360i Is Selected as the 2013 Digital Agency of the Year

Transitioning from search to social has paid off handsomely

Headshot of Christopher Heine

Just when you thought you’d heard everything about how 360i and Oreo made social marketing history with their Super Bowl “You Can Still Dunk in the Dark” tweet, there’s more to the story. In the mere 11 minutes it took for the brand team to concoct a pitch-perfect (and legally approved) message, the agency and client considered some eight or nine other ideas before settling on its winner.

That’s a stellar example of how nimble social media marketing has become, and how 360i put its stamp on 2013 more than any other digital agency. The New York firm and Oreo had spent the previous 18 months honing their Twitter chops, experience that allowed them to instinctively know that “Dunk in the Dark” would do well—though they had no clue it would garner more than 32,000 social media likes and shares in just the first hour before snowballing into 525 million impressions in the following days. Those massive engagement numbers—as well as the stunt’s new status as a marketing milestone—chalked up two Cannes Lions awards for the Oreo team.

Sarah Hofstetter, U.S. CEO for Dentsu-owned 360i, explains that the triumphant Super Bowl tweet represented “a muscle memory that accumulated over multiple years of repetition. You have to do your homework first.”

Oreo hunkered down in 360i’s office that Super Bowl night, monitoring its responses to the big game being ingeniously orchestrated by the agency. “It was a thrilling moment, watching the community react,” recalls Janda Lukin, the brand’s director for Mondelez International. “It brought people together in a social way that we feel is what the brand is about.”

The signature move underscored a social-media-heavy partnership between the companies, Lukin says, that began to truly blossom with their late-2012 “Daily Twist” series, which celebrated Oreo’s 100th birthday with a cool, new digital image every day for 100 days. This appeal sparked huge buzz by jumping on topical subjects like Gay Pride Month, Shark Week and NASA’s Mars Rover landing. The effort accrued four Cannes Lions of its own last June. “We are trying to show people this is a brand of the 21st century,” Lukin explains. “360i has been key to reshaping and contemporizing our brand. They have brought Oreo’s voice to life with the millennial consumer group.”

A torrent of real-time copycatting by other brands and agencies followed. “The industry started focusing on minute-by-minute marketing,” says Bryan Wiener, 360i’s global CEO.

Hofstetter adds that the shop “defined a new paradigm for the industry.” And even competitors in the marketing realm grudgingly agree the agency’s social plays changed the game. Mark Pinsent, Metia’s social and content lead, describes the Oreo work as showing “genuine creativity in real time and astounding agility in production.”

Adds OneSpot CEO Steve Sachs: “Oreo’s example is now one of everyone’s tricks of the trade. … More brands will try in 2014. Plenty will fail [because] real time is risky, but we’ll be applauding more that succeed.”

But will the real-time marketing niche 360i essentially created go too far? Some reject the notion that a single tweet can drive business results, while others deem the popularity around the so-called “news-jacking” practice to be unsustainable. “While real-time social monitoring will remain a core marketing activity [in 2014],” prognosticates Richard Guest, president, Tribal U.S., “I believe that brands will embrace the notion that right time trumps real time and that context trumps culture.”

Wiener concurs that the industry conversation around “newsrooming” should be more nuanced than what’s often conveyed in a 140-character media environment. “Real-time marketing in the newsroom is in fact a tactic and not a strategy,” he says. “We think a lot of people are confusing the two. People who are trying to chase the Super Bowl tweet are not evolving their client’s business. So we’ve moved on from that.”

Moved on, indeed. The agency picked up a who’s who of new clients including Subway, HBO, Clinique and Downy. At the same time, 360i directed noteworthy innovations for Ben & Jerry’s, Oscar Mayer and New Orleans’ tourism board that produced stellar results.

Ben & Jerry’s joined 360i’s roster in the spring, and within weeks the agency launched a digital and offline effort that stirred techies’ imaginations by turning commuter habits, fashion styles and exercise routines in a variety of cities into votes for new B&J ice cream flavors. For example, every time Red Line subway trains in Washington, D.C., arrived at the Metro Center station, a vote was cast for Oregon Cherries. 360i hooked into D.C.’s digital infrastructure to make the program possible, while also equipping runners along the Potomac River with software-packed video cameras. Northbound joggers represented votes for Marshmallow, while southbound runners counted as tallies for Peppermint. Using similar technology in Seattle, support for flavors Fairtrade Chocolate or Fairtrade Vanilla was determined by the number of plaid versus plain shirts filmed on the streets. “We were really trying to tie into the heartbeat of each city,” Hofstetter attests.

The city-specific plays were designed to fit into the brand’s eco-friendly ethos. Consumers pledged for their ice cream faves via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Foursquare and a “City Churned” microsite.

More than 320,000 votes were cast, and 157 million impressions were delivered for the brand. The winning flavor for each city was then available in that market. Even sweeter, overall sales jumped, says Jay Curley, senior global marketing manager at Ben & Jerry’s, especially in Seattle and New York. “360i really helped us evolve this year and get it right in the social space,” Curley notes. “And we have a different approach to real time. It’s driven by our brand values, and the agency gets that. It’s not driven by the Super Bowl or the Oscars.”

Speaking of Oscars, the agency’s “Say It With Bacon” initiative for Oscar Mayer represented a clever and original follow-up to the team’s award-winning “Great American Bacon Barter” endeavor in 2012. In the “Say It” video spots, the shop imitated cheesy jewelry commercials, right down to the references to the “four c’s”—only in this case they stand for cut, color, cure and consistency of breakfast meat. (Could it be a coincidence that jewelry powerhouse Sterling Jewelers gave 360i its Kay and Jared digital media accounts in 2013?) “Say It” drew 514 million impressions, 70 percent of which were earned media. Branded bacon chatter online rose 53 percent, and Oscar Mayer sales for the breakfast meat lifted 3.3 percent even though the category dropped by 7.7 percent for other brands. “Everyone talks about social return on investment—we sold more bacon,” Hofstetter boasts.

The social shop ventured out of its comfort zone by producing its first television commercial—which it then seeded into social platforms—for New Orleans’ tourism. The municipality wanted an integrated push that spoke to the Crescent City’s rich and unique blend of pervasive street jazz and French-inspired architecture, rather than images of Mardi Gras revelers getting tanked on Bourbon Street. 360i convinced the mayor’s office to shift all of its print spend to digital to support the national TV spots, buying targeted promos across the Internet as well as native ads on sites such as BuzzFeed, Pandora and Travel & Leisure. The 533 million impressions generated boosted the public’s perception of New Orleans, which is still trying to recover as a tourist destination eight years after Hurricane Katrina.

“The business result is that this is the biggest year for visitors since the hurricane,” Wiener says. “For the city, that’s the equivalent to sales. From an agency standpoint, it was important that we were the builders of the entire campaign. It was structured in a way that we felt would resonate with people. To see the success we’ve had has been so rewarding.”

360i was founded in 1998 and, like many digital agencies from that decade, prospered for years chiefly due to its search-marketing expertise. In the last 10 years, the shop pivoted as ad dollars increasingly moved to social media and content marketing. It’s a long leap from the super techie world of search to the land of creativity, but thanks to Wiener and Hofstetter’s leadership, 360i has safely crossed over. Wiener credits their outsider status and the fresh perspective it gives them.

“We’ve been unencumbered by the legacy in which agencies have been run,” Wiener explains. “This is the first agency job Sarah and I have ever had. There’s an intentional ignorance. Our approach is to figure out consumers’ behavior, and then to help brands connect with them in relevant, authentic and timely ways. Search was a first foray into that. If you think about search in 2006 and then social as another tent pole, we’ve evolved into a full-service agency very much with strong ideas. The two core commonalities are always data-driven insights and nimbleness.”

Hofstetter adds, “We have people here acting like entrepreneurs, not like agency moguls.”

Given that the shop has recently opened offices in Toronto, London and São Paulo, future growth is expected to come from expanding global business, which accounts for only 15 percent of revenue this year. Brian Wieser, Pivotal Research Group analyst, believes that’s very doable. “360i has established a very strong reputation within the industry and, importantly, possesses a client base that includes many global marketers,” says Wieser. “Undoubtedly, many of those marketers would want to capitalize on its understanding of their brands and relationships within their organizations. By itself, this should provide a base of potential clients for the agency as it expands further abroad.”

360i can point to helping Coca-Cola administer its worldwide Facebook presence, which has grown from under 3 million fans to 77 million since the two companies started working together. And global opportunity is a key part of why Ben & Jerry’s transferred its social media business nine months ago, as the Vermont-based ice cream maker looks to better penetrate Europe, Australia, Japan and Brazil.

“It’s not like we didn’t know how to do social before then, but we really didn’t know how to communicate globally,” says Curley. “And they have been really great with that. It really comes down to daily social content production, which is where we are moving internationally.”

And even though languages and customs vary from continent to continent, 360i appears to have a firm grip on how to handle the cultural variances.

“Real business results start with a strategy,” Hofstetter says. “How are you going to connect in an always-on world? If you can connect [in real time], there’s a greater chance to grow your business. And that’s what we think separates us from our competitors.”

The Work

Innovative campaigns for clients new (Ben & Jerry’s, Hanes) and established (Oreo, Oscar Mayer) made 360i the talk of the digital agency world in 2013, redefining interactive marketing in a number of ways—perhaps most notably by fusing real time with offline.

1. Oreo

When the Super Bowl went dark, 360i’s lightbulbs went off for the cookie in a memorable Twitter play.


2. Ben & Jerry’s

The agency merged an ice cream truck with digital voting, while creatively utilizing subway trains in Washington, D.C., New York City cabs and plastic spoons.


3. Hanes

The brand's "Destruction" videos for dudes registered 10 million views.

4. Oscar Mayer

As if hatching a “Great American Bacon Barter” effort in late 2012 that yielded multiple Lions wasn’t enough, 360i put together another Cannes winner in “Say It With Bacon” this year.

5. New Orleans The digital shop made consumers fall in love again with the Big Easy, employing a tuneful TV and social duet that would make a jazz singer proud.

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.