Soon after she started as chief marketing officer at Boston winemaker Archer Roose late last year, Sara Gable was launching a new ad campaign. She turned to some familiar faces.
Gable knew Jonathan Balck, Greg Almeida, and Travis Robertson from her time at Boston Beer Co., while they were at local ad firm MMB. Balck mentioned a new project the three friends had launched, an ad agency called Colossus.
“He was like, ‘I’m starting a new agency with Greg and Travis and the vision is to do powerful work, and really take on small brands that have the ability to do things differently,’ ” Gable said. “That was really an exciting proposition.”
Gable was sold, and the small-but-mighty Colossus had another new client.
Colossus was incorporated in 2019, the same year the trio of Balck, Almeida, and Robertson left MMB. The group formally began working together as Colossus in 2020, and have already racked up a who’s who of local clients. They have lined up agency-of-record relationships with Archer Roose and athenahealth, among others, as well as project-by-project work with the likes of SimpliSafe, Toast, Zipcar, and Procter & Gamble. (Roughly half of the firm’s clients are in the Boston area.) After just a year in their office on West Second Street in South Boston, the founders say they may need to start looking for new digs in 2022 as their staff — currently about 20 people — keeps expanding.
Colossus may be Boston’s fastest growing ad agency right now, though that is tough to measure. Ad agencies, like baseball teams, enjoy winning streaks, and Colossus is riding a big one.
The three cofounders said they offer an alternative to the traditional agency model. No billing by the hour, for example, and the clients are kept in the loop throughout the design process. The goal: to be disruptive, to push clients outside their comfort zones.
“All three of us knew the ways that worked previously weren’t going to keep working,” Balck said.
Launching in the midst of a pandemic proved to be fortuitous in a way. Potential clients were more open than ever before to ripping up the old playbook, which presented an opportunity for a brand new agency. The partners presented themselves as a scrappy alternative to the big three in town — Arnold, Hill Holliday, and MullenLowe — noting those agencies are all part of multinational conglomerates, answerable to out-of-town bosses.
“In a sea of sameness, I think brands have to start behaving differently,” Robertson said. “We’re always looking for tension. When brands don’t have tension, they don’t have something to push against, it’s not interesting.”
Everyone working at Colossus is a creative designer, planner, strategist, writer, or art director, the cofounders said. That’s appealing to clients who want to deal with an agency’s top talent directly. And smaller agencies, without internal bureaucracy, can be more nimble and responsive.
“We have that challenger mentality,” Almeida said. “A lot of the brands we work with ... want to shake the tree a little bit. They want to change things up.”
All of these things appealed to Gable, who wanted Archer Roose’s “luxury wine”-but-in-a-can to stand out in a crowded alcoholic beverage market. The Colossus cofounders had created strong work for Boston Beer while at MMB, she said, and its startup mentality made Colossus a better fit than the big shops for a small company like hers.
This spring, Gable put Colossus and its small-agency model to the test when actress Elizabeth Banks committed to be a celebrity spokeswoman for Archer Roose, a deal that made her a co-owner and chief creative officer. Banks came on board in April, and Archer Roose needed a completed ad by the end of May. Within a week, the Colossus crew had pitched a variety of ideas, which Archer Roose executives reviewed with Banks. The ad was in production by the end of April.
The 60-second ad’s script features Banks arriving uninvited into a facsimile of Archer Roose chief executive Marian Leitner-Waldman’s home. Leitner-Waldman plays herself as she grumbles about how to get Banks to leave while the actress, also playing herself, makes herself comfortable — clipping her toenails, gargling wine, complaining about a stuck toilet, and declaring herself the new Archer Roose spokesperson. By the end of May, it was ready to go.
Good thing for Archer Roose that it had an ad agency at its side that could move fast.
“That just speaks miles to the willingness of Colossus to make sure we don’t squander an opportunity and really step up to the bat ... even when the odds might be stacked against us with a tight timeline,” Gable said of the agency’s rapid turnaround.
Steve Connelly, whose Connelly Partners is one of the biggest independent ad agencies in the city, said Colossus is starting to get noticed.
“They got hot,” he said. “What happens if you do good work, and they do, and it catches someone’s eye at the right time, then you get one [client]. And if you get one, you get two, and if you get two, you get four.”
The trick will be maintaining client access to the top creative talent at Colossus, including the three cofounders, as the client list grows.
It’s a tough balance to strike as an agency grows from 10 employees to 50-plus. Connelly, who oversees a team of about 140 people, knows this firsthand.
“As you get bigger, as you acquire accounts, you have to abdicate some responsibility for creative oversight for those accounts because you physically can’t do it all,” Connelly said. “I’m rooting for them. Anybody out there that can raise the creative bar in Boston has 100 percent support from me.”