Observatory's leaders talk creativity and keeping teams together in unusual times

The agency works so far upstream, says CEO Jae Goodman, that it synthesizes culture before it pops.

Linda Knight, Observatory's new CCO, and Jae Goodman, CEO, colleagues again after working at Wieden+Kennedy years ago.
Linda Knight, Observatory's new CCO, and Jae Goodman, CEO, colleagues again after working at Wieden+Kennedy years ago.

It’s the classic, stage-mother tale retold for the branded-content era.

Pepper the dog becomes internet famous for cutely sneezing on command. His starstruck owner fills an Instagram with videos of the sneezing canine. She finally books a national commercial for a tissue maker but Pepper won’t do his famous trick and runs away. 

"Pepper," directed by Whitney Cummings, was part of the "Pet Friendly" series of shows for sponsor VCA, the national vet chain, that unfolded on Refinery29 last year. The eight-minute story ended with Pepper safely with his VCA vet, who counsels the chastened owner to let the dog be a dog. Tales like this could well represent the future of advertising.

The Los Angeles agency behind the VCA series, Observatory, was recently recognized by Fast Company as one of the "10 most innovative advertising companies for 2020," alongside more traditional agencies such as McCann, BBDO and Wieden+Kennedy.

Observatory is betting sponsored content that sticks is the way forward for advertisers. Previously CAA Marketing, Observatory remains partly owned by the legendary, Hollywood talent agency. It counts Marriott Bonvoy, Drinkworks, AB InBev and Bonobos as clients. 

It works so far upstream, according to chief executive, Jae Goodman, that it synthesizes culture before it pops. Concept-level ideas, scripts and rising Hollywood talent can surface at Observatory long before they emerge on Netflix or the local multiplex. 

Campaign spoke to Goodman and Observatory’s new chief creative officer, Linda Knight, who joined the agency at the beginning of the year, about what advertising looks like in 2020, along with running a business during the coronavirus lockdown.

We connected on Zoom, an app that Knight and Goodman have been running 12 hours a day to counsel concerned clients and employees and, as much as possible, enact business as usual. 


How has work-life been this last week?

Jae Goodman: It’s been intense. We are working really hard, and in a way, I feel closer to all my colleagues. We are doing virtual brainstorms, virtual writers' rooms, a virtual edit, which was seamless. So far, so good. We are working it out. We have a production coming up that is animation, so that will be okay.

Linda Knight: We are all further away, but a lot closer. We are on Zoom all day together. It is almost like a reality show, you forget the camera is on. 

In many ways, we are working much harder. Yesterday, all I had was a cheese stick and a block of chocolate. We are good. We are looking for a distraction and work is something that is really stimulating. The ideas are coming.

Why do you think Observatory was selected as an innovator by Fast Company?

JG: Like anybody lucky enough to land on the list, we were flattered and in some ways we were strangely relieved because as we look at other agencies on the list, most of whom are larger, our model stands out, our commitment to content experiences that attract and engage rather than interrupt. It was validating that we should stay the course. Even though, with each successive year, interruptive advertising doesn’t crumble, ads are definitely declining. We are right about this.  

Observatory calls itself an agency built for the content era. How does that differ from agencies and advertising in general?

JG: We are part of a global entertainment ecosystem. We have a database of thousands of scripts in development, we are able to look at that in a sense of trends, like seeing the horror trend of eight, nine years ago (which Observatory unspooled into AB InBev’s ownership of Halloween as a beer-drinking night out for adults in global markets.) We talk to writers, producers.

In terms of the agency for the content era, the reason we say that begs the question, what is content, exactly? It is things humans choose to engage with. 

Typically, a brief creatives get at an ad agency will have a media order: Three 60-second spots and some display ads. The creatives are filling the order. We are strategy and idea led and we make no assumptions about the format. It could be a live event, a music tour, something related to a sport, then we work with our media partners to build a plan around it.

LK: Everyone is scrambling to evolve, to see how they can find a place. Observatory already started in a completely different place. They had CAA DNA, so just the access this agency has to people and companies and creators is pretty mindblowing: From Imagine Entertainment to Bad Robot to Goop to Jae’s cool friends. As a creative, that is amazing. 

A good idea is a good idea. There are fantastic 30-second spots, but when you do not have to be limited by the 30-second spot and you can develop five ideas you cannot wait to watch, that’s amazing.

What concerns Observatory today? What is making agencies and companies nervous?

JG: Two weeks ago, we would have said very confidently that it finally feels like things are really tipping our way. The Fast Company recognition, Linda and I working together...our insane new business pipeline. 

That is back of mind right now...The reason Linda and I have been on a series of video conferences, 12-14 hours a day, with every single one of our clients, is we are looking at their entire funnel. For those who can take the moment to be forward-thinking, because this human tragedy will pass, and when it passes, what does the upper funnel look like? For those brands that can afford it, we will continue to move forward. At the lower funnel, we are looking at what is respectful for the moment, and how they can be there for their customers and colleagues in new and improved ways. 

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