March 13, 2023

A-List & Creativity Awards 2023


No. 2

The agency whose merger was once derided now leads the way with its  connected brands strategy

By Judann Pollack

Global CEO Jon Cook and Debbi Vandeven,  global chief creative officer, with VMLY&R’s Cannes Lions.

Ask Jon Cook about the merger of WPP agencies VML and Y&R five years ago, and he quotes Walter White of “Breaking Bad.”


“We didn't do this out of necessity. We did it out of wanting to build something for a changing marketplace,” said Cook, now the global CEO of VMLY&R. “We came together because we saw an opportunity, and I'm glad we did that when we did it. We've always believed in not letting things happen to us. As Walter White said in ‘Breaking Bad’, ‘Let's be the ones who knock.’”


VMLY&R is now knocking on $1 billion in revenue in the U.S., posting a 5% increase last year following a 12% rise in 2021, thanks to its early adoption of the “connected brands” proposition that spans brand experience, consumer experience and commerce.


That end-to-end combination has attracted new clients and grown business from existing ones including T-Mobile, AstraZeneca, Pfizer, SC Johnson and Abbott Nutrition, and the shop has expanded its share of WPP’s global Coca-Cola business across brands including AHA, Coke, Minute Maid, Schweppes, Smartwater and Vitaminwater.


It’s a fusion of data, insights and strategy that informs the agency’s connected brands philosophy, according to Global CEO VMLY&R Commerce Beth Ann Kaminkow, “bringing true insight through data to the table to really understand ‘How does a consumer live their life within the brand context now?’” she said. “‘How do you design around things that are going to be really relevant to that consumer?’” 


This formula has enabled VMLY&R to transcend the antiquated notion of the Mad Men-era agency, said a consultant, who called the agency "highly strategic and creative." VMLY&R embodies the contemporary way of doing business versus legacy creative agencies, said the consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding, “Oh, how those mighty have fallen.'”  


“We often compete with [an agency] that has a great advertising offering and its customer experience offering is like ‘You know, we got a guy,’” said Cook. “We never want to be that company that just has a person that does that, but rather 40% or 50% of the company that's doing that kind of work. If we do our job right as an agency, the term brand experience and customer experience won't even be terms anymore because the whole thing will just be experience.”

“We’ve always believed in not letting things happen
to us. As Walter White said in ‘Breaking Bad’,
‘Let’s be the ones who knock.’”
Jon Cook, VMLY&R

 Operating a full range of services also helps insulate the agency from market vagaries, said Jeff Geheb, global chief experience officer.


“A single client will change their investment with us across [brand experience] and [user experience] depending on what's going on with their business. And it doesn't require them to switch an agency and say, ‘Hey, we're doing less advertising this year.’ Ford had fewer semiconductors last year, so they did less advertising because they had fewer products to sell, but they shifted the spend over and said ‘Let's invest more with owners or in product innovation.’ It's not an agency switch, it's a capability switch.”


The perception, at least among some agency watchers including search consultant Avi Dan, principal of Avidan Strategies, is that although the agency is solid and well-managed, the melding of VML and Y&R is “a bit of a misnomer. It is VML-dominated and skews toward a digital agency.”


But Debbi Vandeven, global chief creative officer, said the agency acts creatively as one team, even as it maintains some boutique agency names including Taxi and Berlin Cameron. “Our teams are really about helping each other and making sure that the entire network is winning at Cannes, or the entire network is doing well at shows and doing well in client business. We also have open briefs.”


It was Taxi that “hijacked the year’s biggest fashion drop,” according to the agency, by calling attention to forced labor in Xinjiang, China, using posters on behalf of the Human Rights Foundation that mimicked the Yeezy x Gap launch. But instead of Ye’s blue jacket, it portrayed a blue jumpsuit worn by Uyghurs in forced labor camps. A QR code placed on the posters led consumers to an “Uncomfortable Truth” site that detailed how their purchases might unintentionally fund human rights abuses.


Berlin Cameron was behind “The First Meta Sneaker,” which solved a problem for client Under Armour—supply chain issues threatened the launch of its Genesis Curry Flow sneaker with NBA star Steph Curry. The solution was an NFT sneaker that enabled the holder to wear the brand across popular metaverse platforms. Some of the NFTs sold for as much as $55,000, enabling the brand to sell out in 10 minutes and raise $1 million for Curry’s charity “Eat, Learn, Play.”


Elsewhere on the sneaker front, VMLY&R Commerce enabled Mondelēz’s signature cookie brand to take back its name from athletic shoe companies that called their black-and-white footwear Oreo. The campaign encouraged consumers to scan any Oreo sneaker, with the reward of a two-for-one coupon for actual cookies. Sales rose a sweet 16% year-over-year.


And it was a coalition of WPP agencies led by VMLY&R New York that created the Reality Flag for the Human Rights Campaign, which removed 29 stars from the U.S. flag, symbolizing the states that still allow legal discrimination of LGBTQ+ Americans. The result was 480 million media impressions.


New York is now a flagship office for the agency, despite the fact that its VML roots trace back to Kansas City, Missouri, where Cook and Vandeven worked together for 23 years before the agencies merged. 


“We wouldn't be here if we were just an agency in Kansas City,” said Cook. “We made a decision because we wanted to expand” into hot disciplines like health and commerce as a means to retain employees that might otherwise move on. “It's a story of ‘Let's build the things into the company that one might leave for, whether that be geography or capability.’”


And although much of its business is handled out of New York, VMLY&R still manages to maintain a Midwestern humility. Cook says that when the agency receives RFPs that bear out its direction, “It makes me say ‘Oh my God, I think we may have gotten this right.’”


Then he adds: “We pat ourselves on the back for 10 seconds and take the rest of the 30 seconds to start reinventing. Because whenever we've gotten it somewhat right, we know it's time to start breaking things and be ready for the next phase.”

Reprinted with permission from Ad Age. © 2023 Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
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