Whenever media changes, new agencies spring up to serve needs not filled by existing players. It is the story of how the most influential interactive shops were born, built by focusing on the Web when the traditional agencies, for the most part, were not.
Now, a new crop of digital agencies is quietly asserting itself in similar voids created by shifts in digital media. They are typically smaller than the established stalwarts of the industry — R/GA, AKQA and Tribal DDB — and more often independent. They are thriving by taking fresh approaches to serving clients. This is through a focus on metrics and search, distributed digital content over microsites, technology interface design or the latest in social media.
“I look at these guys and think ‘Thank God,’ because it’s a return to the kind of ideals we had when we went into the business,” said Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer at TBWA Worldwide.
Here, we have selected five shops to watch, based on their success at leading innovations in the marketplace.
Less than two years old when the dot-com meltdown began in 2000, 360i nonetheless made a prescient bet on search marketing.
At the time, five years before Google went public, paid search was mostly a curiosity in the ad world. But for CEO Bryan Wiener, who joined the shop in 2005, after its acquisition by Innovation Interactive, 360i was well positioned for the emergence of auction-based ad systems. At the time, media agencies were ignoring search.
“We thought the auction media format was going to spread to other forms of digital media,” Wiener said.
The shop established itself as a leader in the fragmented search marketing landscape, concentrating on metrics-focused campaigns for big-name clients. In 2006, Wiener’s team noticed something: Social media sites, particularly blogs, were having an outsize influence on search results. The shop set up a social media practice to help clients improve their “search equity.”
60i is now building out its creative services, scooping up application specialist i33 in March. The shop wants to specialize not so much in destination sites but shareable content and widgets.
For this year’s tax season, 360i flexed its social muscles on behalf of H&R Block, which wanted to tap social media environments like Facebook and MySpace to change brand perceptions. It created widgets for the sites and blogs, and even used Twitter to interact directly with consumers who mentioned taxes. For example, a Twitterer lamenting doing her taxes would get an H&R Block offer to help. Though the campaign bought media, it reached consumers well beyond regular ad messaging.
“I think the interactive space is moving from media buying to a broader landscape of customer connections,” said Paula Drum, vp of marketing for H&R Block. “Agencies have to evolve how they’re organized and go from being media driven to strategy driven.”
2007 Revenue: $35 mil.
Key clients: NBC Universal, H&R Block, JC Penney
When Michael Lebowitz thinks of the model he wants his agency, Big Spaceship, to follow, he talks about architecture, not advertising. There, he noted, “nothing is forced on you. It’s about the overall experience.”
That’s the guiding principle behind Big Spaceship, the digital shop Lebowitz began in 2000 after working at thoughtbubble, an interactive agency of the dot-com era. “It was a function of having seen how to do it wrong and having a little bit of hubris and naivet