If the high point of 2018 for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners wasn’t winning the BMW account, it could have been the way the shop learned it had won the business.
The agency pitched, but heard nothing for weeks. Then, one day, the sounds of a parade came in through the windows of the agency’s San Francisco headquarters. What they saw on the steep hill outside was a float with the BMW team on it, armed with megaphones and shouting at everyone to come down and party.
But the automaker is not the only reason the Omnicom Group agency, founded in 1983 by Jeff Goodby and Rich Silverstein, is celebrating. At a time when many big agencies are suffering from client cutbacks, it’s staffing up after strong 2018 revenue growth. During the span of 18 months, the agency notched three agency-of-record partnerships: Pepsi, Liberty Mutual and BMW
“Who else grew more than 20 percent this year?” asks Goodby, who is co-chairman and partner.
The agency is also making smart, strategic work that’s often a lot of fun. “The [Golden State] Warriors talk about ‘playing with joy,’ and this place plays with joy in a good way,” says Goodby. “Joy makes you fearless to show people things, because you’re like, ‘We’re having such a good time inventing this thing. We have to show it to [clients], even though it’s not what they asked for and it will scare them to death.’”
GS&P started 2018 off strong with a hilarious Super Bowl ad that was a rap lip-sync battle between Morgan Freeman and Peter Dinklage for PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew and Doritos. Afterward, PepsiCo awarded GS&P work for its Bubly sparkling water brand without a review.
To promote certified pre-owned BMWs, GS&P ran “used ads” from KBS, updating them with a funny new voiceover about the benefits of saving money.
And for a 2019 Super Bowl ad, the agency created a spot starring Steve Carell, Cardi B and Lil Jon that poked fun at Pepsi’s perpetual status as a challenger brand. A customer orders a Coke, and the waiter asks the familiar question “Is Pepsi OK?” prompting, among other things, a comic riff from Carell about the wonders of Pepsi.
The agency also plays with the conventions of advertising. To plug BMW’s X5 crossover, it took the car on a cross-country journey and put it onstage at the Los Angeles Auto Show, still filthy from the road trip.
“A lot of the best advertising acknowledges the deception—and not even deception so much as saccharine baloney” often involved in promoting brands and products, Goodby says. The agency doesn’t want to underestimate consumers. “We know you’re smarter than that.”
Thanks to the agency’s successes, it can afford to be choosy: Derek Robson, partner and president, says the agency turned down 64 pitches last year.
In San Francisco, where tech giants compete with agencies for talent, turnover was only 11 percent, the agency says. GS&P hired 150 people in 2018, bringing headcount to 440. It also recently hired streetwear designer Benny Gold, who is working on a line for the Golden State Warriors.
The winning streak comes after a move in 2016 to name eight partners, split evenly between men and women.
“Having those perspectives leads us to more interesting work,” Margaret Johnson, partner and chief creative officer, says. “It’s yin and yang—that push and pull is what you need to really [create] unique ideas.”
Beyond the gender mix, the leadership team contains very different personalities and perspectives. When Ad Age showed up for interviews, Robson—a veteran of London agencies—wore a chic suit and tie. Goodby sported Birkenstocks. “It’s why people love being here—they have a lot of runway to be themselves,” says Bonnie Wan, partner and head of brand strategy.
At holiday parties, partners get roasted; one year they were subjected to a lie-detector test. Robson sings the finances—last year to the tune of “Bohemian Rhapsody”—though he says his voice is “absolutely awful.”
That culture of not taking yourself too seriously comes from the founders. Goodby and Silverstein are getting the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity’s Lion of St. Mark lifetime achievement award, but Silverstein referred to it in conversation as “the award thing.”
Whatever alchemy is happening at GS&P, clients feel it. When the agency pitched to BMW execs, the latter were struck by the “humble and insightful team members,” says Trudy Hardy, VP of marketing at BMW of North America. “We had the best of the best agencies in the finals, but ultimately it came down to chemistry and relationships on top of creative excellence. It’s clear to me that the camaraderie starts at the top with Jeff and Rich and carries through.”