360i’s Fresh, Tech-Driven Thinking Pushed Its Clients to New Heights in 2017

Adweek's Breakthrough Media Agency of the Year used innovative twists on classic strategy

From left, Abbey Klaassen, CMO; Bryan Wiener, executive chairman; Jason Hartley, svp; Sarah Hofstetter, CEO; Patrick Affleck, managing director of media. Sasha Maslov for Adweek
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

“Let me start out by saying that here, creative is an adjective,” says 360i chief marketing officer Abbey Klaassen when describing her agency’s approach to media in 2017. “It’s not a noun, like, ‘that’s the creative.’ We are all creative.”

Before war rooms, viral tweets and voice specialties, when the phrase “social media” was still confined to executive brainstorms and theorists’ theses, 360i built its core business on search engine marketing. The 20-year-old agency has since evolved to become one of this industry’s most sought-after media partners on the strength of its creative approach to what is often a purely transactional business.

For the Dentsu agency, last year was all about releasing and refining several new services designed to address customer and client challenges that ranged from low brand awareness to clogged pipes while also adding an impressive number of new names to its growing roster.

This ability to win business while consistently producing innovative, tech-driven twists on classic media strategy makes 360i Adweek’s 2017 Breakthrough Media Agency of the Year.

ESTIMATED REVENUE 2017: $160-$180 million

ESTIMATED ORGANIC GROWTH 25 percent year over year

WINS Mini U.S.A., Kate Spade, HSN, Chico’s, Champion, Stonyfield, National Geographic (creative and media), Shiseido Group (became media AOR), Hanes (added search), Chili’s (won integrated media); sister agency Vizeum won global AB InBev review.

LOSSES Spotify media, Strongbow creative.

STRATEGIC MOVES Hired former Deutsch New York ecd Menno Kluin as chief creative officer, replacing outgoing CCO Pierre Lipton. Launched Amazon Marketplace practice and hired Amazon veteran Will Margaritis to lead it as vp of ecommerce. Developed Voice Search Monitor to help brands use platforms like Alexa and Siri. Began implementing Contextual Actions Platform (CAP) to help use existing data to improve the intelligence of clients’ media buying operations. Hired chief talent officer Tiffany Francis, promoted Patrick Affleck to managing director of media in New York, promoted Jason Hartley to svp, national head of search and paid social.

Standing out in a crowded field

Over the past 12 months, growing client-side demands for transparency and efficiency have driven a new wave of global and national media reviews, forcing many big-name agencies into a defensive crouch. Yet, in this punishing climate, 360i turned away a remarkable 80 percent of inbound new business leads.

“We’re not for everyone, and we’re very happy with that,” says CEO Sarah Hofstetter. “We’re not going to pitch unless we have a team that can win without sacrificing other business.”

President Jared Belsky adds, “Generally, we think there’s a massive, underserved well of clients who recognize that they don’t want to just buy the spaces available—they want an agency that thinks about what’s possible.”

While the phrase “full-service agency” has been rendered all but meaningless by overuse, at 360i it’s a mantra with teeth. The shop is so dedicated to anticipating all of a given brand’s needs—from robots to radio spots—that it recently eliminated individual offices and converted them into rooms dedicated to single clients like NBCUniversal and Canon.

In 2017, the agency’s “adaptable” approach was responsible in large part for a slew of new business wins including Chico’s, Champion and Stonyfield (media AOR), HSN (digital AOR), Mini USA (digital) and National Geographic (creative and media).

The shop also recorded $25 million in organic growth by expanding its relationships with established clients like Shiseido Group, Hanes, DSW, Ben & Jerry’s and Chili’s.

“They’ve demonstrated tremendous accountability,” says Steve Provost, who became Chili’s evp, chief marketing officer last March before discovering that 360i—which began working with the fast-casual chain in 2016—had “taken our SEO operation and figured out how to get the same impact on sales with almost no cost.” Provost says this track record made the decision to pick 360i during Chili’s larger media review last year an easy choice. “We had six agencies in the search,” he says, “but we called it off after the first presentation by 360i.”

Integrated media and creative for Absolut Lime’s "#RefreshTheTalk" Grammys campaign, introducing the public to the new flavor while also inspiring culturally relevant conversations.

Pernod Ricard vp of digital transformation Eric Alper says the agency’s focus on proving its own worth has helped cement a three-plus year relationship.

“The launch of Absolut Lime at last year’s Grammys was a huge moment for our brand,” says Alper, recounting #RefreshTheTalk, his company’s successful effort to drive red carpet conversations toward pressing social issues at the pop gala while introducing consumers to its newest flavor. “With 360i’s uniquely integrated approach that married creative with media, we were able to create a national media moment and far surpass our sales goals for Lime.” Bonus: The company moved 69 percent more product than planned.

When a tree falls in the Amazon

For years, 360i’s claim to fame was the Oreo “dunk in the dark” tweet that went viral during Super Bowl XLVII. But Hofstetter now calls it “a jumping of the shark” moment and says her agency has long since moved on to tackling the Bezos brain trust, which came into its own last year as a place every advertiser needs to be.

In October, 360i officially launched Amazon Marketing as a dedicated offering to connect eager brands with a platform primed for partnerships. “One of the reasons we knew it was time is because Amazon started to answer our calls a lot more,” says Jason Hartley, svp, national head of search and paid social at 360i. A key service concerns voice, one of Amazon’s most powerful and popular tools.

“We believe voice is going to be absolutely huge in terms of where search and discoverability goes,” says 360i vp of SEO Michael Dobbs, whose team has been working on the proprietary Voice Search Monitor program since early 2017.

Facilitated the launch of Sonos One, a new Alexa-powered speaker, with creative execution and integrated media campaign; wrapped Amazon locker spaces with Sonos creative in key markets.

Practically speaking, focusing on voice made perfect sense. “It’s not an accident that the first thing that we did was to try to figure out how this thing works,” says Hartley, “[like] let’s talk about the fundamentals rather than something that’s just going to be more window dressing.”

In one key example of putting that principle into action, the agency supplemented traditional media placements for the National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home with promotions for Bravo Tango Brain Training, a voice-activated meditation app specifically designed to help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety in combat veterans who might not otherwise seek mental health treatment after returning to civilian life.

Call the plumber

“All media is creative and all creative is media at this point,” Hofstetter says. Take the unlikely example of Roto-Rooter. The plumbing service hired the agency last year to help eliminate ineffective marketing spending (don’t call it waste)—and 360i turned to technology for help to solve one of civilization’s most fundamental problems.

360i abolished individual offices in favor of single client spaces.
Sasha Maslov for Adweek

Given that plumbing is a business flush with emergencies and noting that availability is crucial, the agency used “a crazy technology called CAP [Contextual Actions Platform]” to help the client avoid running paid search ads at times when all technicians in a given area were already serving customers. As a result, according to 360i, Roto-Rooter has since increased both revenue and call volume by 15 percent. “When you’re doing that,” offers Belsky, “you’re not a media partner, you’re a business partner.”

For Hofstetter, 2017 reached its high point during a September U2 concert in New Orleans, when Bono paused to read a letter declaring the Big Easy’s doors open to residents of nearby Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The note, penned by senior copywriter and New Orleans native Andrew Hunter, first appeared the previous day as an ad placed in the Houston Chronicle by the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., a 360i client.

“The reason why it worked so well is because the copywriter woke up that morning thinking … how can I help,” Hofstetter says, adding that the agency replaced a more traditional ad celebrating the city’s tricentennial with the letter at the last minute. “That’s the impact of creativity and media working hand in hand.”

Jared Belsky, president

The new accountability

What’s next for a constantly evolving operation like 360i? Belsky reveals that the shop has made a “massive” investment in marketing technology, hiring developers, coders and data scientists to better serve clients that expect their agencies to double as technological and analytical partners.

“I think definitions are going to change rapidly; for a long while people would talk about acquisition media or direct-response media, and then brand media,” he says. “We’re talking about accountable media.”

Regarding future challenges for 360i and its competitors, Belsky adds, “I think there are certain shops that have that in their DNA and there are shops that don’t. Those that don’t will have a very icy cold shower in 2018.”

This story first appeared in the Feb. 19, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.
@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.