The way Johannes Leonardo co-founder and Co-Chief Creative Officer Jan Jacobs sees it, when a brief enters the agency's doors, it's an opportunity to create the best work of your career—not just for creatives, but for clients too. "We try to create an environment where everyone can look back and think, 'That was magic,'" he says.
But magic by JL's definition doesn't just mean great creativity. Creativity hasn't been an issue since the agency opened in New York City a decade ago, with WPP taking a minority stake. Rather, magic is a mix of powerful ideas supported by smart strategy and sound leadership, an alchemy that JL says it finally got right, leading to its first appearance on the A-List, at No. 4.
Around 2016, the agency's leaders took a long hard look at what was working and what wasn't. It then built out a comprehensive management team. While Jacobs, fellow co-founder and co-Chief Creative Officer Leo Premutico and founding member and partner Ferdinando Verderi remain the agency's creative heart, they're now bolstered by leadership added in recent years: President Bryan Yasko came on board from Droga5; Saatchi vet Emily Wilcox stepped up to lead accounts; BBH alum Mark Aronson heads up strategy; production vet Dana May leads integrated production; and former Grey exec Michelle Moscone joined as director of creative services. The founders also note that Head of Communications Strategy Megan Piro, another BBH vet, has been instrumental to growth.
"Just being good at creative doesn't solve all the problems; you need a robust agency management team behind the ideas to make them real," says Yasko.
"We set ourselves up for success by getting all the other basic stuff right," says Premutico.
The agency more than doubled in size to 104 people and saw revenue soar 82 percent from $14 million in 2016 to $26 million. During that transition, Johannes Leonardo not only retained all clients, it more than doubled its roster from six to 14. Among the newcomers were MassMutual, Amazon Fire TV and sports media company Bleacher Report.
JL continues to raise the creative bar with its ongoing partnership with Adidas Originals, which began in 2014. Last year's "Original Is Never Finished" campaign included a Cannes Lions Entertainment for Music Grand Prix-winning spot featuring a totally fresh remix of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" alongside modern-day creators.
"They bring what I call the vitamin T, as in 'tension,'" says Adidas Originals VP of Global Brand Communications Alegra O'Hare. "They're really able to create this tension between heritage and innovation that cuts through the clutter."
During Adidas' third-quarter earnings call, the brand noted that Originals saw double-digit growth in all of its key regions over the same period the prior year, leading to overall Originals growth of 22 percent.
In 2017, JL became creative agency of record for MassMutual after an unusually speedy review. "We had to launch with not what we do, but who we are," says the insurer's head of brand and advertising, Jennifer Halloran. The agency spent weeks with MassMutual employees and landed on the "Live Mutual" platform that led to ambitious projects including "The Unsung," a spot that looked back on the good that people did in 2017; a live commercial on New Year's Eve; and a push that allowed consumers to "adopt" a runner in the New York City Marathon.
"They have a lot of courage to come up with big ideas," Halloran says. "I'm always asking them, 'Do you understand how much work it's going to be?' But then, they'll do it."