NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When P.J. Pereira and Andrew O'Dell departed high-profile jobs at digital topshop AKQA to hang their own shingle last April, it wasn't an optimal time to start a business.
But rather than retreat amid the gloominess, the duo -- armed with a little faith and several million dollars in backing from a Brazilian investor -- opened the doors of their downtown San Francisco agency. Smart move. Just 18 months later, Pereira & O'Dell has grown to 40 staffers plucked from places such as Wieden & Kennedy and Crispin Porter & Bogusky, and amassed a diverse roster of clients spanning from a global beer brand to a startup snack-food company.
"When we started the agency, it was very much in the middle of the downturn and there wasn't a piece of good news to be found anywhere" said Mr. O'Dell, described by clients as the energetic and business-savvy yin to Mr. Pereira's mellow and highly-creative yang.
But they both believe the recession forced them to be smarter. "The fact that we were small, didn't have a huge overhead, and could put our hands on the work we were doing taught us a lot and helped us structure our business to be faster," said Mr. Pereira.
The duo managed to land toy giant Lego as its first client after a single drinks meeting, before the agency even had a name. "That speaks to the first impression that they made, and the genuine passion they had for our brand -- which is stronger than any capabilities deck they could have shown us," said Michael McNally, Lego's brand relations director.
The toy giant tapped Pereira & O'Dell for a social-media campaign to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the iconic toy. Rather than leveraging Facebook or Twitter just for the sake of it, the agency opted to harness the energy of Lego fans around the world, an active group of brand advocates who on their own have uploaded thousands of YouTube videos and Flickr photos.
The hub of the experience, the "Go Miniman Go" blog, featured custom content plus tools to allow users to add their own images. In its September launch alone, the campaign was featured on everywhere from E! News to Us Weekly, and the effort helped Lego achieve 34% growth in a year when most competitors' business dwindled.
A confirmation of clients liking Pereira & O'Dell's proposition came when it beat out bigger, established agencies to handle University of Phoenix's estimated $100 million ad account. "We talked to a lot of talented agencies, but we felt like they understood our cause and mission in a way that others didn't," said Michael Sullivan, the school's senior VP-brand marketing and media.
Despite $4 million in 2008 revenues from these and other clients -- such as Crown Imports, the maker of Corona; Yes-to-Carrots, an organic skin and beauty line; Muscle Milk; Pop Chips; and Ubisoft -- like most savvy agencies, Pereira & O'Dell is toying with alternate revenue streams.
The agency launched "The Barrel House," a popular bar and performance space that has hosted charity events with the likes of Wyclef Jean and popular indie bands.