I suppose it would be self-indulgent to tell this story while lying back on a couch, whiskey in hand, waiting for inspiration to strike. Because that’s where minds go when we hear the word “advertising.” Mad Men. Don Draper. Peggy Olson.
That would be reaching for a cliche about what advertising used to be, and often still is. A lone creative in a room dreaming up the perfect tagline. But this is the story of Madwell, a full-service creative agency allergic to cliche and intent on reaching for more freedom, more continuity and connection. In the fractured advertising world, creating a niche works—if you want to grow fast and sell your agency. And then there’s Madwell’s approach. “We wanted to build a little clubhouse that we wanted to come to work to every day,” says Chris Sojka, co-founder and chief creative officer. “It wasn’t about exiting, it was about building a viable business that was a reason to get up in the morning.”
Six years ago, when Sojka and co-founder and CEO David Eisenman dreamed of creating their own agency, they couldn’t have anticipated employing 80 people in their offices in Brooklyn and Boulder, Colo. That was an unknown. But one known? Brooklyn was the place to be.
So now they have an office in Bushwick with an indoors trailer-turned-workspace, a vintage Chrysler on the main floor, and a backyard and a garden with vegetables and blackberries. Scattered around this giant space are a bunch of young creative people. And a cat named Jackson. Many of these young creative people hadn’t worked in advertising before, yet somehow they found themselves at Madwell, where their jobs are to create and design and think in a macro sense.
As Sojka says, “We wanted to build a place where all things were of equal importance. If you’re a brand, you should care as much about the email you’re sending customers as you do about your tagline. We saw people spending time doing a big commercial campaign but not caring about the day-to-day, social-media posting.” Now, at Madwell, everyone’s job is to do both—and much more.
Eisenman, now 32, and Sojka, 31, first met while working at an agency housed in the Empire State Building. Once the idea for Madwell was hatched, they worked nights and weekends before finally saving up enough money to strike out on their own. They knew taking on outside investors would make them beholden to someone else, the exact situation they wanted to escape. After launching, they gave themselves a three-month runway. Three months! That’s like banking on a new business taking off over summer vacation. Luckily, they scored some local clients, a New York-based courier service and storage company, as they honed their strategy and creative vision.
“We view all the big agencies as big ships trying to navigate increasingly complex channels,” says Sojka. “We thought, ‘How do we build a flotilla?’ We needed to be able to dissemble and reassemble a lot of boats that could work together that could go into small rivers and get out into the ocean and maneuver.” That nimble ship is based on a three-tenet philosophy: the only constant is change, so their job is to adapt to each new technology; the medium is the message, lovingly borrowed from Marshall McLuhan; and that because a brand is a personality, it needs to have continuity, from its street team all the way down to its tweets.
There’s no point in dreaming up a beautiful ad or clever way to target influencers if the client is stuck in the wrong decade. The trick is to find smart, adaptive, forward-thinking brands. After finding those early New York-based clients they fortuitously signed Vita Coco and KIND bars, well before those two brands became cornerstones of the millennial diet.
With great clients comes great responsibility to work in a beautiful space. After working out of a one-room loft in Bushwick, Madwell graduated into a nearby space on Boerum Street. “We planted our agency where the talent was, not where the clients were,” says Sojka. Judging by its modest sign out front, you couldn’t guess what was inside—a sleek, multi-storied and expansive haven that would cost a fortune in Manhattan dollars. Downstairs is a warren of basement rooms, including one called “Makewell,” full of art supplies and woodworking tools where employees actually…make stuff. There’s a room for photo shoots, a “war alcove” for creative brainstorming, and countless little spaces to work away from assigned desks. Of course, there’s a keg, too.
After outgrowing their creative confines, Madwell expanded into three giant townhouses behind them—the landlord was never able to make them into residential properties—and more than doubled their footprint. The result? A creative clubhouse with enormous ceilings, plenty of light, and even a tree in the center of it all.
The co-founders remember how challenging it was to get clients to visit their office during the early days, situated in that nebulous zone where East Williamsburg blends into Bushwick. But now, after what they call the “Roberta-fication” of the neighborhood (the incredibly popular pizza place Roberta’s is a six-minute walk away), people don’t seem to mind the trek. Pizza has a powerful pull.
Advertising folks are known to be itinerant. Account executives and managers hop arounds agencies to learn more (and, usually, earn more). Eisenman and Sojka wanted to break that habit and instead focus on hiring people with “T-shaped backgrounds.” (The vertical bar represents depth; the crossbar shows ability to work with others.) Having more than one interest or area of expertise not only makes employees more creative, adaptable, and nuanced at their jobs–it also means “they don’t have that baggage and that training when they get here, and it’s easier for them to think in a way that’s practical,” says Eisenman.
Young Madwell creatives have backgrounds in architecture, publishing, and fashion, among other industries. Every designer must be able to design across the spectrum, from emails to billboards, and every writer must be able to write taglines and understand SEO at the same time. Rather than the traditional copywriter-and-art-director relationship, teams pitch straight to creative directors, and then go and create the work they dreamed up.
Those disparate backgrounds, and working in teams, leads to all of the company’s best ideas, says Sojka. The ad-agency creative process can often be overly fraught or precious—my Pu-erh tea must be heated to exactly 195 degrees and I must walk around the block three times counterclockwise before the Idea Goddess will visit—but having a team that thinks outside typical constraints opens up new avenues and creates new sparks. Driven by the spirit of improv, the teams think outside traditional media, or bend them to fit. For Vita Coco, Madwell created replicas of coin-operated tourist binoculars, through which passers-by could watch VR-style video of an inviting Carribean beach, and virtual billboards with slightly off-color taglines (“We got 99 problems but a beach ain’t one”) distributed via Instagram.
The Next Phase
So what’s next for this “tiny little giant agency,” as they like to call themselves? Their first traditional TV spot, launched in April, could offer some clues. America’s sweetheart Chrissy Teigen sits on a beach—she’s the “plant manager” according to her name tag—and when a tree drops a coconut onto the sand, she pats it approvingly. The quirky commercial not only feels true to the Vita Coco brand, but also to Teigen’s—and Madwell’s. They do things a little bit differently.
Wooing new clients is typically the job of a biz dev person; Madwell doesn’t have one. Their new business comes entirely from referrals and word of mouth. While others in the industry might have their eyes on Clios (the advertising equivalent of the Oscars) or buzz, Madwell focuses on audience engagement. “We gradually grew our team, our knowledge, our opportunities,” says Eisenman. “Our philosophy and ability to manifest our dreams and what we envisioned at the beginning has become a much clearer and truer reality over time. It was a momentum that continually built.”
One of their biggest recent successes was “This Is Happy,” a Facebook video for organic food company Happy Family, which feels more like a short film than a commercial. The spot garnered 10 million likes and thousands of shares and comments, the real sign of consumer endorsement. But more importantly, the baby-food product began to move off the shelves.
Their New York State of Mind
Madwell’s been on a bit of a hot streak lately, winning five big new accounts over the last six months, but perhaps the biggest deal—at least for athletically inclined New York residents—is Madwell’s latest client: the TCS New York City Marathon. Madwell beat out 10 other agencies and is now tasked with dreaming up a multi-platform campaign with outdoor and digital creative, augmenting the marathon app, and creating interactive exhibits for the November event with 50,000 runners and millions of spectators. Their first step was to redesign the acceptance and rejection emails for runners; now they’re rolling out a campaign focused on their new slogan: “It will move you.”
In Madwell’s eyes, it’s really just the beginning. Reflecting on their unlikely start, Sojka says, “If we did anything, we made a good guess about where advertising was going to go and how to adapt to that environment—that, and hiring really smart people, were the two most important things we did as businessmen.”
And so if you need Madwell, you know where you’ll find them—deep in the heart of Brooklyn, in a creative clubhouse of their own design, making what seem like all the right moves.