Lightning Orchard: Helping Clients and the Community Flourish

Many agencies are still struggling to achieve equality and diversity while taking care of business. Lightning Orchard, a young Brooklyn-based agency, could show them the way.

Lightning Orchard
Full Service
Brooklyn, United States
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Barney Robinson
CEO Lightning Orchard

Every agency strives to be unique, but Lightning Orchard succeeds better than most. That name for a start: I racked my brain for literary allusions but came up empty. Of course I did – this is an ad agency, full of people smart enough to come up with a million brand names. So, “Lightning Orchard”?

CEO Barney Robinson provides both an explanation and the agency’s mission. “It connotes ‘growth at speed’. That’s what we want to achieve for clients. Ever since we first started I’ve constantly asked myself the same question: ‘If I were a CEO or a CMO, why would I hire us?’ And ‘growth at speed’ is the answer I’d want to hear.” 

Advertising agencies have been experiencing an identity crisis, he suggests, so the idea was to get back to basics. “What’s the end result I want from my agency? It’s somebody to grow my business as much and as fast as possible.”

Now 30-strong, the agency was founded just two years ago by chief strategy officer Laura Janness, chief creative officer Jeff Kling, and Robinson. Their starry resumes are way too extensive to go into here, so I’ll point you to their website – but let’s just say they’ve all held leading roles at the best agencies in the world.

So why come together now to start Lightning Orchard (or LO for short)? Apart from the fact that they’d worked successfully together in previous roles, the move seems to have been driven partly by a desire to put right what they felt was being done wrong elsewhere.

Barney says: “The importance of strategy as the start point was incredibly important, as was speed. But we also wanted to fix the systemic issues of racial and gender equality we saw in the industry.”

The agency’s website states clearly: its highest paid employee and majority shareholder is and will always be a “she”; it gauges success by sales and esteem, not self-congratulatory awards. And its staff will exceed population ratios for diversity.

To achieve the latter, it has developed a remarkable outreach program that trains at-risk BIPOC youth for careers in communication and the media. It’s a talent pool the entire industry can draw from. Laura Janness is the driving force behind this initiative, and speaks about it with passion.

“The topic [of diversity] often comes up, but it’s so big and overwhelming that people don’t know where to start,” she explains. “So they end up not doing much. But the work needs to be done. As an agency we talk very publicly about what we do, not only because we’re proud of it – but because it gives people a starting point.”

Long before co-founding the agency, Laura was a volunteer for the City Meals in New York, delivering meals to homebound senior citizens in low income housing. During her visits, she realized that young people in the same environment were dropping out of school because their families couldn’t afford to keep them there. They had to work instead. 

“As a strategist and a researcher I started looking into it, and I saw that there’s a huge gap in education and the ability to acquire your high school diploma if you’re part of the BIPOC community. So I thought to myself, ‘How do you solve the inequality issue – not just in our industry but in every industry – if you’re not solving for education?’” 

Her research led to a non-profit called Good Shepherd Services, which works with the at-risk teen community. LO spent a year developing a program with the organization, based on Laura’s work and the understanding she’d gained. “I knew that we had to commit to the students, that it had to be a long-term commitment, and that the entire agency needed to be involved.” 

The agency created an internship program to help local teens who were at risk of not graduating high school. “It’s designed to run an entire calendar year, to keep them in school, to keep them engaged in society, and to teach them about advertising and marketing and the opportunities that are available to them in our profession.”

When the pandemic hit, Laura says, “it poured gasoline on an already terrible problem”. Because the agency is so embedded with Good Shepherd Services and the community, it was the very first organization to call the principals of local high schools to see how it could help. LO ended up buying and distributing laptops to kids so they could take classes. It also devised an integrated digital campaign to help schools recruit and enrol new students – something they were now physically unable to do. Meanwhile, the internship program was taken successfully online. “And the best part about the whole thing is that we kept kids engaged and kept them graduating during Covid.”

Laura suggests that the agency’s approach could offer a blueprint for others to follow. “We’re doing the work, not talking in percentages. Because the problem is human – and it requires intense commitment.” 

The agency seems to have struck an ideal balance between making a difference in its community and generating success for its clients. Certainly the industry has paid attention – Campaign noted that the agency had grown 132 per cent year on year. Even more impressive given the fact that LO channels a portion of its profits into helping disadvantaged kids, rather than burnishing its reputation via awards shows.

Commenting on the new business success, Laura says: “I think it’s all about relationships, to be honest. Clients will often come in because they’ve heard of us or they’ve worked with one of the three of us in the past. And then the relationship will grow from there – it starts with a project and the next thing you know you have six of their brands.” 

It can also begin more dramatically. Barney cites password manager app Dashlane, which cut its pitch short after the first round to make LO its agency of record. He stresses that none of the trio had ever met Joy Howard, Dashlane’s CMO. Howard herself later told Ad Age: “They’d really done their homework, they were very strategy-driven and came super dialled-in.” 

Laura notes: “This is the first time in my entire career that strategy has been on an equal footing with creative. That’s a complete dynamic change – so clients feel it and the work is successful as a result.”

Barney adds that the agency expects excellence from all the core disciplines without compromising any. “That means a strategist who’s as good at running the business as an account person; an account person who’s as good at strategy as they are making the work better, and so on. I know that’s a compelling point for clients, because they tell us, ‘You’re a highly functional agency. There are no compromises.’” 

In only its first year of business, LO was tasked by two different clients to develop their Super Bowl campaigns: Oikos Triple Zero’s “Yo Glutes” and Dashlane’s “Password Paradise”. Both campaigns were briefed late, in November. Strategic development, creative development and production were completed in under 10 weeks. 

Both campaigns made it onto multiple Best Of lists, including Fast Company’s “Five Best Super Bowl Commercials”, the Daily Mail’s “Most Talked About Commercials” and Ad Age/Creativity’s “Top 5 Super Bowl Commercials”. More importantly, both campaigns drove results – fast. Concrete proof of the agency’s promise of growth at speed. 

The Oikos campaign, a digital-only buy, drove a 7-point sales lift, according to Surbhi Martin, VP of marketing, Danone North America, who told AdAge: “We were pretty astounded by the results…It exceeded all of our expectations”. 

Purchase intent for Dashlane soared by 46 per cent after the SuperBowl. Ace Metrix memorability scores for the “Purchase Paradise” were in the top three per cent of all spots tested since 2014. Harvard Business Review called it “one of the most successful ads of 2020”.

This quality is driven from the top. The size of the agency means that clients get full access to the founders: Barney, Laura and Jeff are on every pitch, and they stay on the business when it’s been won. “The three of us will pitch it – and then we’ll run it,” says Barney.

There’s a phrase on the agency’s site that drew my attention, mostly because it was mildly shocking in this context: “The shiv in your sock.”

The words come from Jeff Kling, who explains: “Pat Fallon called advertising the last legal means by which companies can gain an advantage. Clients need a weapon. And you can have that weapon at your disposal even when people think you’re just another middler in another meeting, taking up space and passing notes, no surprises. Nope. You get results. Your smile belies the shiv in your sock. We’re that shiv.”