Coby O’Brien isn’t the best-known person in the ad industry, but in a world of who you know, he has managed to make himself known to the right people at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising.
“I knew who believed in computers and who didn’t,” O’Brien, 38, says.
That piece of trivia came in handy when Saatchi new media unit Darwin Digital was making its way from crude conception to its current state as a 25-person shop in New York and a soon-to-launch office in San Francisco. O’Brien confirms whisperings that before his appointment, he thought of leaving behind the ad industry and his 13-year career as a Saatchi creative executive.
“Kirshenbaum [Bond & Partners] was the last [new agency] hit,” says O’Brien, who believes Omnicom’s Diversified Agency Services model, a unit of below-the-line agencies, is an appropriate method of structuring agencies for the future.
O’Brien says his new media roots begin with watching colleague Audrey Fleisher, who is now executive creative director at Darwin, create a CD-ROM called Parent Connection. After that, he read William Gibson’s Neuromancer and he was hooked on new media.
Now, as chief executive officer of Darwin, O’Brien will use his connections within the agency and without to create a division that offers clients a broad range of services, through partnerships with content providers and distribution sources. Darwin will accommodate alliances with outside firms, “hence the name ‘Darwin’,” says O’Brien.
Even within Darwin itself, which is intended to evolve over time, O’Brien wants a close-knit environment. He shares a cubicle with another Darwin executive, and won’t even have his photo taken alone, fearing it could be construed as his stealing the spotlight.
But perhaps O’Brien’s theory of evolution is a cover-up for a late start into the market? “We were late in announcing, not in doing,” O’Brien points out. Prior to Darwin, Saatchi had built Web sites for former client the Department of Citrus, and a children’s-oriented site for General Mills, which he worked on with Saatchi’s Kid Connection unit.
O’Brien’s contacts inside and outside of the agency may give him good perspective on where Darwin falls along the new media spectrum. “This isn’t Coby’s ego trip,” he says. “We’re trying to redefine media.”