Cartwright lands a rare first-year berth on prestigious list
It would be tough to pick a worse year to start a business than 2020. But just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down much of the U.S., Saturday Morning Co-Founder Keith Cartwright hung out a shingle, armed with a handful of staff and even fewer clients. But despite that unlucky start, the accomplishments of his eponymous shop in its inaugural year—high-profile campaigns for Procter & Gamble and the National Basketball Association; essential thought leadership in a time of crisis and change; and $5 million in revenue—earned it a spot on the Ad Age A-List out of the gate, a feat rarely matched in the long history of these accolades.
Last summer, as the public insisted that brands needed to take a stand against racism and institutional violence, P&G turned to Cartwright. “After George Floyd was killed, it became clear that racial inequity and injustice could no longer remain solely on the shoulders of the Black community, and that while many in the white community wanted to step up, they were uncertain on what to do,” says Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at P&G. “Together with Cartwright and Grey, we created ‘The Choice’ to inspire the white community to step up to make the choice to take action and be anti-racist.” (Cartwright is backed by Grey parent WPP.)
“The Choice” picked up the narrative from previous P&G spots “The Talk” and “The Look,” which exposed white audiences—many for the first time—to some of the burden of being Black in America. “The Choice,” created in just 10 days, flipped the mirror, turning it (and the responsibility to change things) toward the viewer. “It was at a time when the world was reeling,” says Cartwright, president and chief creative officer at the agency. “So it was a bit of a no-brainer—we have to do this, we have to figure out how to make this work. The pressure was not to mess up.” In its first 20 days, “The Choice” received 528 million impressions across all channels.
“Keith Cartwright is a creative genius who transforms profound human insights into powerful ideas that move society and humanity forward,” adds Pritchard.
As brands and audiences struggled with the realities of the pandemic, the NBA needed to get fans excited about a very different kind of season, one without bodies in the stands. “It’s a Whole New Game” put Issa Rae, the first Black woman to serve as an NBA spokesperson, into the role of an eager fan, ready to embrace the new paradigm.
“The truth was that people were concerned about what the sport was going to look like when it came back. Was it going to be fun to watch? And instead of saying, ‘Hey, it’s the same old thing. Don’t worry,’ we leaned into the difference,” says John Graham, Cartwright's head of strategy. “People can tell when you tell the truth, and often the truth is the most audacious thing you can do.”
In some ways, the pandemic was a boon to the fledgling agency. While other shops wrestled with restructuring, Cartwright had no established practices in place to unlearn. “There was no expectation about us because we were so new. And because we had no clients, we had nothing to prove. And I think we had nothing to lose,” says Marie Massat, head of account management. That attitude paid off in pitches. “Especially in a pandemic, where most brands were freaking out and really were looking for a solution or an answer, it proved to be quite successful. That’s how we won the NBA, Häagen-Dazs and a bunch of others.”
The work for the ice cream brand broke this year, redefining “luxury” as part of a rebrand featuring writer/actor Lena Waithe. “Keith and the team saw how the brand needed to pivot and brought their strong pulse on culture and bold creative thinking to deliver incredible work,” says Elizabell Marquez, head of marketing at Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, which owns Häagen-Dazs. “There is no doubt in our mind that Cartwright is one of those truly special agencies, and the proof is there with the reaction to our new campaign from consumers.”
No matter the strength of a single year, it’s impossible to know how a new agency’s future will play out. But the principals, including Cartwright, Graham, Massat and Head of Integrated Production Andrew Loevenguth, have spent collective decades at some of the best known agencies in the country: 72andSunny, BSSP, The Martin Agency, Wieden & Kennedy, BBH, Grey and Anomaly. “You don’t get offered seats on rocketships that often,” Graham says. “So buy the ticket, take the ride, as Hunter S. Thompson would say.” Agency leadership is 50% Black, and the shop as a whole is more than 50% women and 40% non-white.
Since it’s backed by WPP, Cartwright can tap into Grey’s creative network, as it did for “The Choice.” The model keeps the core group of stakeholders relatively small (though the agency recently doubled its headcount to 40) but allows for rapid and temporary expansion for bigger projects.
“Even though they’re a small shop, they’re thinking bigger in a lot of ways when it comes to ambition and the kind of brands they want to help have an impact on the world,” says Rob Reilly, global chief creative officer at WPP. “Keith has the credibility and the life experience to say, ‘This is going to help me be a better creative and make the kind of work that will stand out more and break through more.’ That also makes him one of the most brilliant creators of our generation.”