Ogilvy Interactive

The seeds of OgilvyInteractive’s being named Adweek’s Interactive Agency of the Year are sown in an unusual place: Chapter 12 of Ogilvy on Advertising, a book written by agency founder David Ogilvy in 1983, at a time when most of parent shop Ogilvy & Mather’s memos were typed on IBM Selectric typewriters and cable was just beginning its incursion into the decades-old dominance of ABC, CBS and NBC. In that chapter, focused on direct mail, he writes, ” … I have been a voice crying in the wilderness, trying to persuade the advertising establishment to take direct mail more seriously …” And then, he continues, in some eye-opening foreshadowing of the digital age to come, “[Computers] make it possible to select names from mailing lists by every imaginable demographic classification, by frequency of purchase and by amount of purchase.”

Twenty-two years later, during an interview, Eric Wheeler, OgilvyInteractive’s North American executive director, recites another Ogilvyism. “We sell or else,” an aim that—despite the fact that it is supposed to be the ad industry’s mission—isn’t always the first conclusion one jumps to when looking at the typical agency’s creative output.

But add David Ogilvy’s words to the obvious depth and breadth of digital-marketing understanding at OgilvyInteractive and suddenly it’s clear that, not just the interactive unit, but the entire agency, has been preparing for decades for today’s transformation of media from mass to irreversibly fragmented. OgilvyInteractive is a shop that is just as comfortable setting up an electronic billboard in Times Square to do real-time wireless voting for Dove as it is discussing the finer points of Linux with the hardcore IBM audience. Says Carla Hendra, president of OgilvyOne North America, on the Web site for Verge, a digital conference held for all Ogilvy clients in June, “At OgilvyOne we believe we are now on the ‘verge’ of real sea change in culture, technology adoption, media consumption, and brand communications.” (For a look at other interactive shops, see What’s Next, starting on page 26.)

OgilvyInteractive, the interactive arm of customer relationship management unit OgilvyOne, has long been one of the biggest agencies on IQ’s list of the Top 50 Interactive Agencies. But this year its growth outpaced the rest. According to Adweek estimates, revenue grew by a stunning $40 million, or 23 percent, from $176 million in 2003 to $216 million in 2004. (Citing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, the shop wouldn’t comment on its financials.) The skyrocketing growth made the shop a 2004 standout in what was a phenomenal year for most i-shops. [Through the first 11 months, TNS/CMR recorded growth in interactive ad spending—only part of most interactive shops’ responsibilities—of 23 percent.] Predicts Bill Gray, Ogilvy & Mather New York’s president, “I expect that [OgilvyInteractive’s] business is going to double or triple in the next couple of years.”

It’s the way the interactive agency business is changing that convinced IQ editors that, while we had traditionally named two agencies of the year—an affiliated and unaffiliated agency—this year, given the number of consolidations, we would weigh all agencies equally and name just one.

But the ascension of OgilvyInteractive doesn’t just have to do with its massive growth, it also demonstrated what, from a creative perspective, could be called digital dexterity—an ability to toggle from creating a viral effort featuring a spokes-rapper for Sprite to creating a rich-media effort about security technology for Cisco Systems. Those talents, in turn, led to new assignments and spending gains among its roster of heavy-duty tech clients, most notably IBM, as well as an impressive new-business run that included wins from Allstate, Continental Airlines OnePass and, most tellingly, Yahoo! For the latter, the shop, part of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, a member of the WPP Group, opened a 70-person office in San Francisco.

Indeed, even though the year saw successes throughout OgilvyInteractive’s client base, it’s the appointment by Yahoo!, a brand that mixes cutting-edge technology with digitally driven pop culture, that seems to mean the most to agency executives. “We are just doing some great stuff with them,” says Hendra. Ogilvy got the nod in November after it had been brought in by the main agency’s Soho Square unit to work with the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based online media company on a project basis; the client needed work that combines creative flair with Yahoo!’s day-in, day-out need for results. “As far as I can tell, they were the first agency to realize that interactive really is a direct medium,” says Yahoo chief marketing officer Cammie Dunaway, who joined the company in July 2003 from PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. The shop’s microsite for Yahoo!’s “Life Engine” campaign is a prime example. It combines breakout, splashy color with minitutorials that allow users to learn more about—and sign up for—Yahoo! services.

The shop has also gained its expertise from what, in retrospect, is a propitious piece of timing: the 1994 global consolidation of IBM at Ogilvy, just as the World Wide Web began its creep into everyday life. “We were in interactive very fast because of IBM,” admits Gray. The business has given Ogilvy the chance to be a true early-online advertising adopter, allowing it to dabble in technological advances such as broadband way in advance of much of its competition.

It’s not, however, as though Ogilvy is constantly taking IBM’s lead technologically, according to Deirdre Bigley, vp of advertising and interactive at the Armonk, N.Y.-based client. “They are just as much in the forefront of it as we try to be.” For last year’s U.S. Open tennis championships—IBM has been a long-time sponsor—the agency promoted IBM’s On Demand business services through a combination of content and technology, allowing users to get real-time feeds of scores, live Net cams of Arthur Ashe Stadium and more.

But Yahoo!’s Dunaway says she chose OgilvyInteractive because the agency understands how to straddle media channels, citing as an example its five-minute American Express Webisode starring Jerry Seinfeld and Superman, which launched last May. “It’s not repurposing a TV commercial and putting it online,” she says.

In fact, these days at Ogilvy, the creative process has become so collaborative that it’s getting harder to pinpoint where ideas come from and who is most responsible for their success. Case in point, the creation of Miles Thirst, a spokes-rapper for Coca-Cola Co.’s Sprite who got his start—and worked out some of the kinks in his act—online when the campaign broke last February. The character, who in reality is a small, plastic, Afro-sporting doll, first starred in two online videos riffing on such pop culture mainstays as reality shows, before he appeared with Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James in a TV commercial. According to Jan Leth, OgilvyOne North America’s co-executive creative director, the shop had originally planned to keep “Thirst” in the exact same pose in all the video shot of him, but agency creatives discovered before shooting TV that having him in different poses made the character work better.

Indeed, among all of the other reasons why OgilvyInteractive was selected as Interactive Agency of the Year is this: Both sides of the agency house appear to “get it” and not in the analog-disdaining way that characterized online vs. offline pre-bubble. Another Ogilvyism: “One Agency. Indivisible,” seemed more true of the company in 2004 than ever and may better position it for the future than virtually all of its competitors. Hendra and Gray spend most days in and out of each other’s offices, and when the agency is handed a marketing challenge, everything from initial strategy to coordinating the online and offline components of commercial shoots is fleshed out with representatives from every marketing channel in the room.

“We’re trying to bring the operations closer and closer together,” says Hendra. In fact, plans are in place to physically do that. By April or May, says Leth, the entire creative department will be together. “The trick is when the guy in the office next to you is an advertising guy and you’re an interactive guy, you get to know each other,” he says.

Of course, everyone in advertising has heard agency execs spout that philosophy before, but a look at IQ’s Top 50 indicates how rarely long-time big agency brands truly work in partnership with their interactive arms. Of the top 10 shops on the list, only four carry the names of big agency brands. Ogilvy, in all its units, has been repeating the mantra of 360 Brand Stewardship. The ascension of OgilvyInteractive seems proof that it’s becoming more than just a catchy bit of agency positioning.

“360 is rarely a reality for big clients,” says Leth. “But we do 180 better than anybody out there.”

Catharine P. Taylor is a contributing editor to Adweek Magazines.