Hot Euro Digital Agencies Are Bound for America

NEW YORK When Farfar founder Matias Palm-Jensen got to the podium to accept one of the agency’s four Webby Awards earlier this month, he had his five-word speech ready: “We’re hiring in New York.”

While attention is often focused on top American interactive agencies like AKQA, Avenue A/Razorfish and Digitas and their expansion into new markets abroad, some strong overseas digital shops like Farfar, Poke and Marvellous Mobile are quietly coming in this direction. In all cases, the agencies say they see not just opportunities in the world’s largest economy and advertising market but gaps in the offerings of existing U.S. shops.

“There is a European way of conversation that’s totally different,” said Palm-Jensen, whose 20-person, Aegis Group-owned agency scooped up a gold Cyber Lion in Cannes last year for “Stockholm —The Musical,” a Web site with offbeat videos promoting Sweden as a tourist destination. “There are a lot of brands that need that European feeling we have.”

A similar logic motivated Mother-owned Poke in London to open in New York last month. It has hired two former executives, Tom Ajello and Aaron Rutledge, and former Margeotes Fertitta Powell CEO Michael Kantrow as partners to lead the digital shop here. Ajello claimed the time is right to enter the U.S. because the agencies here, particularly large networks but also creative shops like AKQA and R/GA, are becoming factories, churning out massive projects without pushing the envelope.

“They dominate the North American market with blocking and tackling and very media-buy-centric interactive work” said Ajello, who left his post as ecd at in New York in March. “They do cookie-cutter work because they do everything at scale.”

The U.S. outpost of Poke is already at work on a project for the upcoming BBC-produced Planet Earth special on the Discovery Channel. Poke plans to promote the program by using GPS sensors on various animals that users can track online. The agency is taking a cue from a similar promotion it’s running in the U.K. for wireless carrier Orange, in which users can win tickets to a popular music festival by guessing where a GPS-equipped bull will end up at a given time. The site carries live video feeds of the bull from four cameras and a map that plots out where the animal was located at previous drawings and his current location.

“What we saw was a lot of the [digital] work in the U.S. was being led by traditional advertising agencies and outsourced to production firms,” said Nick Farnhill, a partner at Poke London. “We saw that pure-play digital specialists with strategic insights and planning experience could take a lot of that business on.”

Tom Bedecarré, CEO of AKQA, an independent San Fancisco digital shop that has recently expanded into China and the Netherlands, chalks up the ambitions more to a desire to play in the big leagues: “People at small European agencies are jealous of not working on accounts the size and scope of those some American agencies work on.”

Digital specialist agencies are also setting up shop to parlay expertise in areas like mobile that are just now taking hold here. One example is Marvellous Mobile, a 20-person London-based shop that has run mobile campaigns for the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, Reebok and Vodafone. Also recently acquired by Aegis, it is making its first foray from its London base to the U.S.

With the U.S. mobile marketing industry just taking shape, Marvellous execs see an opportunity to apply the lessons—or “war stories,” as managing director Paul Seaton puts it—of their past six years in the U.K. It already has a major U.S. client in Coca-Cola, for which it crafted the Sprite Yard mobile social network that goes live this week. It hopes to parlay that into more Coke work, particularly since executives at the soft-drink giant have made it clear that mobile is an integral medium for their future marketing strategy. Marvellous has hired former Vodafone sales executive Richard Hurring to lead its U.S. operations, with offices planned for Atlanta and New York.

“It’s such a big market [that] you can’t ignore it,” Seaton said.

Yet for all the heady talk from the digital newcomers, ad veterans point to a long history of European general-market shops failing to dent the U.S. market, particularly in New York. M&C Saatchi has been up and down since setting up shop in Manhattan in 1996. Bartle Bogle Hegarty arrived two years later, and has just recently garnered major account wins. The jury is still out on newer entrants like Mother (2003), Nitro (2004) and Naked (2006). Even agencies from around the U.S., like Fallon and Hill, Holiday, Connors, Cosmopulos have had seesaw existences in New York, with Fallon New York shuttering in 2005.

“It’s an inhospitable market to enter, whether you’re coming from L.A. or Stockholm,” said Bedecarré. “There are a lot of carcasses around Manhattan of outside [agencies] that have tried to come in and haven’t succeeded.”

Digital agencies are entering the market with some cover. Poke’s New York office is already working on projects for the BBC and other Poke London clients. Both Farfar and Marvellous plan to lean on parent Aegis for help getting up and running. In both cases, the shops have modest expectations: Poke aims to have 15 staffers in New York by the end of the year, while Farfar anticipates up to 25 and Marvellous about a dozen.

The shops say they will be able to find more talent by coming to the U.S. Palm-Jensen said he’s already received hundreds of inquiries about Farfar in New York. “Many talented people live in New York,” he said. “We can’t make them move to Stockholm.”

Their larger rivals view their entries as part of the maturing of the interactive market. “It’s a cycle that starts again and again,” said Tribal DDB CEO Matt Freeman. “You have boutiques that grow up into giant networks, and then you have a new crop of boutiques.”