Breakthrough Agency of the Year: Venables Bell Is the Next Great Creative Shop

With stellar work for clients like Audi, its star is rising fast

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Cultural relevance can be bittersweet, as Venables Bell & Partners learned in 2016. Just as the agency and client Audi were negotiating to use David Bowie's "Starman" in a Super Bowl ad, the rock icon tragically passed away at 69. Then the independent agency scored a chance to work on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, only to see her lose in what founder and chairman Paul Venables calls a "heartbreaking" election.

But it was, in all, an astounding 12 months for the San Francisco-based agency, which came into 2016 buoyed by global acclaim for its work on REI's "#OptOutside" Black Friday campaign and then quickly set the stage for a strong year with its "Commander" Super Bowl spot, Audi's tender tale of an aging astronaut who relives his glory days during a night drive with his son.

"There were no gimmicks: no dancing Chihuahua, no talking primates, no breakdancing babies," explains Venables. "We did it in our style, which is craft and storytelling. It was an exciting way to start the year."

The Big Game appearance marked a high point for a shop whose namesake entered the ad industry in that most humble of roles: Madison Avenue receptionist.

Venables says he knew from his first days behind a front desk in Manhattan that he eventually wanted to launch his own agency, and he left his job as a creative director at Goodby Silverstein & Partners in 2001 to do just that. After struggling to stand out in the early years by focusing on every detail of his creative work, Venables had an epiphany: If he could attract and retain the right talent, everything else would eventually fall into place.

It paid off. This year, VB&P was one of the few truly independent agencies to consistently generate stellar creative, public attention and critical acclaim. For the eye-catching caliber of the agency's work throughout 2016, Adweek has named VB&P its Breakthrough Agency of the Year, an award honoring shops that have exploded beyond their previous expectations and reached dramatic new heights of creative achievement.

The art of good timing

In the midst of a 2015 holiday marketing brainstorming session, outdoor retailer REI's head of merchandising had a big idea: "We could never do it, but what if we close on Black Friday?" The rest, as they say, is history. "['#OptOutside'] is the antithesis of a Super Bowl spot," says Venables, adding, "Every single client and/or new business prospect that has come in the door since then basically said, 'We want some of that.'"

The agency doubled down on this calendar-centric strategy in 2015 and 2016. "Obviously Black Friday hit a big cultural nerve," says the agency's creative leader, Will McGinness. "We've been a little bit more focused on key cultural moments with a number of our clients."

The Google City Gym campaign, for example, debuted during last year's Pride Month at a time when transgender rights had sparked a cultural debate in the U.S. Flagship client Audi aired an escapist tale highlighting its collaboration with Airbnb on the 2016 Emmys broadcast, still a key moment in ad-driven live television despite a recent ratings drop. And as this contentious election season neared its end, Audi ran a compelling spot centered on a battle between two archenemies during the year's most explicitly partisan performance: the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Big-event campaigns drove VB&P's larger strategy, but the team's brilliance shone through in other projects like "25,915 Days," a Reebok ad that traced one woman's life in reverse by way of the moments she spent running, and a March campaign pitching PlayStation's Vue TV service as an escape from "the evil clutches of Big Cable." McGinness, who helped create a style guide for the agency's social media work this year, says VB&P adapts to each client: "You should not see the hand of the marketer. It should feel like that company's brand, not the marketer or the agency behind it."

Not all those efforts pan out, even for a shop on a hot streak. VB&P's first beer client MillerCoors nixed its debut work for Leinenkugel's after some distributors voted against the new ads. But Venables took it in stride: New efforts will launch in the months ahead, and the agency's work for sister brand Blue Moon went down more smoothly.

New leadership makes its mark

"Culture is an overused, bankrupt word in this business," Venables explains. "It is not a foosball table and a beer; culture is how you really interact with people. It shows up most apparently in difficult conversations, when you look people in the eye and you're honest with them."

In early 2015, the longtime leader applied that no-nonsense approach to management by reshuffling the agency's leadership as Paul Birks-Hay replaced president and co-founder Bob Molineaux, Kate Jeffers moved from head of client services to managing director, and McGinness took full control of the creative department. Venables became agency chairman, but he's not one to rest on his laurels. "I'm actually more active in every single facet of the operation than I've ever been," he says. Partner and executive strategy director Lucy Farey-Jones, who was one of the agency's initial founders, also resigned this fall to launch her own consultancy in an unrelated leadership change.

Despite these changes, the Venables spirit endures. "I think what's so awesome about this place is the values that we were founded on and the core principles have not changed at all," says Jeffers. "They've allowed this company to weather all the changes in the industry."

VB&P has also adopted a new internal structure consisting of five divisions that range from social media and retail teams to a house production shop called Lumberyard and experience design group VBP Orange. Jeffers runs all these units, which came about in large part due to client demands.

The process of listening and guiding clients through a changing marketplace led to an impressive new business win rate that carried over from 2015 into 2016. The agency won a new MillerCoors brand, picked up its first hotel work for Starwood's Sheraton and Westin brands, scored a big branding project for Facebook, and moved into healthcare with One Medical Group.

The agency also expanded its relationships with existing clients this year, winning a pitch to promote PlayStation's Store and working on Reebok projects in Shanghai that involved translating the "Be More Human" platform for the Chinese market with the help of local specialists.

On the campaign trail

Despite its penchant for cultural statements, VB&P had never been directly involved in national politics at any point during its 15-year history. But that all changed in early 2016 when Venables himself received a call from an executive with the Hillary Clinton campaign who had seen his agency's work.

"I made it very clear to [employees] on more than one occasion that we are not a political agency," Venables notes. "[But] we thought this was a unique moment in time, so we agreed. The people on the Clinton campaign team could not have been more wonderful … We worked our asses off for them."

VB&P ultimately made three TV spots for the Clinton team. Some were attack ads, but the set also included an emotional :60 released in October, in which Pakistani-born lawyer Khizr Khan discussed the 2004 death of his Army captain son in Iraq.

After researching Khan's story and pitching the ad, VB&P executives met the Gold Star family in person. "Mr. Khan and his wife insisted we have dinner in their home [while shooting], and we sat and broke bread with them," Venables says, adding, "He's such an American; he bleeds red, white and blue."

The agency chairman then contacted the campaign to suggest a greater focus on this family. After all, the speech Khan made while waving a pocket copy of the Constitution as his wife stood by his side became one of the standout moments of the Democratic National Convention.

Expanding the experience

Another quiet, long-term change accelerated without much fanfare in 2016 as VB&P produced more work outside the realm of "traditional" advertising.

VBP Orange launched in 2012 as a consultancy unit, but Venables now calls it "a bit of a secret weapon" in his ongoing effort to move beyond demand generation and begin designing experiences built around "[the moment] when that person arrives at the business as a customer … the final frontier of true differentiation among brands in the world today."

VB&P rarely promotes the Orange team's work, but its client roster is quickly expanding, and in 2016 it worked on a large-scale project for the biggest name in social media.

"What does the Facebook brand feel like when you have to walk into it?" asks Birks-Hay. All who visit the company's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters will encounter the VBP Orange answer firsthand upon entering its new brand showcase space. The unit also designed the Blue Moon Brewery's visitors center in Denver, began collaborating with One Medical Group in San Francisco, and helped redesign 76 brand gas stations around the country.

Birks-Hay sees the agency doing more work in this sphere as traditional media buys prove less and less effective for clients. "We always felt that our place is to work for our clients in the places that can affect their business most," he adds, "so that's where we must go."

What follows such a definitive year for Venables Bell & Partners?

"We used to look at the competition as local San Francisco agencies, and then it became bigger and bigger shops," Jeffers says. "Now we're playing on a whole new level, and it's incredibly humbling and exciting … I think it's so important that we make the right choices, that we don't grow too big too fast and that we put our culture first. That's what we've always done, and I think it's the secret to our success."

"We're going to go where our hearts are and where it makes sense for our clients," sums up Venables, who has fielded plenty of acquisition offers over the years but never seriously entertained the thought of surrendering his independence. "I respect all those companies and what they're trying to do, but I'm enjoying this too much."

For more on Adweek's 2016 Agencies of the Year, be sure to check out:

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.