What Exactly Is Going On at iCrossing?

Hearst's digital agency is beset by turnover as it expands beyond search

These are boom times for digital agencies—particularly those that have stayed in stride with the latest hot trend. Where search was the discipline clients craved five years ago—thanks, Google—social and branded content have become the predominant forms of digital messaging over the last 18 months. Those shops that have successfully developed their full-service muscles while keeping their search functions strong for clients are winning—and continuing to hire and grow. But it’s no easy feat.

Just ask iCrossing.

In an era when brands are publishers and when everyone wants an Oreo moment or a Claude Van Damme stunt video, digital agencies like Razorfish, SapientNitro, 360i and AKQA are hiring hundreds of folks due to an explosion of content marketing. Hearst-owned iCrossing, it seems, has followed a far less stellar trajectory. The New York agency has suffered considerable upheaval among its upper-level creative talent, experiencing an exodus that raises eyebrows even in the revolving-door world of advertising. 

llustrations: Gluekit

 Just last week, iCrossing’s head of social, Amanda Peters, exited the company for another opportunity, Adweek has learned. Shoshana Winter, svp of strategy and planning, parted ways at the start of 2014. But departures also plagued the shop throughout 2013. Don Scales abruptly stepped down as CEO in June. Late last year, chief client officer Colin Turney and evp of global development Marlin Jackson quietly left their posts. Svp of marketing David Deal left in July, and Ashmi Elizabeth Dang (associate director of social media) and Jessica Burdman (svp client operations) took off in August, while svp of market research Lisa Ponte Fazio left around the same time. COO and evp of corporate development Rod Lenniger departed in October, senior accounts director Stewart Campbell left in May, and Rachel Pasqua (vp of mobile) and Tarah Feinberg (head of iCrossing’s content division, The Studio) left in April. In January 2013, vp of strategy Rob Garner—interestingly, the author of a book called Search and Social: The Definitive Guide to Real-Time Content Marketing—moved on, as did vp and executive creative director Paul Beddoe-Stephens.

The agency wouldn’t specify who has been replaced, but says it plans to fill Peters’ and Turney’s spots and is advertising to hire more staff. Oddly, the words “social” and “content” rarely appear in the job descriptions. Most openings are for search-centric gigs. That implies that social has been put on the back burner in favor of performance-based search, compared to a couple of years ago at iCrossing.

What happened? Why the exodus?

“I felt, quite frankly, we had a senior level that was heavy for an agency of our size and had to take a hard look,” explains Brian Powley, who replaced Scales as iCrossing’s global head six months ago. “The CEO leaves, someone else takes over, and the company goes through a period of transition. With that transition, people decide to leave the company.”

But is it merely a transition? Or is iCrossing an example of a prosperous search agency that is struggling to expand outside the realm of its cash cow? Hearst Magazines CEO David Carey argues that iCrossing “is a solidly profitable business,” but adds, “for a period of time [it] hired aggressively against the revenue curve.”

At last check, according to a source close to the situation, iCrossing as of November counted seven fewer employees than it did at the same juncture the year before, hovering around the 900 mark. (Hearst is a private company, so specifics are hard to come by.) While this is clearly more of a flat line than a free fall, by contrast the generous hiring sprees of its digital competitors invite questions about iCrossing. Razorfish grew its staff by more than 800 in 2013 to 3,000 total; SapientNitro spiked to more than 7,000 employees from 5,900; AKQA says it jumped from 1,200 to 1,500 staffers; and 360i grew from 500 to 625. (To be fair, per sources close to the situation, iCrossing has grown its social team from 14 to 36 in the last year, and apparently doubled its social revenue.) 

llustrations: Gluekit

 Asked to make sense of all the numbers above, Russel Wohlwerth, principal at the advertising consultancy External View Consulting Group in Culver City, Calif., wonders what iCrossing’s sales projections were when it hired the people who are now gone. “They doubled revenues [in social] and had layoffs?” Wohlwerth asks. “What were their goals—to triple revenues? No one expects that. Something doesn’t smell right here.”

Continue to next page →

Adweek Blog Network