Troubled Brands Turning to Johannes Leonardo Is a Sign the Agency Has ‘Come of Age’

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Key Insights

It’s not every day that—in the midst of an unprecedented crisis—one of the world’s largest auto companies turns to a creative shop of around 100 that was launched a little over a decade ago.

When Volkswagen named Johannes Leonardo as its lead brand agency, it was a defining moment for client and agency alike. At the time, Volkswagen was still reeling from an emissions scandal, with consumer sentiment at an all-time low.

“When the world’s biggest car brand comes to an agency like us with such a huge problem, it’s really a sign for us that Johannes Leonardo has come of age,” observes co-founder and CEO Jan Jacobs.

The stats

Key Wins: Gap, Volkswagen
Losses: None
New Assignments: Truly Hard Seltzer (prior to Boston Beer creative review), Venmo
2019 Revenue: $50 million-plus (a +110% top-line revenue growth from 2018)
Strategic Moves: Bought back an unspecified portion of WPP’s 49% minority stake; increased agency head count by 100%; brought on Jimm Lasser as creative lead; hired creative director Hope Nardini to focus on MassMutual; hired Debra Sercy as the agency’s first chief talent officer; hired creative directors Alice Blastorah, Dan Grech and Ray Smiling; promoted Omid Amidi to creative director

That the agency was able to rise to the challenge with a campaign that turned around brand sentiment and drove summer sales highlights how Johannes Leonardo has doubled down on the importance of long-term brand building and the power of creativity to drive results for a range of clients. This past year also saw the agency win creative for Gap and double in size, by both staff and revenue measurements.

While it has been a respected agency since its 2007 founding, 2019 was the year Johannes Leonardo shifted into a higher gear, earning the title of Adweek’s Breakthrough Agency of the Year.

Driving into a new era with Volkswagen

Volkswagen’s mission for its agency partner was simple but far from easy: Make the brand matter again. They’d have to begin by addressing the elephant in the room.

The agency’s first work for Volkswagen openly acknowledged the scandal while committing the brand to an electric future, and audiences took note.

“After just a few short months of that campaign being live, we got the brand back to pre-scandal levels of consideration,” Johannes Leonardo co-founder and CCO Leo Premutico claims, with Jacobs noting that such sentiment added to a boost in summer sales while the auto industry as a whole was flagging.

Johannes Leonardo followed this up with campaigns for the Atlas, Volkswagen’s winter sales event and VW’s electric vehicle launch in 2020. Further work is anticipated before the end of 2019.

“It’s not a given that an agency can see the magic and capture it in an honest, compelling and inspirational way,” says Volkswagen of America president and CEO Scott Keogh. “Johannes Leonardo did. They’ve helped us take back our story, and we look forward to accomplishing much more together.

Johannes Leonardo knew it couldn’t convince audiences to trust Volkswagen again without addressing the dark cloud cast by the company’s emissions scandal. “Hello, Light” managed to openly address the issue while positioning Volkswagen for the future as it pivots toward electric vehicles.

Jacobs—who says the agency is “sitting on a very powerful brand point of view in the automotive industry”—explains that Volkswagen’s advertising has had two golden eras: its early efforts led by Bill Bernbach and its ’90s “Drivers Wanted” campaign.

“We feel we’re on the cusp of the next big moment for the brand,” he says. “‘Drive Bigger’ feels like the platform that can deliver that, especially in the context that we find ourselves in the world right now.”

Pivoting for each client

Volkswagen wasn’t the only struggling brand to turn to the agency in 2019.

This summer, Gap made Johannes Leonardo its first AOR since 2012, following a quarter in which sales were down an estimated 10%.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 2, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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