From the start, PJ Pereira—the Brazilian-born, interactive wunderkind who was named one of the most influential creative directors in the world by several publications—was destined to have his own agency someday. After stints at DM9 and AKQA as its executive creative director, someday finally arrived with the launch of Pereira & O’Dell in 2008. But don’t call it a digital shop just because it does digital work—in fact, the agency has a broad mix of disciplines and backgrounds, as was evidenced by the recent hiring of veteran creative director Kash Sree. We spoke with Pereira and Sree about future plans and how they approach their clients’ projects.

So PJ, people were buzzing when you hired Kash Sree, who comes from what could be described as a traditional background. What does this mean for Pereira & O’Dell, if anything?

PEREIRA: Although both Andrew [O’Dell] and I both come from what you could call a “classic” digital background, the team here is a combination of people from design, PR, advertising and digital. And bringing Kash in is part of the plan of being an agency that’s all about ideas instead of the execution that you’re going to take at the end. Kash helps us reinforce the advertising side, which is important as well, and it helps us get much stronger in that particular field so that we can do these combinations of different disciplines in a better way.

SREE: I guess I got known for these epic TV spots, and when you get known for something, you should be scared because you wind up getting pigeonholed and defined that way, and I was a bit worried about that. But I like ideas.

I went to the One Show for both the traditional and digital this year, and I was way more excited about what was going on in the digital show because it just seemed like ideas again. In the main show, maybe because of the recession and the fact that there’s more money so there’s more scrutiny and research, but a lot of times I was like, yeah, I’d seen that before. I follow where ideas are, and when I was talking to PJ, it was like talking to someone about ideas instead of widgets or TV spots.

The industry’s converging anyway, and I think it needs to. I don’t think digital can survive as purely digital and I don’t think traditional can survive as purely traditional. Many agencies have got the baggage where they have to keep doing what they know because their profits are based in what they already have, so they can’t change quickly enough.

Is it a good time to start an agency?

PEREIRA: When we opened the agency a while ago, it was when the recession hit and we were expecting very few clients, but then we realized that there’s actually more than we thought. There’s more of a fight to do things differently. Of course some of those attempts are going to be prototypes or pilots, but in some cases, all you need to do is take the whole account and choose one or two things that you can test that are bold, and once that works, then you go for it. It doesn’t mean that you need to risk everything all the time—it’s less about risk and more about searching for new ways of doing things. This industry deserves to be reinvented. If you think of what advertising is and what it should be, the fact that we dare to call a big chunk of it traditional makes no sense. This is an industry based on not being traditional at all, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.

SREE: It’s actually a really good time, or a bad time depending on how you look at it, to be a new agency, because many of those big clients are in trouble. The brief everywhere was, how do you get people to spend money in a down market? That was the brief for all of my clients at my previous agency and my friends’ briefs all across the country. And it was like, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Yes, everything is fragmenting and niche, but what that allows you to do is say, there’s so many places where you can experiment and research, and by research I mean doing something that goes out there, seeing how it does in the market and seeing if you can steer the brand with that. Some of the older agencies can’t make money doing those smaller things, so in some ways, bigger clients are chipping off bits of themselves and saying, well, let’s talk to this niche and give it a try, and it’s a perfect opportunity to prove yourself.

PEREIRA: We just sponsored one of the main social responsibility events in the world, which is the BSR [Business for Social Responsibility]. It’s not a very common move for an ad agency, but the reason why we did that was because if you really want to be about big ideas, some of the biggest ideas are coming out of social responsibility.

I was talking to the vice president of the BSR and she asked a question that made me stop and think. She said, “How can companies be more successful by selling less?” This is a fundamental question that brands and agencies need to start asking themselves. This is what society is asking from marketers and agencies, and it’s a social question. The world is different, it’s not the media landscape that’s different.

We just need to go back to what advertising is about. If it were invented today, it wouldn’t be about media or how we have been doing things up to this point. We can think of what the best way would be to address a problem now. Is that going to be about changing the name of the product, or about social media, or about making a video game? There’s so many tools that you just need to go back to the beginning.

Kash was telling me the story about how JWT invented the grilled cheese sandwich. That’s an idea that made me jealous, I would have loved to invent the grilled cheese.

Is that a true story?

SREE: JWT was asked to sell more cheese and the client was expecting a print ad. And then JWT said, we think you’d sell more cheese if you did this, and they invented the grilled cheese sandwich. And then it took off.

PEREIRA: This is an example that has nothing to do with this agency, and it was done like 40 years ago, at least. But that’s the beginning of advertising. The spirit behind this agency when we opened it during this crazy time was, let’s go back to the beginning. Let’s forget about everything that was built in this convoluted way this industry evolved into with overspecialized and overthought everything and go back to the beginning and say, clients have problems and dreams and how do we address those?

How has the consumer changed?

SREE: When I started out in advertising, it was mass market. It was great because you could put out a newspaper ad or TV ad and reach most of the market, but that’s not working anymore. I think TV stations got greedy and started putting in so many ads that people couldn’t focus on them anymore. I’m a bit saddened by the demise of print, but I think it will rise in a different form when things like the Kindle grow. But what’s happening now is that you can speak to a smaller group of people in a purer fashion, and usually the best advertising is like that. If you think about it, Nike developed its voice by speaking to maybe 15,000 people who were runners, and everyone could empathize with that voice. To me, it’s more exciting because you can talk to people in a less general way.

Another difference is that people are connected to each other in so many different ways and information travels faster. I heard something recently that was brilliant, that brands are being forced to be more honest. Information disseminates so quickly that you can’t hide anything. I mean, if you can’t hide what’s going on in a war, you can’t hide what’s going on in a company. It’s forcing companies to act in very honest ways, which is a creative’s dream.

What’s wrong with advertising today? What about specific areas like, say, car advertising?

PEREIRA: It’s hard to talk about one specific thing like autos, but we are in the business of words and images that have a big impact. One of the things that a friend of mine was talking to me the other day was, there’s a lot of war metaphors in this industry that are extremely damaging. Even the fact that we call our consumers targets—the targets are the brands now. We have that bulls-eye on our backs, so we need to do things right and be honest and communicate things properly because if we don’t, people are going to find out and it’s going to be pretty bad for everyone. The whole message of transparency is one of the key changes in the dynamics of this market.

SREE: Because information travels so quickly now and disperses so quickly, certain car companies—and I don’t want to mention names—but one company that was pitching recently has always had great advertising but their build quality went down. And that gets out, and the advertising can’t fix that. So a lot of times the product has to be fixed as well.

What are you working on right now?

PEREIRA: We just launched a new campaign for the University of Phoenix that reaches out to people in the military that’s in Morse Code. The brief was to celebrate how special they are as individuals, and one way we found to deliver that was to do something that only people with military training would understand. It’s getting a lot of positive feedback from people saying, yeah, you guys get it.

What campaign that you’ve done exemplifies your agency’s philosophy?

PEREIRA: It’s probably the next campaign. The moment you put the question there, it’s gone.

We won two Gold Pencils for the LEGO work that we love, but it wasn’t a campaign or even a website, it was a celebration of LEGO as a movement. How do we engage millions of people? Instead of faking user generated content, why not tap into the power of the brand whose consumers have been creating their own content for ages and play with that? So the work that we did for LEGO brings us to the question of what’s next for social media and brands. Every new assignment and project, we try to bring something to the table, but we also try and learn as much as we can from it. Our clients know a lot, and consumers know a lot, and we’re trying to learn from them as much as we can.

SREE: One of the things I was really impressed with when I talked to PJ was they have a fashion brand called Carrots that’s primarily aimed at females. They also have lots of men’s clothing there and they wanted to get men into the shop. So rather than advertise to men, they created a beer that’s made from carrots and it’s designed with a sort of sack material that’s really cool-looking as an object. They gave it to their customers and they took these bottles of beer home to their boyfriends and husbands and it brought people in. So I wouldn’t call it a campaign—it was something cool.

PEREIRA: They asked for print ads and we gave them a gift. We said, why don’t you just give your clients a gift and that will bring people? We even designed the beer, not just the bottle. We brought in what we call a “beer designer,” one of the best guys from the San Francisco area to help us make it.

Another great project that we’re working on is one where we had to bring in a chef. The way advertising agencies partner with directors to tell great stories can be expanded in great ways. I don’t see why we couldn’t partner with an architect to bring an idea to life, or partner with a chef or lawyer or athlete, but not in just a sponsorship way. But partnering with brilliant people is one of the most exciting things for me as well.

When you start talking about campaigns, it’s the wrong starting point. It may not be the wrong end, but it’s the wrong beginning. You don’t do great things by checklist, you do great things by having the right insights and the right ideas that really move people.

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