This New L.A. Agency Is Out to Cure Society's Woes (Including California's Drought)

Unlikely Duo Teams Up to Bring Fresh Thinking and Heart to Industry

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Geoff McGann and Yichi Zhang
Geoff McGann and Yichi Zhang

Goodby & Silverstein. Pereira & O'Dell. McGann & Zhang. You may not yet be familiar with the last, but they're another duo who may have something interesting to offer the West Coast ad scene.

Founded in March by industry vet Geoff McGann and finance-turned-marketing man Yichi Zhang, the new L.A.-headquartered agency McGann/Zhang made notable ripples in June with a moving, cinematic ad for NYC Pride, about two young women from yesteryear who get their first taste of young love -- and the terror that comes with it in a gay-bashing world. Just this week, they debuted another socially-conscious campaign for Heal the Bay. The series of contemplative, poetic ads reminds local residents of the nature in their Southern California soul -- and raise awareness of the cause in the process.

From the Heal the Bay Campaign:

On the surface, the founding partners seem about as different as you can get, aside from the fact that they both sport some pretty mean tattoos. Mr. McGann is behind classic work for Nike (he was part of the team that created "Just Do It"), has had a career in directing ads, and is a longtime supporter of education -- he previously taught at W&K's school WK12, opened 72andSunny's 72U and was an instructor at VCU. He's also a former jiu-jitsu champ and was once arrested for wearing an "explosive"-looking watch.

Co-founder Yichi Zhang (pronounced "Eacher John") is a Chinese native fresh out of VCU grad school, which he entered after serving as global accounts director for his family's China-based jewelry company and studying finance. He also has a fondness for stuffed animals and a sizable social media following after his WeChat post about how to land an internship at a top company when you have a 2.5 GPA went viral. (He got offers from Merrill Lynch, WellsFargo, JWT and Detecon Consulting (part of Deutsche Telekom).

The pair met while Mr. McGann was teaching at VCU. Mr. Zhang had dropped his finance career to study at the school on the brand management track and had admired Mr. McGann's work since he was a kid. One of his favorite things to watch (given China's limited TV offerings) was a collection of videotapes called "Mad for Ads" -- some of Mr. McGann's old spots were among his favorites. Mr. McGann, with the help of Dan Wieden, had originally set out to open a new ad school in Los Angeles to serve under-represented groups in advertising, women and minorities. But lack of funding led him to shutter those plans, after which he began teaching at VCU.

"We had this strange, immediate trust between us," Mr. McGann said of partnering with Mr. Zhang. "We believe in the same things -- education, diversity, and the electricity that comes from the worlds of art and commerce coming together."

Campaigns that set out to change the world will be an intrinsic part of the shop's M.O. -- some of Mr. McGann's favorite work during his early days at Wieden & Kennedy was for Partnership for a Drug Free America. But the agency's ultimate ambition includes creating top-level-down campaigns for clients reaching from the U.S. to Beijing, where the agency has its second hub and hopes to work with Chinese businesses looking to break out in the States. "Our real focus is on brand voice, which is an art form that has been losing its way," said Mr. McGann. In this age of social media, he faults many companies for losing sight of the bigger brand story for the sake of quick hits.

"There are a lot of new businesses starting in China by people like me, who were educated in the U.S. and want to put more effort into branding," added Mr. Zhang. "The Chinese market is hard to crack for foreign brands, but for me, since I've been in the U.S. for 10 years, I understand cultural things on both sides and can bridge a lot of barriers."

Outside of client work, which now includes assignments for travel gear brands Bluesmart and Lo & Sons, McGann/Zhang has also stepped up to solve one of the more pressing matters of its hometown: the L.A. drought. After seeing that the issue hasn't drawn enough support from the community, they decided to create their own organization, the Los Angeles Coalition for Water Conservation, for which they've also launched a hyperbolic campaign showing silly scenarios of extreme H20 wastefulness.

Initially, the pair considered opening a non-profit/for-profit hybrid, but "we realized it would create a more powerful future for all of our interests if we were to open a for-profit company, build up a body of creatively-driven work here and then carefully choose our projects," said Mr. McGann. And they'll be able to do so since they have the good fortune of backing from three Chinese venture captial investors that will help sustain the company at least for a year.

McGann/Zhang Digs in Bel Air, California
McGann/Zhang Digs in Bel Air, California

The company is based in an unlikely headquarters: a house in Bel Air, Calif. For now, it addresses the agency's various needs: it's a pleasant environment for the partners' 16-plus-hour days; it helps to attract new talent; and it doubles as a production playground for the shop, which includes in-house production as one of its offerings. For upcoming ads in the Heal the Bay campaign, for example, the team poured seven tons of sand on the driveway to shoot some of the beach scenes.

Mr. McGann hasn't abandoned his initial intentions to start an ad school for the under-represented -- that will come when the agency will be able to fully support such an initiative. "I've been involved in education long enough to know there's no point in doing it half-assed," he said.

And is there room for one more in the L.A. ad scene? "We are small and there are not that many small, creatively-driven agencies in the city right now," said Mr. McGann. "A boutique agency can be more nimble, we can work on smaller projects if we choose and this gives us a better opportunity to build up a solid body of work in a much shorter time frame." But does L.A., or advertising for that matter, need another agency? "Absolutely yes," said Mr. McGann. "There's always room in the industry for people who want to do work that matters."

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