Also part of our spotlight on Playa Vista:
UCLA's Experimental Architecture Campus…With Robots
YouTube's Playa Vista Space
Playa Vista Was Going to Be a Utopian Planned Community… 

Tonight, everyone is Howard Hughes. Or at least, 20 people at a time get to be him, standing in his old office in Playa Vista, with the original mahogany paneling on the walls, a 20-cent issue of Life magazine on the velvet couch and typewritten correspondence on Hughes Aircraft Company stationery scattered across the desk.

The phone rings and the stewardess in the smart maroon uniform encourages someone – anyone – to answer it. “It's for you, Mr. Hughes,” she says, addressing in turn a frowning blonde in a leopard-print coat and a stylish man in a suit and sneakers.

Ring, ring. No one moves.

It's a clear Thursday evening in early November, and these people have just begun walking through the star attraction at a party that wants to be more than a party, celebrating the new offices of an ad agency that wants to be more than an ad agency. (Its proprietors prefer that it be called a “modern communications agency with specialties in design and digital.”)Nine years ago, CEO John Boiler, chief creative officer Glenn Cole and design director Robert Nakata established the bright-eyed, industry-bending L.A. firm 72andSunny, having fled their jobs at a conventional advertising agency in Amsterdam a few years earlier. Their goal? Abandon office hierarchies and marketing truisms to forge a leaner, more nimble team that produces not ads but “cultural moments,” helping brands generate viral buzz and send the market roiling.


And so they have. These are the people who made waiting in line for an iPhone look uncool, who suggested Jay Z prerelease his latest album on Samsung Galaxy phones. These are the people who pissed off the (previous) pope and Barack Obama in one fell swoop by slapping Photoshopped images of the former kissing a Cairo imam and the latter smooching Chinese president Hu Jintao on billboards worldwide in order to sell peace and overpriced clothing for United Colors of Benetton. These are the people who helped Google's experimental “Art, Copy & Code” initiative create a video starring a pair of Adidas sneakers that alternately mocks and encourages a guy as he shoots hoops with his buddies.

So last year, as billings increased 66 percent, as the staff grew by 63 percent and as AdAge named it 2013 Agency of the Year, 72andSunny expanded to offices on the Hercules Campus at Playa Vista, previously occupied by a maverick billionaire. They built iPads into the walls and hung an old aviation map they'd found tagged under some drywall and installed arcade games and surfboard racks and milk-glass chandeliers.

And these people couldn't just celebrate with a band and a caterer and call it a night. No, they had to co-author a Howard Hughes – themed, immersive theatrical experience expressing their core values – obsession, risk-taking, dreaming big – with music from Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh.

See also: our web series column, The Tangled Web We Watch

Over the past few years, creative companies drawn to low rents and the flexible office space provided by Playa Vista's cavernous, converted warehouses have transformed the neighborhood into a local hub for ad agencies and entertainment-technology firms such as YouTube and Electronic Arts. Top agencies TBWAChiatDay and Deutsch first moved into the area nearly 15 years ago, but the arrival of six additional agencies in the last few years, with two more due in March, has cemented Playa Vista's status as L.A.'s Madison Avenue.

And 72andSunny is at the top of the heap, landing clients like Smirnoff and Carl's Jr. and recruiting stars such as Megan Fox and Jonah Hill.

The agency hires curious self-starters while eliminating ego and scoffing at expertise, so everyone contributes. At “Yes and” meetings, inspired by the improv-comedy mantra that prevents shutting down others' ideas, brand teams spitball without judgment or doubt. Mock-ups are quickly affixed to the office's translucent walls with magnets, a system taken from Dutch design culture, which invites honest feedback and avoids hurt feelings by divorcing the work from its creator. Later, when the script or the visual is more refined, the team rigorously evaluates what it has done in the manner of an art-school crit.

“That's a West Coast mindset,” Cole says, sitting on a couch in Howard Hughes' office the week after the party. “It's a forward-facing, innovation, frontier mentality.”

“There's a lot of, 'This isn't the last idea on Earth. I'll come up with another one if you don't like it,'?” chief strategy officer Matt Jarvis says.No one takes credit for success, and no one is blamed for failure, but that doesn't stop outsiders from trying to fish out who suggested connecting Eminem with Call of Duty, or who came up with the idea to anoint everyone's favorite mulleted showboat, Kenny Powers (Danny McBride from HBO's Eastbound & Down), the MFCEO of K-Swiss footwear in a series of Funny or Die videos – and yes, that stands for Mother Fucking CEO.


72andSunny's new Playa Vista office; Credit: Courtesy 72andSunny

72andSunny's new Playa Vista office; Credit: Courtesy 72andSunny

“Recruiters bomb our midlevel writers and designers nonstop,” Cole says.

“And we're, like, 'Good luck with that. You're going to have to hire the 22 other people they were surrounded with to get that level of performance,'?” says Jarvis, who is so beloved that some employees recently created a Tumblr of GIFs with his face superimposed onto iconic clips such as Felix Baumgartner's supersonic freefall and Michael Jackson's “Thriller” video.

Ring, ring. Back at the party, the Manhattans from the open bar downstairs start to kick in, and a guy in a floral button-down and a blazer strides toward the desk and gamely picks up the receiver.

A pause. A muffled voice on the other end. He turns back to the stewardess. “Am I actually supposed to do that?” She nods.

The man takes a seat and throws his feet up on the desk.

Soon the group will proceed from room to room for an interpretive dance, a spectacular, vertigo-inducing set that relocates the floor to a wall, and more opportunities to move the story forward. But for now, the man at the desk surveys the room where Hughes himself once reviewed blueprints for the Spruce Goose, where 72andSunny now reviews designs for clients such as Target and Nike.

It's not really an office, he seems to realize at that moment, so much as a hallowed dreaming ground where planes can be made of wood, sneakers can talk and everyone gets rich.

Also part of our spotlight on Playa Vista:
UCLA's Experimental Architecture Campus…With Robots
YouTube's Playa Vista Space
Playa Vista Was Going to Be a Utopian Planned Community...

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