360i’s Sarah Hofstetter on Reaching the Top—and Staying There

How do leading agencies and brands find inspiration?

CANNES, France—Everyone dreams of being No. 1. But reaching the top quickly introduces a new pressure: staying on top.

It's a problem most agencies and brands would be happy to have, and it's one currently being faced by 360i and its category-leading clients like Oreo, HBO and Coca-Cola.

Named Adweek's 2013 Digital Agency of the Year, 360i has helped Oreo become one of the most dominant brands in social media, and the agency's "Awaken to Bacon" iPhone plugin for Oscar Meyer is a strong contender this week at Cannes.

An in-house project even won 360i a bronze Lion this week in the PR category at Cannes. Two agency creatives, one a cancer survivor, created a social media initiative called #Mamming that featured women resting their breasts on everyday objects as a humorous way of encouraging regular mammograms.

We met up with 360i CEO Sarah Hofstetter at Cannes for a quick Q&A on how the agency continues to find inspiration when it's already largely seen as one of the best in the business:

What is the unique pressure of being considered "best of breed," and what kind of challenge does that put on you?

A lot of it is looking at where you're setting the bar. We can look at the industry and set the bar based on what everybody else is doing, or we can look at where things are going and say, "I just want to get there."

But it's not about looking at the competition, it really is looking at where the potential is. And with Oreo, we always thought the potential was greater than where it was and we had a really great client that allowed us to realize that vision.

How do you find the balance between experimenting without going in a direction that hasn't proven itself yet?

Sometimes we get the question of, "Give me one of those." But I want it to be different, never been done before, proven ROI and a laundry list of other things. It's our job to reconcile that back.

Experimental is a hard thing for people to wrap their head around, and that's why people like Wendy Clark at Coke talk about "Now, New, Next." At Cannes, for quite some time they've been talking about the 70-20-10 budget split, where 10% should be your experimental.

The problem is, people cheat with their 10% because their 10% isn't really experimental. It's stuff they heard somebody else did and they want to find a way to rationalize it within their organization.

So, for us it's being able to get people comfortable with that 10% being really experimental. That said, it still needs to come with a solid brief, good objectives and being able to say we're doing this for a reason and not just because it's a bright and shiny object.

It's almost easier to be a No. 3 agency or No. 3 brand in your category because you can always say, "They have a bigger budget, they have all this other stuff, so we're always going to be a few steps behind them." But you guys don't really have that to fall back on.

If you go back to our heritage, a lot of it is about trying things that other agencies have not necessarily done or succeeded in.

When we started out, we were in the search business, and we came into the ad industry in an era where nobody was buying text-based ads. They certainly weren't buying them in an auction. They were negotiating deals over three-martini lunches and they were buying beautiful experiences. And we said, "Well this is the way people are going to be discovering, so let's figure out a way to get ahead of that."

A few years later, the same thing with social media. We were one of the first agencies, if not the first, doing social media for clients through, originally, blogger outreach. Not only was that not a practice, but other agencies looked at us as if we had three heads. It was, "Why are you talking to bloggers?" But that was something we saw as being an influential part of the decision-making process.

So, for us it's about looking at where consumer behavior is going and not looking at other agencies and saying, "This is the one to be." It doesn't make for a lot of inspiration when you're just looking at somebody else. You've got to look at where things are going.