Naked: Friend Or Foe?

Naked, a five-year-old shop that merges media, creative and strategy consulting to become a factory for big ideas, has found great success in the U.K., working with both agencies and clients. Its assignments have ranged from Wieden + Kennedy’s “Grrr” Honda campaign to a Reebok promotion that involved people playing soccer games in London with sofas for goalposts.

Now it plans on opening an office in New York in January and is working with Strawberryfrog on media strategy for the BMW Mini pitch. While Naked usually collaborates with agencies, it sometimes pitches directly to clients. And even though Naked very rarely produces creative ideas, this poses the question: Is it a collaborator or a competitor?

Wieden, London, which is working with Naked on a Nike iD project, is comfortable with their dual roles. Naked’s strategic thinking led to the viral distribution of its highly lauded Honda “Grrr” campaign, as well as the DVD magazine insert of Honda’s “Cog.” “We haven’t got direct marketing, digital, PR, or media planning, so we work with other agencies all the time,” says Neil Christie, managing director of Wieden. “We’re partnering on one project and pitching against them in another one. I don’t feel that uncomfortable with it.”

Naked works with agencies or clients, giving ideas and strategy for a fee, but it doesn’t create the work itself. For example, it worked with WCRS in London to promote a directory-assistance number for Infonxx. After researching the demographic, Naked recommended connecting to users on the street rather than with traditional ads. “Creativity doesn’t mean writing ads,” explains founding partner John Harlow. “It means big ideas and thinking properly.”

During this mercurial time in marketing communications, when clients are looking for new ways to reach consumers, Naked is increasingly being called on for its creative-minded media perspective. Though working for both clients and agencies could create room for conflict, Harlow and co-founders Jon Wilkins and Will Collin argue that it doesn’t (a fourth partner, Ivan Pollard, joined in October). “That situation is completely typical,” says Collin. “You will be working alongside one agency on one client, only to find yourself pitching against them. It’s true all the time in the ad industry.”

Still, Collin contends that any inside information gleaned about agency clients would never be used against them later on. “We would never compromise confidentiality,” he says. “We would never take [proprietary information] and apply it in a different situation.”

While one New York-based agency founder quipped, “I don’t view them as competition, Naked are a bunch of media guys,” others say that even if they do come head to head with agencies they have worked with, they wouldn’t be unprofessional in their tactics. “At the end of the day they have to run a business and they have to compete,” says Taxi president Paul Lavoie. “They seem to be gentlemen in the way they approach the business and behave.”

In addition to its London headquarters, which has about 70 employees and 25 clients, Naked has satellite offices in Paris, Amsterdam, Oslo and Sydney, with about 15 employees in each. Globally, it has about 45 clients, with 80 percent on retainer and 20 percent working with the shop on a project basis.

After investigating the U.S. market for the last few years, Naked is eager to crack it. The partners claim to have one U.S. company interested in becoming the new office’s marquee client, as well as two partners with whom they are in contract negotiations. “The timing is right,” says Harlow. “The way people interact with brands has fundamentally changed. The old model is no longer the only model on offer. Our role is to try and help brands navigate the complex communication world order.”

Naked helps its clients navigate that world via the founders’ varied backgrounds. They met at media agency PHD, but Harlow has a background in media, Collin in strategic planning and Wilkins in research. The shop’s structure reflects its media-agnostic philosophy. It is roughly divided into three overlapping groups: communication planners, who have marketing or media strategy backgrounds; brand planners with account or research backgrounds; and “innovators,” who have trend or creative backgrounds. In the rare instance that Naked does creative executions, it works with freelancers. Naked’s clients include agencies Mother and Wieden, and clients Coca-Cola, Heineken, Nike, Nokia and Orange.

One of Naked’s biggest challenges may be adjusting to the size of the U.S. market, where “money talks,” says Justin Barocas, a partner at Anomaly. But, he adds, “There’s no shortage of great ideas [at Naked], within media, specifically—that’s what I think their strength is.”

Naked partners say they’re comfortable with a small client base. They’ve clashed with more traditional clients; they failed in a pitch for Lloyds Bank in London. “We don’t want to have 100 percent appeal. If we have 10 percent, we can have a really nice business,” says Wilkins. “We’d rather be like Richard Branson. Succeed most of the time, but not be afraid to fail.”