Anomaly Doubles Down on IP

NEW YORK During flush times, agencies often like to talk about branching out from client work to pursue their own interests. When the going gets tough, however, their focus returns to billable hours.

Independent Anomaly claims its approach will be different, mostly because it doesn’t consider itself a typical ad agency. Earlier this month, Anomaly rolled out its latest spin-off business, i/denti/tee, an e-commerce play that lets customers emblazon T-shirts with their favorite song lyrics.

I/denti/tee is one of a handful of projects Anomaly has under way that bears little resemblance to the work done at ad agencies. The firm collaborated with Target on Eos, a shaving cream, and developed mobile commerce application ShopText. In addition to i/denti/tee, Anomaly is collaborating with Le Bernardin chef Eric Ripert to position him as an Emeril-like brand juggernaut, with a Web site (www.aveceric.com), book (On the Line) and PBS cooking show (Harvest) to launch next year. Anomaly is also at work on a “cosmetics product” slated for release in March.

“We’re not waiting for a client to call up and say they’re cutting back on spending,” said Carl Johnson, co-founder of Anomaly. “This is entirely in our control.”

The idea of agencies owning their own intellectual property has long been attractive. In practice, though, it’s remained elusive. Few shops have been able to turn their creative firepower and business-building acumen into real moneymaking ventures.

Anomaly hopes to break that mold. The shop here was founded more than three years ago on the premise it could use the base of an agency — it has clients like Converse and Coke — to fuel a second pillar of self-generated business activity.

Unlike a client brief that can be turned around in a matter of weeks or months, taking an idea to reality on the business front can be a daunting prospect.

In the case of i/denti/tee’s, it took 18 months, and Anomaly has heavily relied on partners to make the project a reality.

Anomaly brought on board a music attorney to negotiate rights to the lyrics. It linked up Edun Live for the T-shirts, Apple to offer 10 songs from iTunes with each purchase and Hard Rock to promote and sell the $35 shirts at its locations.

“We don’t sit here and make up crazy ideas,” said Johnson. “We’re into collaborating with other creative people where each of the other parties brings something to the table.”

The project began as the brainchild of Dave Quirke, who Johnson describes as a “mad Irish fellow” brimming with creative ideas and loosely affiliated with Anomaly. The shop refined Quirke’s notion of lyrics on T-shirts to focus on self-expression. The concept evolved into focusing on lyrics that begin with “i.” The site is now offering 10 different lyric options, such as “I’m a Hustler” by Jay-Z, and asks users to submit and vote for their favorites.

The i/denti/tee voting structure takes a page from the success of Threadless, a T-shirt site that lets users vote on designs. The broader goal is to build a community model.

The choice of Edun Live reinforces that message through its socially conscious mission to benefit sub-Saharan Africa, while i/denti/tee makes clear it shares a portion of the proceeds with songwriters.

While Johnson sees Anomaly’s future inextricably tied to the success of such ventures, he doubts ad agencies will be able to develop similar lines of business. Within large holding companies, the pressure will always be to maximize revenue per employee by focusing on “utilization rate,” he believes.

While Johnson describes the various ventures as a stock portfolio, they have the more tangible benefit of helping Anomaly recruit talent and clients. This in turn has helped Anomaly change its compensation structure from billable time to a percentage of sales, according to agency partner Jason DeLand, who leads new business and marketing.

“It keeps us very fresh and commercially aware,” he said. “Clients see we have skin in the game and we have very different conversations than we otherwise would.”