Commonground wins AA’s Small Agency of the Year Gold

Commonground’s Ahmad Islam and Sherman Wright

Call it fate. Or kismet if you like. But something just tells us it was meant to be.  Maybe we weren’t the only observer — in Chicago anyway — who wasn’t totally surprised to hear Commonground/Chicago walked away from the Ad Age Small Agency conference last weekend with the Small Agency of the Year Gold Award in the 11 to 75 employee category.

We weren’t surprised because, from our vantage point, we sensed that Commonground had arrived when we first looked at the now well-known Powerball spot for Illinois Lottery that first surfaced on TV last fall.

Surely you recall it — that commercial with the giant red ball seen rolling through the concrete canyons of Chicago and on into small towns and flat farmland across Illinois before finally arriving in the state capital, Springfield.

That Illinois Lottery spot was especially noteworthy because it was such a radical departure from almost any commercial the Lottery had aired for years, if not decades. No corny humor. No schtick of any sort.  Just smart marketing.

But what was even more unusual about the commercial was the back story of how it came to be. The Powerball commercial happened, basically, because newly-anointed Illinois Lottery superintendent Michael Jones was in a pinch. 

Commonground had to produce in a short time frame

Lottery superintendent Michael JonesJones had just fired Energy BBDO/Chicago as the general market agency of record for the Lottery. But he needed a general market commercial to promote Powerball. And he needed it pronto.

After consulting with marketing executives at Illinois Lottery private manager Northstar Lottery Group, Jones had a hunch Commonground could handle the assignment.  He gave it to them with a short turnaround time.  And the multicultural agency delivered on the assignment in a most satisfying way.

Looking back on the whole Powerball TV commercial saga in the wake of their Small Agency of the Year Award, Commonground cofounders Sherman Wright and Ahmad Islam insist it wasn’t  really that surprising — or that much of a stretch — for the shop to so easily cross over and produce a general market spot. “Our approach to running an agency has never been to look at it from a silo perspective,” explained Islam.

According to Commonground’s co-leaders, the agency has tried from its inception to develop marketing strategies and produce work that has the ability to resonate with the masses through a multicultural lens.  “Our challenge with the Powerball spot,” explained Wright, “was to build a spot that would resonate with all the people of Illinois.”

Agency focus on growing existing clients and new accounts

Though it really began to develop a higher profile with its Illinois Lottery work, Commonground has been in Chicago since 2004.  The agency has grown from a mere four employees at the beginning to more than 70 today.  And that growth has come from working with a core group of strong clients, including MillerCoors, Coca-Cola, American Family Insurance,  and, of course, the Illinois Lottery.

Andy England, chief marketing officer at MillerCoors, is a big fan of the shop.  “For the past eight years, Commonground has developed iconic advertising and marketing for our brands,” said England in a statement.  “We are pleased that the agency has been awarded gold in their category,” he added.

Aggressive leaders that they are, Wright and Islam aren’t content to rest on any laurels they have accrued in recent days. Their focus going forward is on growing with existing clients and pulling in new accounts. 

“Automotive and food services are two categories where we believe we can excel,” noted Islam.  “For us, it’s all about smart growth in the right categories, while maintaining the integrity of our agency culture,” said Islam.

More open space in new offices

Just prior to winning the Small Agency Award, Commonground marked another milestone when it moved into spacious new offices at 600 W. Fulton in the west loop.  Wright and Islam wanted to be in a more residential area so their employees wouldn’t necessarily feel as if they were going in to “work” every day.

The new digs also reflect a trend seen in many agency offices these days — more open space and fewer walls separating staffers from each other.  “We designed the new offices so there are lots of places where people can just get together and talk and share thoughts and ideas,” noted Wright.

So with a spacious new headquarters and a nice award to spur them on, the good fight continues at Commonground/Chicago.  We suspect there will be plenty more good news ahead for at least one local boutique ad shop that has found its purpose. And is executing on it.