Africa is consistently named Brazil's most-admired ad agency, but perhaps because it rarely enters award shows and chose its name from another continent, it isn't well known in the rest of the world.
It should be.
When Grupo ABC chairman Nizan Guanaes and four partners who had worked together at DDB Brasil started Africa a decade ago, they took a break from Brazil's awards-obsessed agency culture and built a shop with a deliberately small number of big clients. Today they are doing some of the most offbeat -- and wildly popular -- digital work for Procter & Gamble brands you'll see anywhere, creating new products for clients at Africa Lab, and revving up World Cup sponsorships for Brazil's biggest marketers like AmBev and Banco Itau.
Banco Itau CMO Fernando Chacon said the bank recently got a letter from Brazil's president, Dilma Rousseff, praising a new blockbuster Itau spot by Africa that transforms the entire country into an immense stadium as Brazil prepares to host the soccer championship and welcome the world.
"Africa transcends the role of a creative agency," said Mr. Chacon, whose bank has been a client since day one. "They participate in discussions about strategy and positioning, and their provocative creative differentiates us from other brands in the market."
Itau's popular hashtag #thischangestheworld (#issomudaomundo) looks at how peoples' lives, and the world, can be changed for the better, he said. Brazilians have adopted the hashtag to identify and share moments that make a difference, and 65% of the Brazilian banking industry's share of voice in social media belongs to Itau.
Why the name Africa? "We wanted an international name with Brazilian roots," said Sergio Gordilho, Africa's co-president and chief creative officer. "And a big part of Brazil's population is of African descent."
In a country where advertising quickly becomes part of popular culture and everyone is social-media mad, P&G sought out Africa several years ago to do something different digitally and get closer to Brazilian consumers, Mr. Gordilho said.
Africa's work for a P&G shampoo brand is Brazil's most popular brand video on YouTube, with more than 24 million views since its July 2013 debut. Last year Africa noticed how hard it is for Brazilians to pronounce "Head & Shoulders" and decided to tap Brazilian soccer coach Joel Santana, who became famous for giving TV interviews in fractured English that he appeared to make up as he went along. In hilarious iterations, Mr. Santana exuberantly concocts a bizarre mix of Portuguese and English to explain the shampoo's name and how to use it. His fractured phrases have led to Twitter memes -- and a 13% increase in market share for the brand.
For P&G's Gillette the agency created a video -- now with 10 million views -- that looked at "What if Roger Federer were Brazilian?" It explored what a great soccer player the tennis star -- and Gillette razor user -- could have been.
In other P&G hits, Ariel detergent (Tide, in the U.S.) teamed up with a fashion designer to create a collection of stained clothes that revealed their bright colors after being washed in Ariel. And branching out into stunts and PR, Africa launched Oral-B 3D White toothpaste by signing up Brazil's leading Ultimate Fighting champion Renan Barao to wear a gleaming LED mouth guard to a fight. "People ask how my teeth are so bright!" he says. His answer: Oral B.
"No one thought we'd use his mouth guard as media," Mr. Gordilho said.
Africa, Brazil's seventh largest agency, is owned by Brazil's Grupo ABC, which is ranked the 19th biggest global agency company by Ad Age's DataCenter and also owns San Francisco shop Pereira & O'Dell and a stake in DDB Brasil. Africa's revenue grew by 8% in 2013.
One growth area is product design at Africa Lab. One of its inventions, the Buddy Cup, created for Budweiser, turns two beer drinkers who click Buddy Cups in a bar into Facebook friends. The gadget rated a mention on "The Colbert Report."