Venables Is No. 10 on Ad Age's Agency A-List

Feisty Shop Wins Business by Stepping Up and Telling Clients to Change Their Strategies

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NEW YORK ( -- When Intel threw its $300 million global creative account into review in 2008, three of four finalist shops in contention presented the tech giant with "really dramatic ideas about Intel powering everyday life," said Deborah Conrad, VP-general manager in charge of the chipmaker's global marketing group. In fairness to those agencies, they were doing what Intel had asked them to do.

Paul  <a href='' class='directory_entry' title='AdAge Directory'>Venables</a>
Sam Hadley
CLIENTS: Coca-Cola, Intel, ConocoPhillips, Audi, Barclays
Venables Bell & Partners, however, took a different tack. It told Intel it disagreed with the brief, and instead of showing Intel a reel of its work, put together a reel of advertising campaigns for 20 different tech companies since the late 1990s, all chock full of images of skyscrapers and folks in China on mobile phones.

"They challenged us and were very strategic about the problem," Ms. Conrad said. That problem was that Intel had lost its way and needed to take its brand beyond that ding-dong sound. "They said what you do everyday is invent stuff for tomorrow."

So the global behemoth, which had been working with an agency-world giant, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann Erickson, hired the shop with a single San Francisco office. "I think they are feisty, and we needed feisty," Ms. Conrad said.

Spend a little time with folks from Venables, and you'll find that feistiness is a theme. It persuaded Coca-Cola to orient Nestea to youngsters instead of going after yoga moms, Audi to spend more money last year than it initially planned, and ConocoPhillips to stop apologizing for itself.

See work from Venables Bell & Partners on Creativity.

For the long haul
When Tami Walker, ConocoPhillips' brand manager, was on the hunt last year for a new agency to help rejuvenate its '76 brand, it chose Venables in part because its campaign strategy was unexpected. Others brought "attention-grabbing" and "anthemic work" but Venables "found a way to turn our weaknesses into strengths."

The shop suggested that instead of talking about the ingredients in their gas, to talk about ConocoPhillips being "on the driver's side."

"That's the kind of long-term message we really wanted to tee up and we plan to stick with it for the long haul," said Ms. Walker.

"We are at our best when we are telling the Emperor he's naked," said Paul Venables, the agency's co-founder and creative director. "I think that's disarming in this business." While he's aware that some might think their style breeds creative arrogance, Mr. Venables believes the game of client appeasement is far riskier.

It helps that their creative ideas are working. "We are maniacs for results -- we set our bar really high," said Intel's Ms. Conrad.

Successful work
Intel's "Sponsors of Tomorrow" platform was unveiled in May and is already helping the brand get a much-needed lift. The first video, which broke in May and humorously portrayed USB-maker Ajay Bhatt as a rock star, soared to 1 million hits on YouTube in its first week.

The new ConocoPhillips work broke in August of 2009 and, so far, brand awareness is up 3%, said Ms. Walker, "and [we] have been able to increase the number of people who recognize the new positioning."

For Audi of America, Venables led a takeover of ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts during President Obama's inauguration last January, plus inserts in major newspapers and full-day sponorships of sites like and The idea was to capitalize on the buzz of event, and as a result an estimated 30 million to 40 million people connected with the Audi brand within a span of 24 hours.

"People are always looking to do advertising on their own terms," said Audi's chief marketer, Scott Keogh. "But you have to do advertising when the opportunity makes the most sense." At a dreadful time for the luxury car market, Audi during the recession picked up 1.5% market share.

Mr. Keogh credits a lack of panic, refusal to undercut prices and pulling back on incentive deals as what has helped it weather one of the worst years carmakers have ever seen (in case you're wondering, that suicide ad that made its rounds recently was a fake, and wasn't from Venables).

With this kind of client success, Venables is experiencing some serious growth. Revenue was up more than 20% and staff grew by 18%.

When agency co-founder Greg Bell departed the shop last summer, it was a surprise to many in the agency community, but not at the agency, which had already installed a cadre of creative generals on every piece of business.

Along with Mr. Bell, it said goodbye to the Ishares unit of Barclays when the unit was sold to Blackrock, but still works on the domestic Barclays brand business it was handed without a review in 2005.

It remains to be seen how Venables manages to navigate growth in this business, and while it's a hot indie shop now, it's not clear how long that will last.

Mr. Venables admits the agency has had talks with all the major holding companies and will continue to do so -- at least informally.

But "right now we're independent and we enjoy that," he said.

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