Johannes Leonardo is part of a new wave of shops exploring innovative ways to sell brands.

By Yash Egami

Conventional wisdom might say that in this uncertain economy, it may not be the best time to launch a new agency. But don't tell that to former Saatchi & Saatchi creative directors Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico, who recently opened their new creative shop, Johannes Leonardo.

The young stars gained international recognition in 2005 for their haunting "Ventriloquist" spot for NSPCC while working at Saatchi & Saatchi in London. From there, they moved to the headquarters in New York where they oversaw a renaissance in the creative department. Memorable work for Folgers, 42 Below Vodka, Stuffit Deluxe and Tide soon followed and won the agency a slew of awards including several One Show Pencils and Merits.

But with their latest foray, Jacobs and Premutico are joining a wave of new creative boutiques that include names like T.A.G., Cutwater and Brew that are thinking beyond the traditional agency model.

"I think what happened was, many years ago, creative people in advertising had much more value—clients saw them as a business tool and someone who added value to their business," says Jacobs. "But then what happened over the years is that testing and formula and research and all of these methodologies started eroding that influence that we had. But what's wonderful about the media landscape and the general situation at the moment is all of that uncertainty has brought that influence back to us, so the value of really creative people are valuable to the client. It's our job to do brave, responsible work in this media landscape and guide our clients."

"It's important to mention that we haven't started a place just to take advantage of client insecurities at the moment," adds Premutico. "There are a lot of clients that are unsure of how to deal with the digital medium, especially if they have a brand where they normally wouldn't think about it because of their demographic or what have you. But we started a place because there has been a lot of emphasis on separating disciplines, and we just feel that being able to come up with ideas that touch people in whatever medium its spoken is even more relevant today."

One of their first clients is a four-year-old soccer footwear brand, Nomis. Started by a former adidas executive named Simon Skirrow, the brand hopes to take on his former employer and the other giants including Nike and Puma by extolling the virtues of its technology and design.

"There's a problem in football in the world right now in terms of injuries, specifically metatarpal," says Jacobs. "And what Nike and adidas have done is they've removed so much support from the boots in favor of weight that they're not very good for players. There have been some studies done on the effect on people's careers over the long term. [Skirrow] has focused on boots that fit and are good for you and do the right thing for your feet, and also are performance-enhancing because of the various technologies that give you more control."

From the brief came a darkly comedic, two-minute film called "Damn Boots," which highlights the effects an ill-fitting shoe can have on a professional soccer player's career. At the beginning of the spot, the main character sustains an injury from improper shoes and winds his way through his career in a carnival-like ride that shows other aspects of his life being affected like losing fame and fortune.

Jacobs and Premutico as well as Skirrow are so confident in the product that they are practically willing to give the shoes away for free. At the Berlin outpost for the brand, dubbed The Right Boot Store, customers get a chance to take home a right-footed shoe and "test drive" it against their left one.

"The concept is that your body is the ultimate testing tool, so you can put one boot on one foot and your existing Nike or Puma or whatever on the other," explains Jacobs. "And then you can kick a ball around and literally get the feedback through your feet and legs on which is the better shoe. If you like it and want to keep it, you pay the price and we send you the left boot. And if you don't like it, you can throw it away, but we know that it's so good that people are going to want to keep it."

Another unique project that they've been involved in is for Pangea Day, a worldwide global peace effort on May 10 of this year. The brainchild of Egyptian documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, the idea is to unite the world through a global, four-hour broadcast of film, music and events on MTV and other networks. Johannes Leonardo helped launch the event with a short film called "The Tank Driver," which was screened at the most recent TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference. They are also involved in promoting the event through online "anthems" that they created with the help of filmmakers around the world. Says Premutico, "The premise is to bring the world closer together through film by creating an understanding of different cultures. So what we have done is come up with these global peace anthems, if you like, where you have half a dozen countries singing someone else's anthem. So for example, in Australia they're singing the Lebanese anthem. We've got the American singing the Mexican anthem on the border, we've got the French singing the US anthem, Kenya singing India, Japan singing Turkey. And it really is trying to come up with something that has broad appeal and having something that everyone can get involved in."

Involving the world at large is central to the project and the agency's modus operandi in general. While Johannes Leonardo's staff barely numbers in the double digits, Jacobs and Premutico insist that having fewer in-house resources than a large agency doesn't mean less opportunity to spread the word.

"We always have the public at our disposal if we need some help," says Premutico. "The term boutique agency is kind of a contradiction in some ways because ideas are as big as the people you enlighten. We've seen in some of the jobs we've worked on before, the public ended up making more commercials than we did. So that's why our framework is about coming up with concepts that people can add to. We're not treating the audience as a destination for our work, we're treating them as a medium for our work. They can add to our ideas and enrich them and help us pass them along. And if brands can't become part of people's lives, then there's not much future for them."

Other projects in the works for the shop include Ford, HSBC in Europe and a large marketing firm. Clients have been so eager to work with Jacobs and Premutico that the fledgling agency hasn't even had a chance to pitch for work.

And about that timing thing? "Our perspective, and certainly in my career, is that this is the most exciting time to be in this business," says Jacobs. "Anything is possible."

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