The solution? Unveil a bold campaign around the release last fall of the iPhone 5, tweak the fanboys who line up outside Apple stores and call attention to highly touted iPhone 5 features that were already present in Samsung phones.
With "The Next Thing is Already Here," 72andSunny suggested people use Samsung to stand out, rather than being one of Apple's sheep, blindly following the flock.
"We knew it was absolutely rock solid from a strategic standpoint to start a conversation that would steal some of the heat [in the mobile-phone category] but it was a risky move to take on a beloved [brand]," said 72andSunny CEO John Boiler. "The tonality had to be artful -- just a little sway this way or that way could change the way the message is perceived -- and that's what was scary."
Artful tones are something that SoCal shop 72andSunny, not yet a decade old, has mastered. In adland, 72andSunny is the next big thing that's already here, making it the clear winner of Ad Age's Agency of the Year honors.
Whether it's "Cat Daddy"-dancing model Kate Upton consuming a Carl's Jr. burger in a way that's so oversexualized it's funny, or the subtly mocking style of Samsung's attack ads, the agency has proven it can strike just the right tone to get consumers to take notice.
When Visible Measures released its list of the 10 most viral tech ads of 2012, 72andSunny's "iSheep" commercial for Samsung Mobile ranked No. 1, with 71 million views. What's more, Samsung secured four of the top 10 spots, including another 72andSunny ad called "LeBron's Day," showing basketball star LeBron James using the Galaxy Note 2. Apple managed one spot on the list.
In all, the challenger Samsung Mobile brand generated over 240 million views from campaigns launched in 2012, a nearly six-fold increase over 2011. But it wasn't just about what consumers watched; it was about what they bought. Apple's holiday sales were lower than expected, bolstering speculation that the longtime tech leader's growth may be ebbing as it feels the heat from rivals.
Rarely does the ad world see a shop take such big swings and successively knock it right out of the park every time. Somehow, 72andSunny performs best under pressure, when the stakes are highest for its clients.
"The one thing that often surprises people about 72andSunny is that we're very good-natured and optimistic, but we are competitive motherfuckers," said Matt Jarvis, agency partner and chief strategy officer.
That streak is evident in its work. For Activision's most-popular gaming franchise, Call of Duty, it helped set entertainment franchise records in late 2011, and then broke them in 2012.
"Brands that we tend to work with require super-high performance and love behaving like challengers even if they are leaders or once they become leaders," said Mr. Boiler. "Their teams love to challenge the status quo and are aggressive, hard-charging people, and we tend to work best with them."
Prophetically, as part of Ad Age's A-List feature last year -- when 72andSunny came in at No. 5 -- Activision CEO and client Eric Hirshberg predicted the MDC Partners-owned shop agency was at a tipping point. He described it as right before "that moment where they are ready to explode," noting that 72andSunny had "enough scale to compete, but they still have something to prove, and that's a great place to be."
In 2012, the agency's roster ballooned due to organic growth and new business. Billings increased 66%, and staff Among the hires, you'll find Scott Trattner, who had been executive creative director at TBWA/Media Arts Lab and one of the talents behind Apple ads in the past decade. He left his post to join the team at 72andSunny.
The agency grew from a project agency to agency of record on Activision, became a digital agency-of-record for Sonos, and from a digital agency to fully integrated AOR on Carl's Jr. and Hardees. It impressed in new-business pitches and forged relationships with Anheuser-Busch InBev (for which it handles Shock Top, Natural Light and Busch Light), Target (holiday, Black Friday, baby, entertainment) and Google (for which it is working on Project Re-Brief's next iteration).
"There comes a point with agencies where [marketers] recognize what it is you do best and want to work with you for that reason," noted Mr. Boiler. "For us, that's people who need to make a bold move in the marketplace -- like take on the biggest mobile phone company in the world, or be the smallest burger chain with the highest results."
Some of its smaller-profile efforts were really delightful, such as its Sonos brand campaign that used music tastemakers like Janelle Monae and Questlove to introduce consumers to the wireless home-music system.
It has been fine-tuning the strategic thinking it offers clients by practicing what it would be like to actually be on the other side of the table. In 72andSunny's Venture Creativity division, it serves as both the client and the agency, devising a brand idea as well as product design, packaging, e-commerce and PR. Out of the unit was born a new consumer-product company, Nook Sleep Systems, that focuses on non-toxic infant bedding. Rather than create its own booze brand, like so many agencies have done, it wanted to innovate in an area that would create value, the agency management says.
72andSunny even has an onsite school, dubbed "72U," where students take part in a 10-month intensive course that it claims will help them develop modern communications skills.
The agency's unique California flair comes through in its collaborative workspace, where staffers (some accompanied by their dogs) walk around in shorts and flip flops, or sweatshirts with yoga pants and running sneakers. A beer fridge, BBQ patio and an art gallery punctuate the space, and work is done not only at desks, but at kitchen counters and in a carpeted loft that resembles a kindergarten play area.
72andSunny's growth required it to find a new, bigger home. Recently, the shop's leaders -- Messrs. Boiler and Jarvis, and Creative Director Glenn Cole -- invited Ad Age to see a space it's renovating in the the Playa Vista section of Los Angeles. The campus includes several buildings that formerly were used by aviation king Howard Hughes, including the hangar where the legendary "Spruce Goose" was built. It feels a fitting space, and not just because client Google and YouTube is a neighboring tenant. Like Hughes, the agency is a little crazy and willing to take risks.
But that's not where the agency's secret sauce lies. On the contrary, execs say the key to its success comes down to something much more buttoned-up: insisting on accountability from everyone who works there.
Getting a job at 72andSunny is extremely difficult. The agency maintains a rigorous hiring process that nearly guarantees the people it brings in will thrive and flourish at the agency. Candidates can go through as many as eight to 10 interviews with different folks at the agency, including junior execs, who judge whether that person is the right cultural fit.
Senior management admits that their meetings with potential employees may not be able to home in on a person's true abilities. That, says Mr. Boiler, requires many more "data sets" and observations from people who already work at the agency and will know if someone is the right fit. Résumés, number of years in adland or category experience aren't that important either. What is? Something that 72andSunny calls the "hell yeah" factor.
"If a candidate doesn't evoke a 'hell, yeah' from people who already work here, they will start in the company in a disconnected way," said Mr. Jarvis. "Staff have to be excited to learn from a new person, work with a new person and teach a new person" in the agency.
Connections and nepotism don't go very far at the agency since so many people weigh in on the hires. Senior managers say that parent MDC Partners has tried several times to make candidate suggestions, and they've declined to bring those folks aboard. Its insistence to stay independent of its holding company parent is a good thing: MDC last year reported double-digital revenue gains, but still reported a net loss of nearly $15 million in the third quarter of 2012, though that was narrow compared to the year-prior period.
The agency insists that existing employees must be accountable for every new hire, because the addition "can either amplify the awesome stuff or amplify mistakes," said Mr. Boiler. "If the stuff we make is good and smart creatively, it's because a lot of people pounded it into shape. Being collaborative is key and building an ego-free culture goes against the grain of how advertising agencies used to be."
Said Mr. Jarvis: "If we don't have accountability, we start to look like everyone else. If we lose that we stop being 72andSunny. I'd rather not scale at all than lose those values."