Breakthrough Agency of the Year: Heat Harnesses the Element of Surprise

At the front edge of culture, 'they really get it,' one client raves

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Earlier this year, a new film starring Dave Franco, Rob Gronkowski, Rex Ryan and Tyrannosaurus rex took the Internet by storm.

"Critics" called it "impossible to un-watch" and "an epic tale of gridiron redemption." But there was one major, impossible-to-ignore disappointment: It was never seen in theaters.

In fact, it wasn't a movie at all. The Sopranos-meets-Bollywood-meets-Rambo-meets-Jurassic Park action/rom-com/sports flick was a star-studded, five-minute trailer for EA's hot-selling Madden NFL 16 video game.

The insane blend of special effects, love stories, football bazookas, player touchdowns and coach takedowns originated from the wildly creative minds at Heat, an independent ad agency that was chosen by editors as Adweek's first Breakthrough Agency of the Year.

Heat developed the trailer as a follow-up to last year's Madden NFL 15 video starring Franco and comedian Kevin Hart, which delivered a similar mashup of sports-infused lunacy—along with nearly 17 million views. This year's entry strived to one-up its predecessor n a way that would attract more than the average gamer. Some 10 million views later, EA is a happy client, and 11-year-old Heat has collected an impressive series of awards.

"They [Heat] focus on tapping into a human truth of why our players love and play our games," says Dana Marineau, vp of EA's global creative team. "They really get it. They really get what it is that emotionally makes [gamers] get deep into our games universe and they really bring that out in the work they create."

Along with developing the action-packed trailer, Heat and EA worked with Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the makers of the iconic Robot Chicken, to create The Madden 16, a weekly Web series featuring puppets of football stars (think the marionettes from Team America: World Police).

Heat also worked with Grow and Google Creative Partnership to create the Madden Giferator, which used in-game footage to create GIFs in real time. The Giferator enabled fans to create their own GIFs to share with friends. "Certainly the Madden brand felt cooler, hipper," Marineau says. "Our goal with Madden is to be a part of the sports culture and conversation. And certainly Madden Season and Madden: The Movie accomplished those goals."

"I think the work we did with Madden and the Giferator—that sort of tapping into culture in a big way, but then also with the Giferator making it that awesome digital experience for people and something really shareable—that felt like the place we want to be with all of our clients," says Heat creative director Anna Rowland. "It's not just the big splashy TV spot anymore. We need to be in other places where our consumers are."

Though the agency's executives say they historically haven't tended to enter industry awards competitions, that attitude changed this year. Heat this year walked away with nine Clio Awards, eight Cannes Lions, four Shortys, two Effies, four national Addys and five Webbys.

The Heat team wants "big at-bats," says agency founder, chairman and executive creative director Steve Stone. "They want to be at bat in a stadium that allows them to knock it out of the park. And I joke about sports analogies, but that's what this year has been. We had big opportunities and we killed."

Heat also has been killing it in financial terms. Revenue this year is projected to hit $21.1 million, a 32 percent increase versus last year. Adding to a client roster that included EA Sports, Bank of the West, Dolby and Teva, Heat brought on a number of agency of record and project clients in the last 12 months, including Hotwire, Esurance, Les Schwab Tire Center and Credit Karma. The San Francisco shop didn't lose a single AOR account.

"I'm super proud, being sort of the dad of the place, you know?" Stone says, adding that he's "proud of the kids. They cleaned the house really well and made dinner. That's a dumb analogy, but as the founder, that is what you feel. You're proud of everyone doing the hard work behind closed doors."

Culture club

Ask any of Heat's clients what sets the shop apart, and a common response is that it brings a certain element of surprise to the work. But its leaders say it's more than that. "Nobody can afford share of voice anymore—it's about share of culture," explains managing director Mike Barrett. "That's a really easy thing to say. It sounds kind of glib. Then you think about it and say, 'OK, so what is culture? What is video-game culture or what is car culture?' The idea is that culture is the shared values, the shared language, the heroes within a certain culture that people look up to … what we try to do is help our clients capture a share of that."

That pursuit of culture became clear this fall, when Heat and EA released a two-minute trailer for the new game Star Wars: Battlefront. The agency smartly harnessed the building anticipation for the release of the latest entry in the film franchise this month but also gave a wink to the original Star Wars by having people in the ad disappear Obi-Wan Kenobi style.

Heat's work this year went well beyond long-form video and moved further and further into digital media. It launched digital tools that operate as standalone offerings but which can also be presented as a suite of services to clients. One such unit is Heat Radeator, which generates personalized creative that seeks out predetermined triggers to which it can react in real time.

Through its Radeator, Heat aims to create ads that are personalized to a particular audience, making the language of a campaign more authentic and relatable. It's meant to allow clients to "learn from small bets" in earned media before making "big bets" in paid media, explains Nick Reggars, the agency's new director of content strategy.

One client to benefit from Radeator is Hotwire, the travel site that challenges consumers to "be slightly adventurous." Hotwire needed help connecting with its key customer base in the crowded online-travel space, says Elisa Humphrey, Hotwire's senior director of brand marketing. So via Radeator, a targeted campaign was developed that offered location-specific, real-time deals playing off its tagline. "This campaign took us from being informational in nature to finding a way to connect with our customers," Humphrey says. "Previous campaigns focused on driving education about our products. Our goal was to start relevant conversations and demonstrate that we 'get' our travelers."

The role of Radeator in Heat's overall strategy has grown substantially, now accounting for some 10 percent of staff and just over 10 percent of revenue. The unit will become even more prominent in 2016. The agency is also betting more on programmatic advertising with Heat Reactor.

The challenges of growth

As Heat's client roster continues to grow, so has the size of its staff, surging from 87 to 112 in the last year alone. And there are another 20 positions left to fill.

Heat's getting increasingly noticed, not only in the Bay Area but around the U.S. and even internationally. This year, it brought on the Belgian creative team of Bram Ceuppens and Stijn Jansen. It has received job inquiries from as far away as Australia. But as any agency whose success gets publicly acknowledged understands, that recognition can pose an HR problem: poaching. "It's going to be a double-edged sword," as Barrett says. "When you're not high profile, nobody's trying to steal your employees."

So far, Heat's challenge is not losing talent to other agencies—it's losing them to tech firms. But even that bump has been met with a creative solution. In early September, Stone put out a creative brief ostensibly to tout his own personal vintage of wine—but it really served as a casting call of sorts for creatives. At least 100 people submitted entries, including Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby Silverstein & Partners. (Goodby either didn't get the job or chose not to take it.)

What's ahead for Heat? The agency's leaders say they have the bench strength and the bandwidth to tackle a major national or multinational account, perhaps a traditional car brand looking to try something nontraditional.

But Heat president John Elder is careful not to prognosticate about what that big next thing should be for his shop. Rather, he will know it when he sees it. "As an agency you can't be precious about what you have been," he says. "Otherwise, you'll be one of the names of once-great agencies that are now not really what they used to be. And I think for us, it's important to do things that are surprising and different and not what everybody else is doing."

Given Heat's track record, that won't be much of a surprise.

Read more about Adweek's Agencies of the Year:

Global Agency of the Year: Grey

Gallery: Grey's Top Marketing Moments From 2015

U.S. Agency of the Year: BBDO

Gallery: BBDO's 10 Best Ads of 2015

This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.