A place that calls itself Chemistry has to be comfortable experimenting and even causing the occasional explosion. And indeed, the Atlanta agency that bears that name has been living up to it lately—all the elements have aligned to produce one of the country’s strongest independents.
Chemistry is enjoying explosive growth by ‘blowing shit up’ for clients
Chemistry grew revenue 74% to $54 million in 2022, following a 63% increase the previous year. It added $86 million in new account billings last year, the bulk of it from three midyear wins: Frontdoor (parent company of home service plan brands American Home Shield, HSA, Landmark and OneGuard, $66 million) and fast-food chains Five Guys ($10 million) and Krystal ($8 million).
It’s also developed an insurgent creative style, along with an appealing agency culture that’s also put it on the map—a map that encompasses its Atlanta headquarters and satellite offices in Miami, Pittsburgh, New York and Phoenix (the latter two opened in 2022).
“The biggest change in the way we pitch, between now and two years ago, is we never pretend we're something else anymore,” said Taylor Guglielmo, chief growth officer. “It just always blows up in our face. We did not get asked into the second round of a few pitches this year because we went all the way hard in the paint with experimentation. We try to make it as real as we can from the jump. They know they’re going to get something unexpected from us at every step.”
What the shop has noticed, and been somewhat shocked by, is it's often the more conservative clients that are drawn to its experimental offerings.
“You would think an insurance brand would have an aversion to ‘blowing shit up,’ but we saw the magic in the ideas they brought to the table,” said Naz Farrow, executive director of insurance company CG.
For CG, Chemistry has created a global campaign featuring “Aunt Angie,” an eccentric character who shares her misadventures with viewers. Farrow said her favorite spot involved Angie’s run-in with a potty-mouthed, car-thieving, bank-robbing band of monkeys with a penchant for banana smoothies.
“Blowing shit up is not about arson. It's about architecture,” said Guglielmo. “We're trying to break things apart so we can build them better. And you just have to see it one time before you drink the Kool-Aid.”
Buy your ticket for the Ad Age A-List & Creativity Awards Gala here.
‘Side Chiks’ and boy bands
As blowing shit up goes, look no further than the provocative “Side Chik” work for Krystal, the Southern burger-sliders franchise. A latecomer to the chicken sandwich wars, the client greenlit ads with social media influencer Brittany Renner that leaned into the innuendo of having a “side chick”—a love interest on the side.
The rapper 2 Chainz worked on the campaign, too—he was named Krystal’s figurative head of creative marketing shortly before Chemistry won the account.
“Their goal was to become part of pop culture. The measuring stick was being in Complex and those publications,” said Chemistry’s Chief Creative Officer Chris Breen. “The idea of a ‘side chick’ could be taboo. It was a balancing act to keep it a positive, good-natured message. But that's a good example of 'How are we going to reposition this sleepy 90-year-old brand for the modern consumer?'”
Another zag creatively was Chemistry’s work for Netflix, which included creating a fake boy band to sing about its dating shows and a contest in which fans could be paired with a Netflix reality star as their wedding plus-one.
“The Netflix boy band started during COVID,” said agency President Tim Smith. “We’re sending phones and instructions all over the world, directing them how to do their settings, shooting it all, cutting it. The mentality is, ‘How can we push it?’ Everything's an experiment. Don't be satisfied. Figure it out.”
“We aren’t afraid to experiment with weird or radical ideas in order to solve the problem,” said agency CEO Ned Show.
“Clients are expecting that from us, which we love,” added Breen. “The Netflix brief was, 'How do we do a trailer by not doing a trailer?' That’s a great brief. Announcing a new genre of shows without cutting together the same clichéd video everybody’s seen a million times.”
Other notable campaigns from 2022 included more work for longtime client Atlanta United, the Major League Soccer team, much of which has been music-driven. Chemistry built the brand from scratch in 2017, breaking league attendance and jersey sales records along the way over the next five years. In 2022, the “Spirit of 17” campaign saw the club partner with 17 top Atlanta muralists to immortalize 17 community leaders and unsung heroes across the city.
“Everybody thinks of the South as college football, and it certainly is. But that same passion definitely translates to soccer,” said Breen. “It’s been amazing to watch this perfect storm of Atlanta music culture collide with soccer. Maybe on the surface folks didn't think those things go well together, but they do.”
Throw in some street-smart work for Lids expanding the caps brand into jerseys, as well as a more heartfelt, emotional campaign for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and Chemistry had a year that really showed its range of creative chops.
The spirit of Atlanta
The Atlanta United murals work is just one example of community outreach in a city that’s 48% Black. Others include Chemistry’s Ally Internship—a paid program, now in its third year, with an 80% placement rate for Black creatives interested in advertising—as well as partnerships with Black-owned businesses and speaker series with guests from the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.
In terms of diversity internally, the agency’s goal is to be 62% BIPOC by 2026 (matching the cities in which it operates). It’s currently at 38%, up from 26% in 2020. The agency is also 72% female, up 18% since 2020.
“DEI isn't a business goal. It's part of who we are and who we want to be, and it's essential for us to be successful,” said Breen. “It is definitely about doing the right thing, but it is also equally about—if we do this, and we do it well, we have a competitive advantage.”
The agency also has a multicultural marketing unit, Chemistry Cultura, whose clients include the NFL, Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Heineken. Cultura grew 41% to $2.5 million in revenue last year, with the New York, Miami and Phoenix offices forming a good triangle for Cultura work. (New York opened initially to service Five Guys, but also obviously has the potential to help the agency engage with other New York-based clients.)
The culture of Chemistry
As the agency grows—head count is up fourfold to 160 in two years—one challenge is maintaining its culture, which it’s always prized as special. The agency announced a new mission to employees this year: “To be the place where everyone does the best work of their lives while living their best lives.” It’s paying off on that promise with various policies and perks.
Each Chemist gets $1,000 to work from a sister office for one week. On their fifth anniversary, they get two plane tickets to anywhere in the world. A new Fringe platform rewards breakthrough work with self-selected benefits. And the agency has also overhauled its health care policy to cover all women’s reproductive needs after the fall of Roe v. Wade.
“Our culture is always evolving and re-creating itself to reflect the culture we all live in. It is transparent and filled with optimism so that everyone at Chemistry can be challenged professionally and still live their best lives outside the agency,” said Show. “We have always invested in our people and always will.”
On that score, the agency last April hired Christine Iannucci, formerly of Dentsu, as chief people officer to help manage HR. Another major hire last year was Renee Royal, who heads up Chemistry’s production arm, Test Tube Productions. Both women have shored up critical disciplines at the growing business.
Now that it’s firmly among the agency elite, Chemistry is looking to manage its next phase of growth. Key among clients in that regard is Frontdoor, the collection of home service plan brands, which, at $66 million in account billings, is Chemistry’s largest client so far.
Kathryn Collins, FrontDoor’s chief marketing officer, has worked with Chemistry for more than a decade across two previous companies (H&R Block and Massage Envy) and credits a lot of the brand and business success in those roles to the work the agency has done.
“They are creative problem-solvers. There is no challenge too great. There is no timeframe too aggressive,” Collins told Ad Age. “I truly believe they think about our business as much as we do. It is not unusual to receive random calls/messages saying, ‘Have you thought about xyz?’ They are an extension of our team but feel like the heart of the team.”
As it manages existing business, Chemistry is also eyeing new categories—Smith mentions automotive—and is keen to connect with more national and global brands, while still enjoying the challenge of the less-sexier assignments.
“We’re not particular about what kind of clients we work with, so long as they're willing to experiment,” said Guglielmo. “We don't care if it's a boring category—those are the most fun for us. Sure, we'd love to be dabbling in more CPG and playing in the entertainment space more. But in general, it's more about the fit of the client.”
One other goal: making a Super Bowl spot, which the agency has never done. “I would love to do that in the next two years,” said Breen. “That's not an ROI goal, but I think we could make some noise there.”
As for one other longtime goal, they can check that one off the list now.
“For five years, it’s been to get on the A-List,” Guglielmo said with a laugh. “When we heard about this, we were like, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ Then we're like, ‘Shit, we need a new goal!’”