple. On a project basis it probably is - as a young start-up agency you can get projects fairly easily if you have a good creative profile and you're a good creative thinker. But it's very different to a brand actually handing their fortunes to you as a responsibility. Those people are handing their own careers over to you - and that takes a whole bench of people. Our agency is now in its 12th year and I’d say that in the last four years that we have built that bench, which is why we can earn adidas and VW. I think that we have one of the strongest, if not the strongest, strategic departments in North America. The insight in the work is absolutely phenomenal.
LBB> Is that something that you've consciously built up?
Jan> Yeah. Work is only good for two reasons. Firstly, the argument. All good advertising communication is essentially an argument that you're putting in front of someone about why something matters, why this is better than that, why it's important in your life. The power of that argument is based on human insight and what makes people tick. If you don't have that part you won't have a good piece of communication, regardless of how good the second part is. That part is the execution, which is how you say your message to people. You could argue that there's a third - how the message gets in front of people - but that's par for the course nowadays. Everyone knows programmatic and how to reach consumers. It's a foregone conclusion that you are going to reach the right people. But what are you saying to them?
LBB> Aside from VW, are there any campaigns from over the years that you see as a turning point for the agency?
Jan> One of the first projects we did was for a soccer boot brand called Nomis. The founder Simon Skirrow was one of the designers of the original adidas Predator football boot and he left to start his own business. We heard about this guy and Leo flew to Munich airport, intercepted him, spoke to him, and won the business right there. We did a pop-up store in Berlin and that's one of the projects that we're most proud of.
He told us that he was headed to Berlin with his product and he wanted to buy a billboard. But one of the things he said to us somewhere along the line was that around 68% of people that try on his boots buy them. That's incredible but he really had to get them on people's feet otherwise how was he going to compete with Nike and adidas? Instead of buying a billboard we launched a pop-up store called The Right Boot Store. This idea is one where we first experimented with the concept of ‘the consumer is the medium’. We wanted to create an idea that had so much talk value that it was going to go on people's social feeds in the early days of Facebook.
Anyway, the store only had right boots. You took the right boot home free, you tried it on at home and compared to your other boots. If you like the new boot, you could send Nomis the money for the other shoe and a full pair. Think about that from a social media context, imagine if we did that today.
The film part of that was called Damn Boots, which won two Gold Lions in Cannes.
Project Rebrief for Google was a milestone for the agency because it was really, really complicated in terms of building super complicated digital products. It was a different kind of work.
And if you look at the growth of the adidas brand in the five years that we've had it, it's been phenomenal. Almost all of that growth has been on the Originals side of the business, which is the account that we have.
LBB> How did you end up working in advertising in the first place?
Jan> I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I finished high school but my girlfriend was studying at an advertising school and would bring her briefs home. I was reading through them and said, so you get paid to come with ideas for brands? I thought that VW just made VW commercials. Heinz makes ketchup commercials and so. I didn't realise there was an entire industry for it. I was reading these briefs and couldn't help myself thinking and kind of fell in love with it right there. I went to the same ad college in Cape Town as her and that was it.
LBB> Were you quite a creative kid though?
Jan> I always made things and drew spaceships and stuff. I always wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. I wanted to design fighter planes.
LBB> I guess that's creative in a very different way!
Jan> Mathematics let me down! I realised I was too stupid.
LBB> I imagine you don't get to flex your art director muscles in the same way anymore now that you run your own agency, but do you still draw today?
Jan> Not really, but I do still influence the visuals of the work. Leo and I are incredibly hands on. If you look at the VW Hello Light spot, we sat in Blacksmith [the post production company] with the creative team finessing the images. I'm still involved as much as I can.
LBB> And what do you get up to when you’re not working?
Jan> A lot of kids sports on the weekend and surfing. That's my passion. Before advertising I always imagined I'd have a job in surfing.