Pereira and O’Dell: Crossing a Digital Chasm

Mash up P.J. Pereira, a creative director from Brazil, and Andrew O’Dell, a businessman from Tennessee, and you’ve got San Francisco’s newest high-profile ad agency: Pereira & O’Dell.

Last month when I dropped by the agency’s new home, a former wine cask house south of Market Street, I found their enthusiasm infectious. I’m not alone.

Just ask Michael McNally, brand relations director for toy maker Lego, who met with Pereira and O’Dell to discuss Lego’s goal to reconnect adults to the brand known for its colorful interlocking plastic bricks.

“At Lego, we sit through a lot of agency pitches. The big difference is a lot of people ran out and bought our set last week,” McNally said. In contrast, he found Pereira, 34, and O’Dell, 38, had an immediate connection with Lego. “The passion that came out with them was based on their own childhood experiences with the product. They got what we’re looking to bring out in adults.”

Pereira & O’Dell got the Lego assignment, and also won over the athletic brand Pony International and the University of Phoenix as its launch clients.

After three years of working together at digital agency AKQA, Pereira and O’Dell quit in January once they secured $30 million from investors. Except for the investment — which isn’t chump change — the two are emphatic they launched with nothing but an idea and their combined experience.

“Most people think we had everything ready to go. It was not,” O’Dell said. “We started this from scratch. And to do that, you don’t poach clients, ideas, or anything like that.”

Among the startup’s biggest challenges: launching a 15-person agency during an economic downturn, convincing potential clients their expertise goes beyond digital marketing, and competing against agencies that offer other services, from search marketing to media planning and buying.

Pereira promises to build and operate an agency that mixes traditional thinking about marketing and advertising with new technologies. “To mix offline people with online people, to put people from different disciplines together” are the goals, he said.

Starting an agency during an economic downturn, they contend, is an opportunity.

“For one, we have very little overhead,” O’Dell said.

“I have never seen clients so open to rethinking the way they work with agencies before,” Pereira continued.

Plus, both worked through the dot-com boom and bust, and they’re convinced that the experience made them stronger.

Pereira and O’Dell said the concept for their agency crystallized after meeting with prospective clients such as Pony and Lego.

“We found it easier to show our ideas for a client, and then try to explain who we were,” Pereira said.

While Lego’s McNally said plans for the brand’s campaign details are top secret, the Pereira and O’Dell work will include — but isn’t limited to — digital initiatives such as a viral video and downloadable application designed to “re-engage adults” with the Lego brand.

“They have been so great helping us understand what works, what doesn’t,” McNally said.

A look at Facebook, for instance, shows there are more than 30,000 fans of a Lego group on the social network.

“From their perspective, that was awesome,” McNally said. And as a result, Pereira & O’Dell questioned whether Lego could add any value to the fans’ Facebook experience. Likely not, so Lego was advised not to “interfere” with those fans.

For Pereira, a defining career moment came when working with O’Dell a few years back for a client he declined to identify.

“It was a crazy idea that some guys on my team showed me. I felt it was very right,” he said. Problem was, the client had a budget of $30,000, but the big idea — the production of a feature film — would cost as much as $3 million to execute.

O’Dell initially balked. But he came around, and the team sold the idea to the client.

“It opened our eyes to what marketers are capable of doing when they look at the larger picture. That’s when I knew I could work with P.J. on a professional level,” O’Dell said.

From that point forward, Pereira said he no longer felt “stuck” in a silo — in other words, typecast exclusively as a digital marketer.

“Great ideas should be able to go anywhere and have different ways to be discussed,” he said.

So how does the Pereira-O’Dell duo divvy up the big decisions?

That’s when you’ll see their dynamics kick in.

Officially: Pereira handles the creative, O’Dell is responsible for the business.

When I visited, the two admitted they had just finished what O’Dell described as a “very heated discussion” over the proposed size of a stage under construction on the barrelhouse’s ground floor.

“I wanted less stage,” O’Dell said.

“The creative always wants more stage,” cracked Pereira.

How, then, did they resolve this skirmish?

“It’s about trust,” O’Dell explained. “There have been plenty of business relationships where those small things can be very destructive because no one wants to give in. We typically defer to each other in their area of expertise.”

“He’s been on more stages than I have, so I deferred to him,” Pereira replied before the two burst into laughter.

I don’t think I’ve seen two grown men have such a good time at work, ever. And they didn’t even crack open the Lego set.

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