Marketing has always reflected the anxieties of an era, so it’s no surprise that the last year-and-a-half was awash in a tide of COVID PSAs and back-to-work bromides meant to soothe nervous shoppers and workers. The murder of George Floyd brought another national crisis to the fore, and brands—whether due to obligation or inspiration–weighed in too, expressing support for Black Lives Matter but often skirting the real issues of police violence and institutionalized racism. Not everyone stepped so lightly.
See all of Ad Age’s 2021 Small Agency Award winners here.
Beats by Dre, the Apple-owned headphone brand founded by the rapper and entrepreneur, instead opted for a more pointed expression of discontent, a cinematic two-minute short film depicting everyday vignettes of Black life set against a rhetorical refrain by Lena Waithe: “You love Black culture, but do you love me?” Rare is the ad that actually moves a cultural conversation forward, that speaks directly to its audience intending not to placate but to indict.Translation, the Brooklyn shop behind the spot, is Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year. It’s an honor that hangs on more than just a single piece of great work. Campaigns for State Farm and Kaiser Permanente took shape just weeks after lockdowns threw every idea out the window. And despite the pandemic, Translation was able to grow its revenue more than 11% in 2020 and is on track for 75% revenue growth this year. It hired when others fired and offered equity in the shop to all its employees.
“Our size and independence played to our strengths last year,” says Founder and CEO Steve Stoute. “We have the freedom to make decisions that aren’t based on quarterly results. When you don’t, it doesn’t bode well when dealing with a crisis.”
Love me, love me not
In recent years, Beats by Dre had lost some of its cachet. No longer viewed as a challenger brand, it needed to reinvigorate its customer base and “find its defiant roots,” says Executive Creative Director Jason Campbell. But shortly after the six-month creative process began, Floyd’s death galvanized long-simmering grievances. “The young people who were in the streets demanding change and accountability and a challenge to the sort of hypocrisy of what it meant to be a young person and a young Black person in America, that was the conversation that we needed to enter,” Campbell says.
To create a spot that would need to be both poignant and perfectly executed, Translation gathered a team of top talent. Prettybird director Melina Matsoukas (Beyoncé’s “Formation”) wove together a score by Solange Knowles with prose from screenwriter Lena Waithe (“The Chi”), read by Nigerian-American rapper Tobe Nwigwe.
In front of the camera, tennis star Naomi Osaka contemplates a depiction of the Haitian Revolution by painter Ulrick Jean-Pierre. Nascar driver Bubba Wallace speeds off, Jayda Cheaves braids boyfriend Lil Baby’s hair, and Janaya Khan, founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, sets a white sheet ablaze.
It was a shocking scene for viewers used to brands posting black squares on social media and pledging to support racial justice initiatives but failing to follow through when the check came due. “Everyone says that they want to do something bold,” Stoute says. “And then right when you’re about to, something disrupts it, and it becomes a homogenized version of what it should have been.”
But to its credit, Beats didn’t shy away from the idea. “It was obviously touchy, but it was necessary at that point,” Campbell says. “It was all in the subtlety. If you didn’t have the right people behind it saying the right thing or having the right conversation, that could have gone completely wrong. They were courageous in being in the boat to say the right thing.”The results (and the resulting accolades) speak for themselves. The film was viewed 5.6 million times in its first day, and 20 million in its first week. Since its release, it has amassed more than 500 million views across all channels. The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity awarded it a Titanium Lion, and it has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial.
Of course, in this divisive political climate, no racially progressive messaging can go unopposed, but an organic defense coalesced in the comments sections of social platforms as supportive viewers pushed back against hateful or dismissive rhetoric.
Smile like you mean it
One of the agency’s strengths is its ability to meet the audience in the moment. “You Love Me” is a clear example, but serious introspection isn’t always the answer. In the early days of the pandemic, many brands released sobering compilations of health care workers or separated families. Translation took State Farm in the opposite direction.
The brand had planned a tie-up with ESPN’s Michael Jordan documentary “The Last Dance,” but the network released the series early due to the dearth of live sports. “We all remember all the found footage films that were being put out, some of them extraordinarily beautiful and emotive and very meaningful,” says Ann Wool, Translation’s president. “But there was an opportunity to grab a bit of levity in a moment where everybody else was really leaning into the devastation.”
Partnering with Disney’s branded content studio and internal agency Creative Works, the team used facial mapping technology to turn a 1998 clip of ESPN sportscaster Kenny Mayne into an eerie prediction of the future—one with no mention of the pandemic. Fans slowly realized what was happening as the clip ran, and the response drove query volume for State Farm 15 times higher than normal.Whole selves
These achievements have enabled Translation, one of the relatively few Black-owned general market agencies, to bring on more high-level talent. Wool, who joined from Ketchum, began her first day at the agency on March 16—working from home, just days after New York went into lockdown. Campbell, recently a creative director at Wieden+Kennedy Portland, joined in August. Head of Integrated Production Alison Hill (via W+K New York) and Creative Director Ray Smiling (from Johannes Leonardo) also joined the team early this year.
“We’ve been in the extraordinary position to acquire talent when other people were trying to divest or change, or do whatever they had to do,” Wool says.
And those new hires, which brought the agency to 156 employees this year (and making it ineligible for this award next year) have the opportunity to own part of the agency if they choose. In 2020, Translation offered equity grants to all employees, along with educational materials on private equity.
“Everyone should feel like they own a piece of the company because of the work and the time and the effort that I expect,” Stoute says. “And whether you’re the receptionist or you work in facilities, the idea that you can get equity the same way any other tech company provides equity, I believe it’s very important.”
In exchange, Stoute says he wants employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, including extracurriculars and hobbies the agency calls “minors,” à la college degree programs. Campbell paints, Wool has attended about a half dozen Olympic Games and Stoute claims he makes “the best playlist in the business.”
It is those extra pieces, the ones that make up the life beyond the office, that find their way into the work. Whether a side hustle, a passion, an identity or an ethnicity, the team is adept at pouring diverse skills into what they create. Unfortunately, there aren’t many agencies that could have pulled off “You Love Me,” not successfully, in a way that felt authentic and born of lived experiences.
“Last year,” Stoute says, “if you weren’t connected to culture, to empathy, you were speaking in the wind.”
See all of Ad Age’s 2021 Small Agency Award winners here.