Asia Pacific indie agency Special Group opens in the U.S. with creative vet William Gelner at the helm
Last month, sci-fi geeks’ dreams came true with the ultimate crossover: Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker of Star Wars faced off against Sir Patrick Stewart, aka Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek, in an Uber Eats showdown over what to have for dinner. While the campaign targeted a North American audience, it was born out of Special Group, a New Zealand and Australia-based independent agency with offices across the Asia-Pacific region. On the heels of the campaign’s success, the company has officially set up shop in the States with a new Los Angeles office to be run by creative vet William Gelner.
Gelner’s last full-time gig was chief creative officer of media and marketing services firm Engine, and before that, he held leadership roles at top creative shops including BBH New York and 180 L.A (now 180 Kingsday). He had helped the latter, an Amsterdam-headquartered agency, break ground on the west coast, starting as executive creative director and eventually moving into the CCO role. During that time, the agency delivered notable campaigns such as Boost Mobile’s “Boost Your Voice” campaign that turned the mobile provider’s stores into polling places; UNICEF’s “Unfairy Tales”; and Mitsubishi’s “Live Drive.”
Most recently, Gelner had been working on campaigns for Michael Bloomberg’s 2020 presidential bid, as well as continuing projects for The Lincoln Project, for which he helped conceive the “Walk of Shame” animated ad, about the Republican elephant mascot regretting a one-night stand (or rather, four-year stand) with President Trump.
While Gelner did not lead on the Hamill-Stewart Uber Eats ads, he steered creation of the campaign’s latest round starring Jonathan Van Ness from “Queer Eye” and Olympic gymastics star Simone Biles as BFFs showing off their moves.
Special Group first met Gelner about a year ago “and we were instantly aligned in our ambition, culture and values,” says the agency's Australia Founding Partner and CEO Lindsey Evans. “He has furiously high standards and incredible creative leadership credentials, while also being a stupidly good human being. He has also done a startup before and knows the potency, opportunity and reward that comes with independence.”
Special Group was founded in New Zealand in 2007 and then expanded to Australia in 2014. Its clients across the Asia-Pacific region also include Optus, Smirnoff, Tourism New Zealand, Red Bull, Carlton United Brewery, Bonds and Kayo.
Before Uber’s “Tonight I’m Eating” campaign debuted in the States, it had proved successful in other countries, with iterations in Japan and New Zealand featuring those countries’ local talents (along with Kim Kardashian West).
The agency earned buzz for its award-winning “Good Morning World” push for Tourism New Zealand, which had been the client’s highest-ever performing campaign, also earning the most effective multi-region campaign at the Global Effie Awards.
The company’s name was inspired by the kind of ideas it aspires to. Special “was a word we heard over and over when people spoke of the work they were most proud of, from Steve Jobs down—‘That’s pretty special,’” says Special Group New Zealand Founding Partner and CEO/CCO Tony Bradbourne. “So for us, it’s an eternal ambition to constantly strive for work that is ‘special.’”
In the U.S., Gelner says the team currently comprises 12 freelance staffers working on a number of projects. Office location hasn’t been determined yet, “but there’s something alluring about Venice Beach,” he says.
Outside of Uber Eats, the Stateside office is currently working with The League of Conservation Voters, Potential Energy Coalition and The Together Project, a bi-partisan effort to bring the country together.
Gelner says the agency's model is primed for modern-day marketing: "We're small and nimble, but can scale big. It's an independent shop, with a global footprint and ability to do global work."
His experience at his previous gigs, and also working under COVID restrictions, have informed how he plans to build out the shop.
“We haven’t had any overhead, IT is Google and all your money, you can put into a small, nimble senior team that works really fast,” Gelner says. “Clients get senior-level direct access, and the best creative production people to do that work.”
Also, working in the political sector has given Gelner insight into nimbler, faster ways of working. “Being part of both [Bloomberg and Lincoln Project] you see how good ideas can be made very quickly if you’re structured and built in the right way," he says.