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How This Black-Owned Agency Brings Art and Attitude to Ads


Putney’s co-founders Elena Robinson and Aubrey Walker III on creating a production agency with ‘Truth and Soul’ at its core, writes LBB’s Ben Conway

How This Black-Owned Agency Brings Art and Attitude to Ads

“Putney is an independent production agency dedicated to creating culture-defining content that blurs the lines between advertising and entertainment.” The words of CEO and executive producer Elena Robinson are a confident mission statement for the company that she co-founded, and co-owns, with executive creative director Aubrey Walker III.

“Putney was started as a kind of social movement,” says Aubrey, describing its beginnings as “the consciousness” of OKRP, the Chicagoan agency where he and Elena were ECD and head of production respectively when George Floyd was murdered in 2020. Following this event and a discussion with OKRP’s chief operations officer at the time, the pair set about creating ‘Black Shop Friday’. This was the first foray into what Putney would later become when they started the journey as an independent, minority-owned business in June 2022.

According to Elena, the ‘Black Shop Friday’ campaign aimed to “put the Black in Black Friday” by creating an online database where people could spend money with Black businesses in Chicago without having to physically visit the neighbourhoods that had been impacted by the riots, following the murder of George Floyd. With businesses’ revenue also being damaged by the covid lockdowns at the time, Aubrey says that they funded everything alone and partnered with the Illinois lottery, the City of Chicago, the Urban League of Chicago and Edelman to create the initiative which - after the initial sign-up of 500 businesses - is still growing today.

“What we saw - in all agencies - was a lack of consciousness,” says Aubrey. “We thought it would be a great time for us to promote unity and Chicago - and business in Chicago, specifically for the Black market.” Fittingly, the name ‘Putney’ refers to the Robert Downey Sr. film ‘Putney Swope’, in which a Black man takes the reins of an ad agency in the ‘60s. This, in part, reflects the journey of the production agency as it became a separate entity from OKRP, combining both of the founders’ production and creative specialities into one offering under this movie-inspired banner.

“The great thing, and why we were able to build off of production, is that we are still able to use some of OKRP’s infrastructure as we build our own client roster,” says Elena, sharing that - thanks to the ‘uniquely strong support’ for industrial equity from the agency - Putney now has several distinct clients and its own lean roster of talent, of which Aubrey and Elena are a part of. This small and agile structure is something that the CEO intends on maintaining, rejecting any future possibility of adopting the “somewhat broken” traditional ad agency model she witnessed while working at network agencies like Leo Burnett, Havas, DDB and BBDO. 

“I've been in all these big shops and it's like moving a dinosaur,” she says. “There are like 30 people in each meeting but if you’ve been around for a while, you realise there are basically four people that are going to make the decisions: the creative, the producer, an account person, and maybe a strategist or a designer. One of the great things that I've picked up from OKRP is that we pitch who works on the business.” 

Discussing a project for one of their newest clients, Measures for Justice, Elena explains how the svelte team is rolling out a national, bipartisan criminal justice reform campaign without ‘30 creatives jumping in and not getting to the actual germ of the idea for four weeks’. “I’m super hands-on, I am a maker-producer and I don't just sit behind the desk letting Aubrey run around like a crazy person,” she says. “Aubrey leads the creative design and ideation. Then we have a lead designer, a strategist (who we can roll in and out) and a new business person.”

She continues, “Aubrey and I talk every morning and it’s like: ‘we have these six deliverables in the next two days, how are we going to hit it?’ and he'll just start chunking away at it... I’m honestly impressed that we were able to create such powerful work so quickly - which is the way agencies should work. Because it's just the three of us sitting down [at Putney] we can say ‘these are our deliverables… this is our next client meeting… they want X’, and we've already taken care of strategies and are looking at the brief, laddering back into our strategic ethos, which starts with an unapologetic truth and a ‘ride or die’ brief.”

Never wanting to expand into an unwieldy 50-person entity, the CEO adds that Putney makes use of its shortlist of talent and third-party participants on both sides of creative and production, allowing them to operate at a variety of scales - as a standalone production unit and in a more full-service capacity from the creative stages onwards.

She says, “Our strategic process is very, very simple. We drill into the client’s research, we figure out what they want and who they're talking to, and then we execute against it. [It’s] egoless creative - we just get right to it. Aubrey’s in there - he doesn't have a team of people that he's marching around. He's like, ‘I'm writing this copy, now’. It's fun because there's no BS and it's done, and then we can move on. We're able to do a lot more work, more quickly.”

“And,” chimes in Aubrey, “I don't I don't have an account person to argue with!”

From this light-hearted rapport between the two, it’s evident that the pair are not just great colleagues, but great friends - something that Elena says the clients can ‘see and feel’, and therefore, are eager to collaborate. “We can really talk honestly. We call each other on the phone and we’ll just be like, ‘okay, we're doing this, this is where we're going to go’. I fully support his creative ideation. He's got great, big ideas and comes at it from a different place than your standard creative, which cuts through.”

And getting through to new clients is exactly the name of the game for a start-up company early on, as CCO Aubrey can attest. “Elena and I are constantly shaking hands and kissing babies,” he jokes. “We have to reach out to folks and really just get out and hustle. That's kind of what Putney is about - we're not expecting to get anything; we work for everything that we get.”

He adds that they only reach out to brands and for projects that they truly believe in - at every level of the company. “If we're going to come after you, then know that we're going to put our all into it. There's us, some designers, our list of photographers and directors… and all these people buy into the belief that we want to make a change and do something different. We wouldn't hire anybody just to take a job, they have to truly believe in what we're doing. Everybody that we've partnered with all believes in whatever that project is, and they dive in 100%.”

(CEO Elena Robinson and ECD Aubrey Walker III, founders of Putney)

Discussing how they select the projects they work on and the brands they partner with, Aubrey’s criteria harks back to the ‘Truth and Soul’ name and mantra of their namesake Putney Swope’s fictional agency. “Number one, they’ve got to have soul,” he starts, before Elena adds, “We're a general market agency with a multicultural sensibility. We want to work with brands that come to us to speak to the general public from a diverse perspective. We're going to bring in new voices and new points of view. Obviously, we're a startup so we're the company of ‘yes’ - but as we develop and fine-tune our messaging, and our brands’ messaging, we really hope to communicate to everybody, but with some attitude.” 

Confidently embodying this sentiment, which will come to define Putney as its client list and reel grows, she continues, “We're not going to be down the middle, we're going to come at you hard and in your face. We're going to be unapologetic and hopefully, that’s the group of people that you want to speak to… We want to take traditional brands and make them relevant again.”

As well as loving the work they do and delivering it with attitude, a mutual love and admiration between its employees is deeply ingrained in Putney’s culture, says Elena, who is “really intentional” when it comes to her hiring process. Conveying genuine adoration for her “really outstanding team” which is fully committed to every project, she says, “They're good people and very talented at what they do, and that's the combination, the magic, that you're looking for. You're only as good as your people. You need the best people you can get and then you need to support them. It’s my job to support them in doing their job, so that - God forbid - in two years, they can get a better job - and then my job is to keep them here! Because they're so happy! That's always the goal.”

To find new talent that identifies with this philosophy, the pair say that they have two key methods. Firstly, they can rely on around 50 years of combined experience to bring in connections that they know, for certain, are the ideal candidates for specific projects. “We both have good reputations in Chicago and people know that if I call them, I'm not bullshitting and I'm not going to waste a lot of time,” says Elena. “Generally speaking, people want to work with us, so we're able to use that to our advantage and build good work because they get to put it on their reels as well, and it’s generally new and exciting stuff.”

Alternatively, Putney is also part of the BLAC programme (‘Building Leaders and Creators’) which is a resource for independent agencies to recruit young Black and brown talent. “We've hired a couple from that programme,” says Aubrey. “It becomes: ‘we already have a shortlist, but do we bring in this young talent from the BLAC programme who can write copy?’. One of our BLAC hires that we brought in is a producer on Elena's team, but she is also a fantastic DoP and photographer. We actually brought her on to shoot a product and it was highly successful - it was gorgeous and organic.”

Similarly, Aubrey has also brought on young talent and taken them under his wing - namely a photographer called Josh Taylor. “Mentorship is huge for us - that's the way I got into the business. So the give-back component of Putney is one of the biggest things for us,” he says. “There's nothing like watching somebody young come in and take advantage of the situation that we're giving them, and then seeing them do it for somebody else - that's how old I am! I've seen people that I've mentored, mentor somebody else and then bring them in. It's that whole theory of when you're up, you always reach down and pull somebody else up. That's always going to be a huge component of what Putney is about.”

As well as setting the example for younger talent themselves, they also run a podcast called ‘The God Particle’, which explores the career journeys and insights of other experienced industry professionals, and has just entered its second season. The first seven episodes of the original run saw Aubrey talk with artists and advertising executives alike, from 3AM’s ECD, Tynesha Williams and Revolt Media’s Detavio Samuels, to photographer Parrish Lewis and visual artist Charly Palmer. Covering everything from the ‘unexplainable’ ways that people fall into a creative career, down to the guests’ favourite shoes and rappers, Elena says that the podcast exists “to help young creatives understand and respect the process”. 

“Everybody gets to where they're going differently, and your path is your path uniquely,” she says. “Hopefully, it gives people inspiration and courage to keep pursuing their creative goals. We talk a lot about the difference between fine art and commercial art and how you don't have to ‘sell your soul’ to be in commercial art, and how you keep the fine artist alive while you do commercial art.” She continues, “There’s always that tricky balance when you first come into advertising - ‘oh my god, am I selling out? I was going to be a poet, now I'm writing copy for sandwiches…’ - but there is a way to bring art to the craft. And that is our goal: to always bring the highest level of art to the craft of advertising.”

So how will the Putney team be combining these disciplines and continuing in 2023? For Aubrey, it’s all about authenticity. “We just want to grow organically. We don't want to feel like we have to take on clients to grow, we want it to be organic to who we are, truly,” he says. “Obviously, there are certain clients that we would love to work with - I think automotive is where we're headed, and also spirits brands.” However, while working with national brands with an eye toward new horizons, the pair also have a soft spot for - and feel a responsibility toward - brands from Putney’s native Chicago. As well as Harold’s 83, a small Black-owned beer company in the Windy City, they have also worked with the WNBA team, the Chicago Sky.

“The WNBA project was special because it was about mental health,” says Aubrey. “It was conceptually based on the idea that these people are humans - they go home and deal with stuff too. They loved it, it was really successful and the big thing is that the WNBA saw it, and now there are conversations happening [with them].” Speaking about their love for Putney’s birthplace - and their home for years as creatives with OKRP and elsewhere - Aubrey continues, “We’ve got to get paid, but at the same time, we love doing small projects to help our city out and to make sure that we stay true to what we're doing.”

“That's the great thing about being small,” adds Elena, summarising her goals for the 10 months ahead, “we don't necessarily have to cover a large overhead. My two goals are a retainer client that we can love and respect, and a luxury brand. We're in the hunt and mix for one or two of those things right now. So I want to see those land.”

But whether they’re working on passionate local causes that are close to their hearts and homes, or expansive, ambitious national campaigns for the likes of Measures for Justice, the principles stay the same: bringing brave ideas from diverse creatives and producers to life, for clients who are aligned with their values and ambition, and providing pathways for young talent to follow in the founders’ footsteps along the way.

Aubrey concludes, “We are always looking for young talent. We don't care where you come from. We don't care about your background. If you have dope ideas and dope thoughts and you're passionate about writing, photography, directing… if you're passionate about it, reach out to Elena or me. We want to make sure our doors are always open for new fresh talent.”

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LBB Editorial, Wed, 01 Mar 2023 18:30:00 GMT