RPA turns 30: The agency’s execs talk LA’s ad scene, being independent and longtime client Honda

Santa Monica’s RPA agency is a mystery in advertising land.

With nearly 600 employees and Honda’s creative business, it’s a wonder the agency wasn’t taken over by a holding company. And unlike its heavyweight independent counterparts Droga5 and Wieden + Kennedy, RPA has made no attempt to expand internationally.

It also has an unusual number of Super Bowl clients for an agency of this size and stature. This year alone, Super Bowl commercials were created for Honda, Apartments.com and Intuit. The only other agency to create three playgrounds this year was WPP’s Gray New York.

While RPA is primarily associated with its longtime client Honda – an account that has been in business since its inception in 1986 – it has also gained other notable clients along the way, including Farmers Insurance and Southwest Airlines.

So while age 30 is a meaningful moment for all advertising agencies, especially in today’s fragmented, highly competitive landscape, it is particularly significant for an agency that has always had a penchant for the unconventional.

Following the agency’s 30th birthday this year, The Drum recently met with RPA’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Baratelli and SVP creative, Marketing & Innovation Tim Leake to discuss everything from the burgeoning LA advertising scene to the creation of RPA.

An agency is born

Rubin Postaer and Associates (RPA) emerged from the merger of BBDO Worldwide, Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) and Needham Harper Worldwide, the three agencies that merged to form the Omnicom Group in 1986.

As part of the merger, DDB and Needham Harper merged to form DDB Needham – a move that was a conflicting move as the former worked in Volkswagen’s advertising business while the latter worked on Honda’s account.

At the time, Gerry Rubin and Larry Postaer were running Needham Harper Worldwide’s Los Angeles office. Upon learning of Omnicom’s plans to fire Honda over the automobile conflict, the two decided to buy Needham’s LA office so they could continue doing business with the automaker.

Baratelli, who was working in Needham Harper’s LA office at the time of the merger, said Rubin needed to make sure the agency’s clients – primarily Honda – are okay with the plan before he and Postaer can proceed with the purchase. After Rubin reassured the president of Honda North America that all agency staff would stay the same, the go-ahead was given – and RPA was formed in October 1986.

“He got approval from these guys, and literally within a month or so, they basically changed the name on the door, changed the logo on our paychecks, and we became Rubin Postaer and Associates,” Baratelli said.

Rely on independence

When RPA first opened its doors, Rubin told the Chicago Tribune that he and Postaer were aware that by adopting RPA, they were “bucking the megamerger trend.” He defended the couple’s decision by stating that their loyalty remained with their customers and employees.

“We want to continue to offer our accounts the best possible service,” he said at the time.

30 years later, that ethos is still strong at the Santa Monica agency, now jointly run by Rubin and Postaer. Although the agency has grown six-fold since 1986, created Super Bowl ads for a number of big brands, and kept the Honda account since its inception, the agency has remained independent.

“I think there have been many opportunities to buy or sell the agency and we’ve always turned them down in the past,” said Leake.

Over the years, Baratelli has seen firsthand the role of independence in RPA. He said the independence allowed the agency not just to “invest in things”. [it sees] Be important, ”but also be quick to respond to those investments, whether it’s putting together a team to build a website for a client or retraining a team of Flash developers to learn HTML.

Leake, who worked at agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA / Chiat / Day before joining RPA, said independence also means RPA doesn’t have to “blindly follow trends like the big holding companies do”. As an example of the agency sticking to its guns, he cited RPA’s decision to keep the media on its own when the media unbundling trend began to take off years ago.

“We kept the media in house because we felt it was the best choice for our customers,” said Leake. “I think the media trend there for a while was to hire a media agency. We are just beginning to see this pendulum reversal. We are noticing an increased interest of customers in full-service offers. “

Independence has also given RPA the freedom to stay close to its roots and maintain the corporate culture its leadership has built over the years. While the agency has a handful of tiny regional offices across the country for media buying and account management, its Santa Monica office is RPA’s only full-fledged store.

Leake said RPA has been reluctant to expand to new locations, in part because of the agency’s emphasis on customer relationships. While the expansion brings new growth opportunities, Leake also risks putting the agency’s close relationships at risk.

“We always take great pride in the fact that our clients get a lot of attention from our senior management,” he said, explaining that it could be difficult for the agency to nurture these kind of partnerships if they expanded in one quick clip.

That doesn’t mean expansion is out of the question, however – in fact, Leake said, this is a discussion that agency executives have quite a lot. At the end of the day, Baratelli said the important thing is to do what makes sense for the company.

“If we suddenly had a customer on the east coast and needed a lot of staff and we had to be in there every day, we could pull the trigger and open something,” he said. But for now, Baratelli said the current setup works for both the client list and the agency – and he’s not looking for repairs that aren’t broken.

The long and winding road

Few agencies have experienced the kind of relationship RPA has with Honda. Aside from being a founding client of RPA, Honda remains the agency’s biggest client, and the two have worked together on everything from big-budget Super Bowl spots to goofy “International Cat Day” videos.

But like most long-term relationships, things didn’t go entirely smoothly. In 2012, Michael Accavitti, then VP-National Marketing Operations of Honda, reviewed the account. Eventually, while RPA held onto creative endeavors for Honda, it lost the Acura-owned Honda creative business to Mullen and media responsibility for both brands to MediaVest of Publicis Groupe – a change that resulted in hundreds of layoffs for the agency.

While the shock certainly thwarted the couple’s relationship, it didn’t prove bad for either party. In the years following the review, RPA continued to do world-class work for Honda, including last year’s Cannes Lion-winning “Project Drive-In” and Emmy-nominated “Paper” commercial.

Baratelli, who has worked with Honda since the agency’s inception, attributes the relationship’s success to the trust and the fact that many of the agency’s executives have spent the majority of their careers at RPA. Both RPA CEO Bill Hagelstein and Chief Operating Officer Pete Imwalle have been with the agency since the 1990s.

“There is great confidence in [Honda] mainly because they know the people here. We’re not switching, we have a strong lead, ”he said. “Everyone wants new, fresh thinking, so we always bring new people with us, but they have the support from above, which has been consistent. Honda is similar in culture as there are a lot of people who have been there for a long time. I’ve known a lot of people for literally thirty years. “

While acknowledging there have been “ups and downs” over the years, he said RPA’s commitment to Honda’s long-term goals helped foster mutual trust between the two.

“As long as you keep an eye on this price, you can weather the storm even in the worst of times,” he said. “There are some great examples of things we did together that based on our knowledge and expertise, they trusted us and it worked for them. It’s about building those relationships and building that trust. “

Rubin and Postaer in the agency’s general office in 2010 alongside a 1979 Honda Civic CVCC

LA vs. Madison Avenue

In recent years, a number of outlets and figureheads in the industry have announced that Los Angeles has replaced New York as the advertising hotbed. There was even a panel discussion on “LA Invades Madison Ave!”. this year at Advertising Week New York.

While this is a boon for newer LA shops looking to create a buzz and attract talent, it also means increased competition for agencies like RPA, who are used to at least getting a little foothold in the LA market. However, Baratelli claims the change is welcome as both talent and clients are now more interested in LA agencies in general, including RPA.

“German has grown, Chiat has been here a long time, and Sunny is very successful. It only confirms the fact that we have this pool of creative talent, ”he said. “I think it’s been great for us and for the business in general.”

In terms of increased competition, this is not a big problem for RPA, as agencies are used to competing with each other for business regardless of location.

“There has always been competition,” he said. “It’s not like we’re in a pitch, we’re just dealing with LA agencies. You always stand against everyone. “

While the city that calls RPA home has changed a lot since its inception – and is likely to change even more in the next 30 years – Baratelli is hopeful for the agency’s future. While he hopes the RPA’s culture will still be the same 30 years from now, and that it still has a “reputation for doing a good job that gets noticed,” he also hopes the agency’s three-letter nickname will become recognizable outside of advertising Circles.

“I would hope RPA will be a household name in 30 years,” said Baratelli. “That would be a goal.”

June 7, 2021