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Agency Boss José Mollá on Saying No to Clients and Cannes: Ad Age Small Agency Conference

Shop Shifted From Spending up to $80,000 on Cannes to Taking Staffers to Art Shows

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José Mollá speaks at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference on Wednesday.
José Mollá speaks at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference on Wednesday. Credit: Mitchell Zachs / AP Images for Advertising Age

When José Mollá left Wieden & Kennedy to start his own shop, he asked Dan Wieden, "How did you do it?" "He said, 'I have no fucking idea. I guess if you follow your guts shit happens man,'" relayed Mr. Mollá, kicking off Ad Age's Small Agency Conference in Miami on Wednesday.

"For me, it was the best advice someone ever gave me," he said. "It freed me. You don't need a detailed plan."

That doesn't mean it was easy when Argentine brothers José and Joaquín Mollá founded La Communidad 15 years ago.

They were focused on doing great work, but knew they wouldn't be making a lot of money off the bat, especially because they opened the shop with no clients. And they weren't exactly financial experts. Five years in, they had to hire people to "redo all the numbers."

Still, they were able to get early, sexy clients like MTV that weren't necessarily the highest paying clients, but helped establish the shop's creative reputation. When the shop was still tiny, Mr. Mollá invited non-agency people to client meetings to make the company look bigger. He would give them roles for the meetings, such as writer, art director and planner. One of those people once asked, "What is an art director?" he recalled. "I was like, oh shit, don't speak."

La Comunidad was a Small Agency winner in 2012, and later sold to Sapient in 2014. The agency was number eight on Ad Age's Agency A-List last year and Ad Age's Multicultural Agency of the Year in 2016. The shop recently rebranded itself The Community. (The Mollá brothers explained why they sold the agency in this hilarious video).

Success for Mr. Mollá was defined by the shop's work, not the money it made while doing good work. "I have friends who opened creative agencies," he said. Their plan was to "make it work financially and then turn it into a creative shop. They were never able to come back. They all ran bad agencies. Money follows good work, but it's never the other way around."

But work doesn't inspire itself. The agency used to spend $70,000 to $80,000 to send people to Cannes. "Nine to 10 creatives would come back drepressed ... and with five job offers each of them, so we said this is super stupid," Mr. Mollá said. "We're financing interviews. So we take them to these art shows." It costs a third of a Cannes trip, and "they come back super inspired and with no job offers."

Thinking differently is not only a mandate when it comes to client work. It's also something the shop prides itself on internally. Instead of throwing a massive 10th anniversary party, it sent people from each office -- Miami and Buenos Aires -- to meet in the middle, in the Amazon, and document and stream their adventures, including burying the old agency sign, and recreating a popular campaign with real people from the Amazon.

"Everything an agency does and produces comes from within," he said. "There's a step before the work and the press that is the essence of the agency. That essence is your culture. It's important to spend time and effort and resources in keeping that culture interesting and unique. We started to do a lot of stuff for that."

Cultural must-haves include mandatory meetings in the office swimming pool and karaoke, he said. The confidence to say no to clients also keeps the doors open. "'No' will take you much further than saying yes," he said. "At the end of the day, [the goal is] not to have good client meetings." It's to "produce good work."

Sometimes the people who produce good work aren't the people with experience, and that's something the industry forgets, he said.

"It's a problem the industry has. It overvalues experience," he said. "We hire based on how many years of experience they have. It's because of that, there's not a lot of fresh thinking around. People who are disrupting industries now don't come from that industry. Uber wasn't invented by a cab driver."

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