CEO Andrew O’Dell and CCO Rob Lambrechts tell LBB’s Addison Capper about the agency’s evolution from a San Francisco speakeasy to one of the most innovative advertising agencies on the planet
PJ Pereira and Andrew O’Dell first met in 2004. PJ was fresh to American shores from his native Brazil, pitching up in San Francisco as an ECD at AKQA’s San Francisco headquarters. Andrew joined the agency in the same week, moving over from Carat, the agency he sold his business to a few years before.
Their relationship, which has since birthed Pereira O’Dell, one of advertising’s most innovative agencies which turns 10 this year, got off to an amusingly tenuous start.
“We were in this cramped office,” muses Andrew. “It was like a sweatshop, we were all on top of each other [it was a few weeks before AKQA moved office]. And in walks this long-haired Brazilian that I could barely communicate with and I immediately thought to myself, ‘oh man’.”
Andrew reveals that, due to happenstance, he and PJ didn’t properly communicate for their first few months at AKQA until they began working on a project for Red Bull together. The project was ‘Unflinching Triumph’, a mockumentary dreamed up by Rob Lambrechts, a creative at AKQA at the time who went on to eventually become Pereira O’Dell’s first employee and in January 2018 was elevated to CCO (he also wrote, directed and starred in the film).
Unflinching Triumph was a branded feature-length film launched in 2006, before Twitter was a thing and only six months after YouTube launched. “Using branded content and entertainment in its earliest form - it was literally what put us on the path to this agency,” says Andrew.
And he’s right. Pereira O’Dell is a pioneer of branded entertainment. Unflinching Triumph launched before Cannes Lions even had a branded content / entertainment category, while the project that Pereira O’Dell is most famous for is ‘The Beauty Inside’, a feature length rom-com for Intel and Toshiba which won the Film, Branded Content and Entertainment, and Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes Lions 2013. And then there’s the Werner Herzog-directed feature documentary ‘Lo and Behold’ for Netscout, that earned a 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes and was acquired by Netflix. PJ also edited ‘The Art of Branded Entertainment’, a collection of essays by 2017’s Entertainment Lions jurors that was released as a book at this year’s festival.
After the success of Unflinching Triumph, PJ and Andrew were on a flight to see Red Bull again and began discussing the difference in the type of work they felt they were carving out at AKQA compared to the output of the rest of the agency. AKQA’s bread and butter was in digital and websites - but that wasn’t where PJ and Andrew saw themselves going. They were hungry to play in a different, less defined space and had grown tired of waiting for the opportunity to be given to them. “Why don’t we do that for ourselves?” they asked each other.
And so they put the plan into motion. In 2008, deep into a global recession, they set up an ad agency in San Francisco, partnering with holding company MDC and Grupo ABC in Brazil. “Starting a company in the recession with Brazilian money. It was awesome,” laughs Andrew.
As mentioned, Rob was one of the agency’s first employees and, along with one or two others, Pereira O’Dell was born in the Barrel House, an old wine cask warehouse and prohibition era speakeasy. Despite its humble beginnings in this San Franciscan bar, Pereira O’Dell’s founding partners were never short of confidence or vision for what they wanted the agency to be. “When we started the ethos was basically ‘survive’,” says CCO Rob. “But we always wanted to be big. I think we always had an irrational confidence that we could compete against anybody at any time on any project.”
“He’s not joking,” adds Andrew. “We literally thought we were the best agency in the world, and we were five people working in a bar. We had the belief that no one had done things the way that we were going to do them. But that’s so important. If you don’t believe that, you will fail - quickly.”
The recession really gutted the creative community in San Francisco, Andrew and Rob tell me. People were dealing with unfortunate news all the time, being forced to downsize and the like, whereas they view the time period as one of the reasons that their agency could break out as quickly as it did. “We were the insane people that were starting an agency when nobody needed it or wanted it,” says Andrew. “But due to the recession we were very smart with how we approached new clients and finances. A lot of companies ruin themselves because they do things like go and buy a grand piano for the office just because it looks cool.”
What’s more, the Barrel House turned into somewhat of a hub for the city’s creative community. Pereira O’Dell would invite comedians, bands - St. Paul and The Broken Bones played one of their first ever US gigs there - and never charged people for entry.
But what did Pereira O’Dell get out of turning their office space into San Francisco’s creative social hub? “We just happened to be the ones putting it on,” Andrew adds. “I think it helped our reputation and people’s feelings towards working with us and what we were doing. But there was no financial gain for us. It was just about community and it was awesome. I’ve seen some stuff in there that I wish I could un-see!”
The agency has since outgrown the Barrel House - it’s now around 150 people split across San Francisco and New York, the west coast office a little bigger than the east - but it kept its inaugural digs for eight years after leaving, using it as a meeting space and renting it out for events.
As agencies grow in size and stretch themselves across multiple offices, some can struggle with keeping their culture and creativity intact. “Culture is a weird thing,” says Rob. “It’s talked about a lot, but no one really understands what it is. It’s not beanbag chairs and cold brew - those things are fine but real culture is defined by people working together, people going through experiences together, people succeeding together.”
In Rob’s eyes, if you push creativity to its fullest, the culture should build itself. “Pushing people to build groundbreaking creative things puts people in those situations where they’re going to form those relationships, and I think that’s how we try to keep the culture as we grow. Never losing sight of what we’re trying to do brings people together.”
As already discussed both in this piece and widely outside of it, a big part of Pereira O’Dell’s DNA is in branded entertainment. The business was borne out of the Red Bull project at AKQA and both Andrew and Rob agree that The Beauty Inside is the project for which it is known best and is arguably the most important thing they’ve ever done. Though Andrew is open about the fact that a lot of that entertainment work came about not out of mission but survival.
“I wish we could say all of that [entertainment work] was by design. A lot of it came by sheer opportunity and very, very aggressively trying to push in areas that others weren’t, by necessity. Nobody was letting us create big TV campaigns so we created our own stuff. And that’s what everybody became more interested and in and it became more of a mainstay for us in terms of a driving business force.”
Rob is understandably proud of work like The Beauty Inside but it’s tough for him to pick a favourite out of what he sees as “like little children”. One thing he’s certain of though is that he’s always been most proud of the way he and the agency approach their work. “The philosophy that got us to The Beauty Inside is the same philosophy that we approach every single client and project with,” he says. “We have this philosophy, ‘what if advertising was invented today?’ So, if advertising was invented today we wouldn’t likely do TV spots because that’s not where the audience is. Keeping that philosophy over 10 years is really important to me. It’s led to one thing that most people remember, but it’s influenced everything.”
Now at the ripe, old age of 10, how do Andrew and Rob see Pereira O’Dell evolving around that philosophy in the 10 years’ time? Andrew can’t speak to the potential size of his agency or what it will look like but will consider success as continuing to be relevant and being recognised for doing good work. He also hopes to see a new generation of creative thinkers and business leaders rising to the top of Pereira O’Dell - although he insists that he and PJ will always be involved - and sees opportunities in the trends that many others consider downers on the ad industry of today. “The industry will morph - it always does,” he believes. But into what is yet to be seen. All he cares about is being one of the companies taking full advantage.
The ‘vision’ for the company is something Rob gets asked about a lot by interviewees and his response is, in his eyes, “laughably stupid” but also honest and truthful.
“The goal for us has always been to be the biggest and the best agency in the world,” he says. “We don’t want to be a great small agency or a great mid-sized agency, we want to be the biggest and the best in the world. Looking 10 years from now, that will still be a goal and that won’t change.
“What will change is how advertising is defined in 10 years. We spoke a lot about entertainment and we are placing some bets that that’s where the industry could go. I hope that we are still a leader in the right areas so that when the industry takes that direction we’re on the top of it.”
Be sure to check out 12 of Pereira O’Dell’s best pieces of work from the past 10 years below.
1. LEGO 'Go Miniman Go!'
2. Skype 'Born Friends'
3. NETSCOUT 'Lo and Behold'
4. Fifth Third Bank 'This is Banking a Fifth Third Better'