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Alma Is No. 6 on Ad Age's Agency A-List

Insights Into Target Audience Find Passion Points to Establish Connections With Consumers -- Even in the General Market

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Latinos' fondness for soccer isn't exactly a new insight, but U.S. Hispanic agency Alma took that knowledge one step further to develop a novel project for client State Farm.

Alma's "Play Now, Illuminate Later" initiative uses the beloved sport to bring electricity to Latin American communities that need it. It all begins with an online game in which players accrue points -- aka "virtual minutes of light" -- that go toward providing thousands of real soccer balls to communities in Latin America that lack electricity. There, kids play soccer with the donated balls, which have a unique feature: Every 15 minutes of play generate three hours of power when a light is plugged into a socket embedded in the fully charged soccer ball.

"We love to give back," said Luis Miguel Messianu, the Omnicom Group shop's president and chief creative officer. "We'd read about this technology and were looking for a way for State Farm to link itself to soccer, but in a different way."

Consumers engaged with the interactive games on State Farm's Spanish-language Facebook page for 142,602 minutes in one month, often choosing to donate the chargeable soccer balls to their native countries. The results were huge for the marketer: State Farm saw U.S. Hispanic insurance quotes grow 44% and registered a 47% increase in Hispanic sales.

That knack for matching Hispanics' passion points with online efforts helped Alma's digital revenue soar 300% last year. Overall, revenue grew 10%, boosted by a new-business marathon led by Isaac Mizrahi (the marketer, not the famous designer), who joined Alma two years ago as managing director after years at Sprint and Coca-Cola. Last year alone, the agency succeeded at bringing home 10 new accounts.

And at a time when Hispanic shops are increasingly defending their business against general-market agencies, Alma is being called upon for general-market work. It handles mainstream advertising for Visit Florida, once a client of DDB's Miami office, which Alma absorbed.

Still, Mr. Messianu doesn't want to stray too far from the agency's core. When an impressed client offered him the chance to compete for cellphone marketer Cricket's general-market account during a pitch last year, he stuck to -- and won -- the Hispanic business.

Alma is at its best when helping long-time clients like McDonald's lead with multicultural insights, and new clients say that 's part of what attracts them. A new smoothie for McCafé was introduced with a lyrical spot in which a young woman sips the drink and has a flashback to images from her Latin American childhood.

"I love the mango-pineapple smoothie work," said Neil Golden, CMO of McDonald's USA. "It's beautiful and insightful. We ran it in Spanish-language media and also extensively in English-language."

Last year, Alma relocated to a new office, which the Miami shop said was akin to going from "a warren of hamster cubicles on a highway to a waterfront dream castle." But the move to the stunning new space incited a rebellion by creatives who were appalled to learn that to shake things up, the 111 staffers would be grouped by client or project teams, rather than sitting in the usual departments.

Mr. Messianu, a nonconformist who likes to cajole people out of their comfort zones, asked them to give it a try and, within a couple of months, the creatives decided the new approach worked. When the latest employee-satisfaction survey was issued, Alma, which is part of the DDB network but was allowed to drop the DDB name, scored among the top 20% of DDB offices.

"The creatives are more committed and have more business sense; the account people have more of a sense of belonging, and digital and planning are at the core," Mr. Messianu said.

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