What Exactly Is Going On at iCrossing?

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

That said, iCrossing lost digital accounts such as HSN and Mazda, the latter forcing it to shutter its Santa Monica, Calif., office dedicated to serving the automaker. It also closed a Salt Lake City location during last year’s reorganizations. (That said, the shop just became digital agency of record for Speedo, is lining up two other financial clients, and plans to add a key social staffer.)

Multiple former staffers place blame for the company’s turbulence last year on Core Audience, the data-management platform formerly called Red Aril that iCrossing purchased in late 2011 under Scales’ leadership. One former lead who worked on Core Audience described it as “an empty shell.” Per a number of staff members, the unexpected costs associated with fleshing out Core Audience’s capabilities scooped cash off the ledgers for other teams’ initiatives. (The shop also purchased Latin American agency Wallaby around the same time.) The commitment to Core Audience led some to believe iCrossing saw more growth potential in data-driven paid advertising than the less measurable social media channels. The agency hired display advertising vet Christine Bensen last May to bolster that side of the business.

Core Audience “was a good acquisition,” Powley explains. “It took us a little bit longer to get that plugged into the system how we wanted it. [But] it’s a huge part of our go-forth strategy.”

At any rate, 2014 should be interesting in terms of seeing which iCrossing storyline emerges: the one described by brass as a trimmed-down, full-service, butt-kicker agency; or the one characterized by the ex-pats as a search shop that failed to find its way outside its comfort zone and struggled with internal battles.

In the meantime, for pure branding purposes, a spotlight moment like 360i enjoyed with Oreo wouldn’t hurt. Hearst’s Carey suggests that his digital shop already had a similar effort to be proud of in late 2012 when it created millions of social and video impressions to raise the profile of Cosmopolitan’s newly appointed editor Joanna Coles.

The shop has “been a valuable [asset]” for all Hearst properties, says Carey. (Hearst bought iCrossing for a reported $325 million in 2010.) “That was true the first month, and it’s true today.”

But with so much high-level talent gone, can iCrossing find the same mojo its peers exhibit? Clearly there’s some strong debate around that question.

“I think [iCrossing] is a sinking ship,” insists one former director, who chose to leave the agency to take a brand gig. “It’s not sustainable.” Another former director calls out the agency’s talent drain of 2013. “Those are big losses,” the creative stresses. “You don’t just replace those kinds of people easily. And them not being around anymore is going to have an impact.”

Powley counters by stating his hiring stats are “in line with benchmarks,” while search clients like PNC Bank, Beam and Toyota are starting to expand their business with iCrossing beyond just search. “Most of our growth in the second half of [last] year came organically,” he says. “[Search] serves as great foundation to bring in broader work.”

Clark Fredricksen, an eMarketer vp, suggests any search agency doubling down on its core practice certainly isn’t chasing fool’s gold. “Search is a monster format, and it’s not going away as consumers shift to mobile devices,” says Fredricksen. “But that said, social advertising is a much faster-growing category at this point.”

So regardless of whether iCrossing is a sinking ship, perhaps the fairer question to ask is, is it missing the boat?

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