POV: Interview with Andrew Graff, CEO of allen & gerritsen

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Andrew Graff

Tell us about allen & gerritsen and what differentiates it from other agencies.

Fundamentally, three things make us different:

  • Our fierce independence. This independence enables agility, and clients today crave agility. Our independence gives us the freedom to forsake short-term returns to invest (and reinvest) in fertile avenues such as data analytics, on-demand newsroom-style communications, branded entertainment and technology development.
  • Engagement-based invention. Successful agencies can’t just think creatively anymore. Successful agencies must make. They must be leaders in engagement-based invention. We’re a destination for clients and talent because we have an invention infrastructure – a&g labs and a&g ventures. R&D is part of our DNA.
  • Culture. We embrace the passions of all our employees to get the most out of them. This physical and intellectual environment sparks their collective curiosity to find out what’s next for our clients. Of all our wins of recent years, none may be more gratifying than being named the best place to work in U.S. advertising for the past two years.

allen & gerritsen recently acquired Neiman, a Philadelphia-based agency with a reputation for its Labs projects. What benefits for clients and the growth of a&g do you hope to gain from this merger?

We recognize that technology is changing at breakneck speed, and we need to continually adapt along with it. This move allows us to reinforce our creativity and connectivity while positioning us beautifully for future engagement with consumers. We've always been an agency focused on “what's next” — in marketing, media, analytics and innovation — and acquiring Neiman strengthens our position for the future.

Ultimately, we acquired Neiman to provide enhanced value for our clients and a new destination for innovation-oriented marketers. Now that we’re combined under the allen & gerritsen banner, we have the scale to systematically bring to the market the powerful new marketing inventions our clients and future clients will cherish.

Do you think it is better to buy than “build” when looking to add services and talent?

I wish there was a cut-and-dried answer for this question. My answer, of course, is that it depends on the acquiring company’s needs and desires. In our case, folding Neiman into a&g provided us with the perfect runway to create leapfrog growth. Furthermore, the decision to acquire Neiman was a collaborative one made by both agencies’ leadership teams during the course of a year — one that was fueled by a mutual drive toward innovation and entrepreneurialism as well as similar cultures. I would not have gone through with the acquisition unless I thought our two cultures could be blended seamlessly.

Thought leadership has long been a part of the way that a&g markets itself. Why should agencies focus on this tactic instead of simply using their past creative to showcase their expertise?

The delta between good and great in our business is razor thin. If you are at any of the top agencies in the country, you can execute a successful creative campaign. So, thought leadership is a clear differentiator for us.

We want to ensure that the brands we work with are not just looking for an agency that can execute a campaign (that’s merely the price of admission, right?), but rather a partner that will position the brand for the future. That takes more than just sharp creative. The clients that gravitate to a&g genuinely value our thought leadership, business insight, analytics and, above all, the recognition that we understand their ethos and what makes them tick. We thrive on showing clients that we understand their market, their industry, their challenges and the results they are looking to achieve. By providing that thought leadership up front, we’re demonstrating how much value we can ultimately deliver.

What advantages does a&g have as an independent agency, especially when looking to attract big brands?

What we’ve found is that clients love independent agencies for their agility and entrepreneurial zeal, but independents need scale for innovation. This acquisition provides us with the scale we need to continue our growth, our ability to innovate and the freedom to invest first in what we believe is the lifeblood of innovation – people, culture and R&D. With this acquisition, we’re bringing together the best aspects of both a&g and Neiman and setting ourselves up beautifully to be on the cutting edge of our industry moving forward. I think that in and of itself will be appealing to brands across all industries.

What have been some of your favorite projects produced by allen & gerritsen? Tell us about the thought and strategy behind these campaigns.

My three favorites are the campaigns we created for City Year, Yuengling Beer and the Los Angeles Zoo:

  • City Year is a national education-focused nonprofit organization dedicated to working in urban schools to help at-risk students graduate, and we were tasked with launching its current recruitment and awareness campaign. We created a multimedia platform centered around the Twitter hashtag #makebetterhappen and relied on crowd-sourced content from its 2,500 corps members to generate excitement by telling their own authentic stories of service and impact. The campaign features digital, print and broadcast elements focused around real tweets from current City Year corps members who attach the #makebetterhappen hashtag to their dialogue and fuel content for future creative executions. This campaign is unique because of its inherent risk: City Year essentially turned the keys of this entire campaign over to thousands of 17- to 24-year-olds in the hopes that they would stay true to the organization’s core values and continually populate the #makebetterhappen feed with messages of hope and success. We came up with a strategy that not only finds the people passionate about the topic but also makes it easy for them to speak up and take part in real-time discussions that work in our social environment.
  • Yuengling is America’s oldest brewery. It’s got an impressive history dating back to the 1820s in Philadelphia, but its sales were diminishing in its hometown. Our Philadelphia office (still under the Neiman banner at that time) created an amazing campaign designed to rekindle the love of Yuengling in Philly. Basically, we did it by buying everyone in Philly a beer. We created a Philly-wide “Lager Toast” that we held on National Beer Drinker’s Day. At exactly 6:30 p.m., Dick Yuengling announced via a :30 spot that he was buying a beer for everyone in Philly bars that served Lager. Essentially, he toasted all the people who helped to make Yuengling great and united the city around the brand. The results were incredible. This campaign was so creative, and it proved something that I’ve believed for a long time – the more brands treat customers like friends, the more they’ll act like friends.
  • For the LA Zoo, we were tasked with promoting the opening of its newest building, The LAIR (Living Amphibians, Insects and Reptiles). The LAIR showcases the LA Zoo’s important and diverse reptile, amphibian, insect and other invertebrate collections. The campaign, titled “Alive In LA,” built and expanded awareness of the LAIR, drove traffic to the zoo and created a strong social media community around both the LA Zoo and the LAIR itself. The television campaign was highlighted by the LA Zoo’s two unique celebrity spokespeople: legendary actress Betty White and rock guitarist Slash (of Guns N’ Roses fame). This odd couple, who are also members of the LA Zoo’s board of trustees, came together with a&g to film a series of tongue-in-cheek spots that aired in LA. In each of the spots, Betty and Slash view and discuss rare reptiles and amphibians at the new LAIR, but, little do they know, the reptiles are viewing and discussing them as well.

What trends in advertising do you find most interesting/exciting?

The trend I find most interesting is not really a trend at all. It’s just that “change is the new normal.” New technology is appearing daily, and it’s imperative that we adapt quickly so that our clients can. In some ways, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Whether it’s from the time of “Mad Men” or 2013, marketing principles have remained relatively unaffected. Advertising is still about bridging the gap between customers’ wants and needs. Ultimately, what we’re doing is contemporizing the classics through mobile, digital and social. It’s still about good storytelling – but we just have to be able to tell that story at lightning speed and do it across so many more channels than we used to.

One reason you love what you do: From an early age, I was always fascinated by the advertising industry, and honestly, I still am. Every day I wake up, get to go to a company I love and be surrounded by the most creative people I know. It’s good for my mind and my soul.

Favorite non-a&g ad: I am usually drawn to the unusual creative campaigns – the ones that push the boundaries of innovation and creativity. I think what Arnold Worldwide has done for the Climate Reality Project is terrific. Using social platforms, they took a controversial topic like global warming and met it head-on to help move the climate-change conversation forward. They did it in such a unique and innovative way — gamifying the curation and distribution of content covering the impact of global warming. The concept literally rewards people for being socially conscious and spreading the word about a topic that’s seemingly being underreported.

Must-read book: I’d like to give you two: The first is “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This book is an amazing character study of Abraham Lincoln as a leader, as a politician and as a visionary. That would be fascinating enough on its own, but, looking at it from a CEO’s perspective, it’s also a book about Lincoln’s deft management style. I am still taken with the way Lincoln surrounded himself with really smart, talented people — including his rivals — who felt free, if not obligated, to question everything and continually challenge the status quo. It’s an enormous leadership lesson about surrounding yourself with people who will push you into making better decisions, being more innovative, taking calculated risks and solving problems.

The second is “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. This book represents years of research on what it takes to take a company to the next level. Collins looks at every company in the Fortune 500 to find out why they’ve been able to outstrip their competitors. I took away a few key things from “Good to Great:” First, CEOs who combine personal humility and professionalism will have the best shot of being successful. Second, by developing a dynamic corporate culture that combines rigor around “getting the job done” with giving people the freedom to do it their own way, employees are happier and more committed to the cause. And lastly, by committing to and focusing on one key overarching goal, a company will be prepared to withstand anything. It’s really an invaluable tool for any leader.

Connect with Andrew on Twitter @andrewgraff or on LinkedIn.

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