Pop Culture With a Twist

Multicultural Agency of the Year: Groupo Gallegos

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Grupo Gallegos figures out how to interpret popular-culture icons such as the pink Energizer Bunny, Fruit of the Loom's fruit guys and "Got milk?" for Hispanic consumers who didn't grow up with them -- and wins creative awards doing it, along with more sales for its clients.
John Gallegos and Favio Ucedo have an exceptionally clear view.
John Gallegos and Favio Ucedo have an exceptionally clear view. Credit: Gilles Mingasson

"The key thing is ensuring you keep the same personality and DNA as the general market and find ways you can make them part of Hispanic culture," says Esther Soto-Schwartz, Grupo Gallegos director-planning and research.

That approach led to the award-winning Hispanic "Toma leche" ("Have some milk") campaign that captures the quirky humor of "Got milk?" but reverses the English-language campaign's concept of being deprived of milk in favor of rampant consumption in fictitious towns where people drink nothing but milk. They have bones so strong that they're unharmed in a place where gravity comes and goes, their fantasies are fulfilled in soporific milk-induced dreams, and their dazzling teeth are bared in happy smiles no matter what disaster strikes.

"We made the creative decision that milk deprivation is not humorous to the Hispanic consumer," says Steve James, executive director of the California Milk Processor Board. "Grupo's spots are quirky, witty and humorous. Before Grupo, [our ads] were very earnest. Now, the general market and Hispanic are more in alignment in tone."

And milk sales to Hispanics have stopped sliding.

Contender from the start
In addition to generating the best creative in the U.S. Hispanic market, the agency is stepping into a challenging and strategic role as a change agent for marketers trying to succeed with Latino consumers, and its growth never dips below double digits. Superlative creative and exponential growth -- 25% in 2007 -- have made Grupo Gallegos a contender for Advertising Age Multicultural Agency of the Year almost since the independent agency opened in Long Beach, Calif., seven years ago.

Until recently, Grupo poured all its talent into award-winning 30-second TV commercials for clients including Energizer Holdings, Comcast Corp. and the milk group. It's only in the past year that Grupo has been all over other areas such as interactive, under Interactive Director Sebastian Djain, hired in late 2006.

"Every client has interactive on their plan for [2008]," says agency founder John Gallegos. "It took a while for us to do it organically."

The milk processors will get their first Spanish-language website (tomaleche.com) in March, and Fruit of the Loom has used interactive to target hard-to-reach Hispanic kids with an online game on the Neopets virtual-pet site.

For Energizer, Grupo worked with three popular names in Latino music, who wrote and performed the longest songs of their careers, and created a big internet and user-generated content component. Non-Hispanics automatically associate the battery marketer with the pink bunny "going and going and going," but that's not true for many Hispanics. So Grupo created a "What happens when you cross the Energizer bunny with ..." platform, starting with music.

Including consumers
TV spots feature the performers singing such written-for-Energizer songs as a ballad called "Eternal Love." The songs can be downloaded from Energizer's sigueysigue.com (Spanish for "go on and on") site, and people can upload their own original videos to contribute to the longest song.

"One of our challenges was how to make "sigue y sigue" part of popular culture," Ms. Soto-Schwartz says. "Music is a natural platform. Even if you're a learner, downloading is such an entry point in how to obtain music."

To help identify opportunities for clients, Grupo divides the Hispanic market into three groups: Spanish-dominant, recent-immigrant Learners; Straddlers of both cultures; and more-acculturated Navigators.

"Segmentation is the new buzzword in Hispanic planning," Ms. Soto-Schwartz says. "It's not just language or country of origin but what's your current life stage and where are you going?"

Oceanside view
Mr. Gallegos, now 40, founded Grupo Gallegos in 2001 with Favio Ucedo, a creative director he worked with at Casanova Pendrill, one of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Hispanic agencies. Their fiercely independent agency of about 65 people is near enough to the ocean -- a block away -- to have beach-view and city-view conference rooms. Images from Grupo commercials and print ads hang from wires like in an art gallery, with the agency's Cannes Lions prizes in alcoves.

Grupo is for clients seeking a change agent. And if they don't, they're gone. Last year, the agency resigned Tecate, a $20 million beer account that was the agency's second-largest, after a client-side management reshuffle. Despite that loss, the agency grew revenue and billings 25% in 2007, with revenue reaching almost $9 million. On the new-business front, the agency picked up eight accounts, including Motel 6 without a pitch, interactive projects for Target Stores, Dial's Soft Scrub cleanser, Valvoline motor oil, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, and health-care and insurance clients. Like many good Hispanic shops, Grupo Gallegos turns clients from novices in Hispanic advertising into marketers that can't imagine not targeting Latinos.

"They've done a great job educating me," says John Shivel, Fruit of the Loom senior VP-marketing, advertising and corporate communications.

Fruit of the Loom entered the Hispanic market with a small pilot TV project for men's underwear several years ago and now is one of the agency's two biggest accounts, advertising across most media and all the company's products.

'Joined at the hip'
"One thing I love about Grupo is the total collaborative approach they take," Mr. Shivel says. "I've worked with so many agencies, and it's one thing that truly sets them apart. I talk to anyone in creative, media, production. We are joined at the hip."

Clients say they love Mr. Ucedo, an edgy, shaggy Argentine who's brilliant but a constant fixer. "Favio is all about continuous improvement," Mr. Shivel says happily. "Nothing's ever good enough."

In one controversial move, Grupo started a small office last year in Buenos Aires to nurture the young creative talent that's in short supply in the U.S. Hispanic market and plentiful in Argentina, where much of the world's best Spanish-language advertising is done and advertising is considered an exciting career. Critics, however, say Argentines don't understand the U.S. Hispanic market and that opening in Buenos Aires is largely a cost-saving move.

Past five Multicultural Agencies of the Year
Conill (Publicis Groupe)

Burrell Communications (Publicis owns 49%)

Vidal Partnership (independent)

Dieste Harmel & Partners (Omnicom Group)

Vidal Partnership
"It's a talent shortage," Mr. Gallegos says. "Supply and demand is out of whack." He says Grupo is hiring mostly copywriters and art directors in Argentina, the kind of junior creatives an agency needs but can't recruit abroad because U.S. visas are generally granted only for more senior employees.

About eight people work in Grupo's converted studio in Buenos Aires' media-business-oriented Palermo Hollywood neighborhood. They work under the supervision of two Argentine creative directors based in California, Juan Oubina and Martin Cerri, and fly up every quarter to work in the U.S. for three weeks.

Clients see the payoff and don't seem to mind their work being done by creatives who are primarily in Argentina.

"To me that's a great example of thinking outside the box," says Mr. James, who plans to be in Argentina himself this month for a "Toma leche" shoot. "It's about how to get better work and more creative impact and keep costs in line."
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