NEW YORK Like many entrepreneurial ventures, comparison-shopping site Shopnik was born out of frustration. Shopping for a flat-screen television late last summer, Patrick Sarkissian found comparison shopping sites like NexTag hopelessly boring and unstylish. He imagined many urban, design-conscious consumers probably felt the same way.
At the same time, Sarkissian was working for Mazda in his day job as CEO of New York digital shop Sarkissian Mason. The vehicle-selector tool the shop created for the carmaker melded creativity with functionality as a way to sort through data. Sarkissian and his partner, Matt Mason, decided to apply the lessons from the Mazda project to create Shopnik, a new kind of e-commerce destination for high-end electronics and cars.
Sarkissian Mason, a 40-person shop, is one of several independent digital agencies exploring new ground by creating their own applications and media properties. Such projects outside the realm of regular billable client work can be a way for agencies to research new technologies, keep young employees motivated and, perhaps most importantly, explore new revenue opportunities beyond the strict pay-for-services model.
"There's a frustration in being limited by clients," Sarkissian said. "We'll pitch ideas that are beyond the conservative tolerance of many clients. This is a way to have no other clients but ourselves. That's when the best work happens."
The moves are somewhat similar to efforts by more traditional agencies to provide creative outlets for employees. At WPP Group's JWT, for example, creatives developed animated films around the poetry of Billy Collins that became the inspiration for an animated storytelling campaign for client JetBlue in 2006. And other agencies are exploring ways to create content outside of client work, with efforts such as Crispin Porter + Bogusky's partnership with AmericaFree.tv and Droga5 and Smuggler's ambitious effort to create HoneyShed.
"It's different because we can actually make stuff," said Michael Kantrow, managing director at Poke New York and a former executive at Margeotes Fertitta Powell and Euro RSCG. "We can make a product. We don't just dream up ideas."
For independent digital shops, non-client work is used as a test bed and a lure for employees. In many ways, they are embracing the ethos of Silicon Valley, specifically Google. Its celebrated "20 percent time" allows engineers to work on side projects. Several Google products, including Gmail and Orkut, are credited with originating during 20 percent time. A software design and development firm like 37signals has made this a key part of its business, working for clients but focusing on building proprietary Web services.
The idea of working on independent projects tends to appeal to younger workers, Sarkissian said. The core team of five that built Shopnik has stakes in it. "They'll work harder and want to be part of something that's outside of just the client realm," he said.
What's more, independent shops have the flexibility to explore new avenues that agencies within holding companies might not have. Tom Ajello, partner and creative director at Poke and a former executive at Omnicom Group's Agency.com, said supporting non-client work simply doesn't fit in the holding company model. Sarkissian, who worked at WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, said an idea like Shopnik, which was developed in four months, would never come to fruition in a "traditional" interactive agency.
"The agency business is and always has been in solving a client's problem around set parameters," said Colleen DeCourcy, chief digital officer of TBWA\Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group. "You've got a history of a financial model that's set up to do that."
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