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

Credit: RPA

Santa Monica agency RPA is somewhat of an enigma in ad land.

With a staff of nearly 600 and Honda’s creative business under its belt, it’s a wonder that the agency hasn’t been scooped up 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 amount of Super Bowl clients for an agency of its size and stature. This year alone, it created Super Bowl commercials for Honda, Apartments.com and Intuit. The only other agency that created three game day spots this year was WPP’s Grey New York.

While RPA is mostly associated with its longtime client Honda - an account that has been with the shop since it was founded in 1986 - it has also picked up other big-name clients along the way, including Farmers Insurance and Southwest Airlines.

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

Following the agency’s 30th birthday this year, The Drum recently caught up with RPA’s chief creative officer Joe Baratelli and its SVP-creative, marketing & innovation Tim Leake to discuss everything from LA’s burgeoning ad scene to how RPA came to be.

An agency is born

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

Under the merger, DDB and Needham Harper joined forces to become DDB Needham – a move that presented a conflict since the former worked on Volkswagen’s advertising business while the latter worked on Honda’s account.

At the time, Gerry Rubin and Larry Postaer were heading up Needham Harper Worldwide’s Los Angeles office. When they caught wind of Omnicom’s plans to jettison Honda because of the automotive conflict, the pair decided to buy Needham’s LA office so they could keep doing business with the automaker.

Baratelli, who was working at Needham Harper’s LA office at the time of the merger, said that Rubin had to make sure that the agency’s clients – primarily Honda - would be on board with the plan before he and Postaer could move forward with the buy. Once Rubin ensured to the president of Honda North America that the entire agency staff would stay the same, he was given the green light – and RPA was formed in October of 1986.

“He got approval from those 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,” said Baratelli.

Putting a premium on independence

When RPA first opened its doors, Rubin told the Chicago Tribune that he and Postaer were aware that they were “bucking the megamerger trend” with the launch of RPA. He defended the pair’s decision by stating that their loyalties remained with their clients and staff.

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

30 years later, that ethos is still strongly in place at the Santa Monica agency, which is now co-chaired by Rubin and Postaer. Despite growing six fold since 1986, creating Super Bowl ads for a number of big brands and retaining the Honda account since its inception, the agency has remained independent.

“There’s been lots of opportunities I think for the agency to have been bought or sold, and we just have had a history of turning them down,” said Leake.

Over the years, Baratelli has witnessed firsthand the role that independence has played at RPA. He said that being independent has allowed the agency to not only “invest in the things [it sees] being important” but also act quickly on those investments, whether its assembling a team to build a website for a client or retraining a team of flash developers so they can learn HTML.

Leake, who before joining RPA worked at agencies including Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA/Chiat/Day, said being independent also means that RPA doesn’t have to “blindly follow trends the way that the big holding companies tend to do.” He cited RPA’s choice to keep media in-house even when the media unbundling trend began to take hold years ago as an example of the agency sticking to it guns.

“We kept media in-house because we felt like that was the best choice for our clients,” Leake said. “I think for a while there, the trend towards media was to hire a media agency. We’re starting to see that pendulum reverse at the moment. We’re noticing more interest from clients about full-service offerings again.”

Independence has also afforded RPA the freedom to stay near its roots and maintain the company culture that its leadership has worked to build over the years. While the agency does have a handful of tiny regional offices around the country for media buying and account management purposes, its Santa Monica office is RPA’s only fully-fledged shop.

Leake said RPA has been hesitant to expand to new locations partly because of the importance that the agency places on client relationships. While expansion brings with it new growth opportunities, Leake that it also risks putting the agency’s close-knit relationships in jeopardy.

“We’ve always put a lot of pride in the fact that our clients get a lot of attention from our senior leadership,” he said, explaining that it could become difficult for the agency to foster those kinds of partnerships if it were to expand at a fast clip.

That doesn’t mean that expansion is out of the question, though – in fact, Leake said it’s a discussion that the agency’s execs have fairly often. At the end of the day, Baratelli said it comes down to doing what makes sense for the business.

“If all of a sudden, we had an East Coast client and we needed a huge staff and we needed to be in there every day, we’d be able to pull the trigger and open something,” he said. But right now, Baratelli said that the current setup is working for both its client roster and the agency – and he isn’t looking to fix what isn’t broken.

The long and winding road

Few agencies have experienced the kind of relationship that RPA has enjoyed with Honda. Apart from being one of RPA’s founding clients, Honda still remains the agency’s largest account, and the two have worked together on everything from big budget Super Bowl spots to silly “International Cat Day” videos.

But, like most long-term relationships, it hasn’t been smooth sailing all the way. In 2012, Michael Accavitti, Honda’s VP-national marketing operations at the time, put the account under review. While RPA ended up holding onto creative duties for Honda, it lost Honda-owned Acura’s creative business to Mullen and lost media responsibilities for both brands to Publicis Groupe’s MediaVest – a change that resulted in hundreds of layoffs for the agency.

While the shakeup surely threw a wrench into the pair’s relationship, it didn’t prove to be dire for either party. In the years following the review, RPA has continued to create top-notch work for Honda, including the Cannes Lion-winning “Project Drive-In” and last year’s Emmy-nominated “Paper” spot.

Baratelli, who has been working with Honda since the agency was founded, attributes the success of the relationship to trust and the fact that many of the agency's senior leaders have been with RPA for the majority of the their careers. Both RPA's CEO Bill Hagelstein and its chief operating officer Pete Imwalle have been with the agency since the '90s.

“There’s a great level of trust with [Honda] mainly because they know people here. We don’t change over, we’ve got strong leadership,” he said. “Everybody wants new, fresh thinking, so we’re always bringing new people into the fold, but they have the support from above that’s been consistent. Honda's similar in culture in that they've got a lot of people that have been there for a long time. I've known a lot of people literally for thirty years.”

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

“As long as you have your eye on that prize, even through the worst of times you can weather the storm,” he said. “There's some great examples of stuff that we've done together where they trusted us because of our knowledge and our expertise, and it worked out for them. It comes down to building those relationships and building that trust.”

LA vs. Madison Avenue

Over the past few years, a number of outlets and industry figureheads have proclaimed that Los Angeles has replaced New York as the hotbed of advertising. There was even a panel about the topic called ‘LA Invades Madison Ave!’ at Advertising Week New York this year.

While this a boon for newer LA shops that are looking to garner buzz and attract talent, it also means increased competition for agencies like RPA that are used to having at least somewhat of a foothold on the LA market. But Baratelli claims that the change is welcome since it means both talent and clients are now more interested in LA agencies in general, including RPA.

“Deutsch has grown, Chiat’s been here a long time, 72andSunny has had great success. That only validates the fact that we’re able to have this pool of creative talent,” he said. “I think it’s been great for us and the business in general.”

In terms of increased competition, Leake said it’s not a huge issue for RPA since agencies are used to competing with one another for business anyway, regardless of location.

“There’s always been competition,” he said. “It’s not like when we’re in a pitch, we’re up against only LA agencies. You’re always pitching against everybody.”

Even though the city that RPA calls home has changed much since it was founded – and will likely change even more over the next 30 years – Baratelli is hopeful for the future of the agency. While he hopes that in 30 years time the culture of the RPA is still the same and that it still has “a reputation for doing good work that gets noticed,” he also hopes that the agency's three-letter moniker will become recognizable outside of advertising circles.

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

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