Creative Focus: Remember My Name

Can you define an agency by what it calls itself?
By Tim Nudd
There’s Bolt and Toolbox, Camelot and Excalibur, White Tiger and Red Ball Tiger. There’s Bliss, Oxygen and Sky. There’s Great Ads, Ads That Work! and Ads to Go. There’s 360, W3, T3 and H2D. There’s Off-the-Wall and New and Improved. There’s even Good, Nice and Timely.
Like it or not, agency names are getting more outrageous.
Instead of Pond, Walter & Madden, it’s Blazing Paradigm. Forget Sittig & Adams; it’s the Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co.
Craving attention, and probably cool business cards, too, more agency founders are leaving their names off the door in favor of something sassy–but their decision is not
mere caprice.
“Marketing begins with the name,” argues Mike Bevil, who opened Bam! in Austin, Texas, in 1996. “We’re a small, creative-driven shop. The name should reflect what the product is.”
In a dot.com hot spot like Austin, the word Bam! speaks volumes. Signaling that the shop is young, hip and irreverent, it attracts numerous like-minded clients, including videogaming company Origin Systems and a bevy of dot.com startups, such as Mall.com.
“Bam! is very reflective of our company’s mission,” Bevil adds. “It’s the way we approach assignments and the kind of people who work here.”
“What I liked about the name was it stood for the sound of something being nailed. That’s quite clever,” says Alex Carloss, vice president of marketing and planning at Origin Systems in Austin.
As a branding tool, an agency’s name is crucial–a fact not lost on John Yost and his partners, who in 1996 named their San Francisco shop Black Rocket after an early 19th-century English
locomotive.
“It felt powerful and strong,” Yost says, but not so outrageous that it would turn off more conservative clients. “We have Yahoo! [its first client], but we also have Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. The name is not so narrow, so niche or so young.”
Choosing the right name isn’t a risk-free proposition. As the Ground Zero partners discovered, clients respond to to the name–but not always in the way the agency intends.
“We wanted to communicate that we start from a base level without any preconceived notions,” says Court Crandall, creative partner at the Marina del Rey, Calif., shop. “But at first, people automatically wanted to put us in the Gen X category. We worked on a lot of mountain bikes, wave runners and dance shoes.”
Ironically, to land bigger accounts, the shop practically had to overcome its name. “When people met with us, I think their experience was somewhat different from what they expected,” Crandall says. After landing major clients like Atlantis Resorts and ESPN, the Ground Zero moniker became less of an issue. “In some ways,” Crandall admits, “you’re always defined by your accounts.”
Of course, when companies do react negatively to a name, it’s not always a bad thing. Many executives say their agency’s name helps keep the “wrong clients” at bay–those with whom the agency might clash philosophically.
A company that wants run-of-the-mill retail ads, for instance, would theoretically not approach an agency with a wacky name, since it might anticipate problems deciding on a creative direction.
Scream Advertising in Denver is the exception to the rule.
“We get weird prospects calling just off the name,” says agency president Lora Ledermann. Her agency, which sounds like a Gen X shop, isn’t one. Rather than servicing hip, colorful accounts, Scream’s expertise is primarily in business-to-business.
“If you’re looking for something scary and Halloweenish, we’re not the place.”
Ledermann says she really loves the agency name Scream, but much like Ground Zero’s partners, she had to nail down the agency’s mission and philosophy to overcome what it suggested.
“I go by reputation and referral first. A name is only valuable if it accentuates what the agency does,” notes Origin System’s Carloss. “In Bam!’s case, it meant something. That impressed me. And they followed through on their promise.”
But for most oddly named shops, especially small ones, the extra attention and visibility is key.
“We thought we might eventually change it,” says Jim Sykora, principal of Coffee/Black Advertising, an $8 million boutique in Dallas. “But people have asked us to be in reviews because they saw our name in the phone book and thought it was fun.”
Branding aside, many say a special name can benefit an agency internally, too.
“We made a conscious decision not to use our own names,” says Yost. “We wanted to build a brand that more, not fewer, people could be a part of.”
“If you have four names on the door, that tells me your company is about four people,” agrees Bevil. “I never understood why agencies that were supposed to be creative had names that weren’t memorable and sounded like lawyers.”
“Pond, Walter & Madden would have sounded like a British chocolate company,” muses Sam Pond of San Francisco agency Blazing Paradigm, founded in 1996. The name he and his partners chose instead, infused with color and offering a working philosophy, galvanized the agency’s staffers.
“They started calling themselves Blazing Apostles, and that lives on,” Pond says.
Branding and morale are all well and good, but maybe shops are just trying to catch up with their clients.
With companies like CompGeeks and Perfumania.com holding IPOs, isn’t it time agencies–supposedly the more creative side–took the name game to the next level?
“If the names get too funky, they stop communicating,” says Donna Donovan, an early trendsetter who launched Really Good Copy Co., Glastonbury, Conn., in 1986.
“Creative directors fall in love with them,” she says, “but sometimes, they just don’t sell the product.”
Bevil’s advice: choose wisely. Agencies looking to take the plunge should be careful, he warns.
“You don’t want it to be like some stupid tattoo you outgrow five years later.”
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Jackhammer, Birmingham, Ala.
–Chris Goldschmidt, president
jackhammer (n.), a pneumatically operated, percussive rock-drilling tool usually
held in the hands.
Derivation: Comes from a Rene Magritte quote: “Great art is like a jackhammer. It takes a simple idea and drives it in so it can’t be ignored.”
WHAT THE NAME BRINGS: “I always wanted a more conceptual name, not one that sounded like we’re a bunch of accountants. My theory is, if people are turned off by it, they’ll probably be at odds philosophically with everything else we do.”
playing with the theme: “I spent five years trying to get hold of a jackhammer.
I finally found one and spent good money to mount it on the wall. A construction worker comes in one day and asks me why I have a rock drill up on the wall.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Jackhammer’s clients include BellSouth and UAB Health Systems. “Birmingham is a pretty conservative market, but we do tend to work with fairly progressive-minded clients. If you hire an agency called Jackhammer, you’re clearly not looking for a run-of-the-mill shop. It was a branding strategy, and it does get us in a lot of doors.”
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Scream, Denver
–Lora Ledermann, president
scream (n.), 1: a loud, sharp, penetrating cry or noise; 2: one that is very funny.
Derivation: Stands for advertising and PR that’s heard. “I wanted to keep it to one syllable and have it communicate invasive.”
RUNNERS-UP: Close but no cigar: Wit, Imagine, Me.
WHAT THE NAME BRINGS: “It’s not a scary scream. When people get to know us, that makes sense. We do a lot of business-to-business work, and we always give it a voice, but it’s not in-your-face.”
playing with the theme: “The logo was done by an artist friend of mine several years before. Years later, after I chose the name, I remembered the piece. It’s part of the reason the name stuck. It has this amazing, one-of-a-kind visual.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Agency mainly screams for US West. “I don’t want to do what everyone else in town is doing. We have that philosophy for our clients. Why not try it out on ourselves as well?”
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coffee, Dallas
–Jim Sykora, principal
coffee (n.), a beverage made by percolation, infusion or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of a coffee plant. black (n.), the achromatic color of least lightness characteristically perceived to belong to objects that neither reflect nor transmit light.
Derivation: “The year we started was the year we didn’t sleep, and coffee was a big part of that. We also thought it was funny because it sounded like two people’s names.”
WHAT THE NAME BRINGS: “I think it helps qualify the kind of clients we’re looking for.
It’s worked out really wonderfully as a branding tool.”
playing with the theme: “The caffeine molecule is on our business cards, and we have a wall of coffee cans at the agency.” Shop also operates a unit called Buzz Public Relations. THE BOTTOM LINE: Shop handles Uniden America Corp., Word Publishing and smaller, local clients. “If a client called us in for a naming project and we said, ‘Give us the names of your principals and we’ll stick them together,’ we wouldn’t be doing our job. We held our own name to that same standard.”
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bam!, Austin, Texas
–Mike Bevil, principal/creative director
bam (n.), a dull, resounding noise (as of a hard blow or impact)–often used interjectionally.
Derivation: “The sound of something being nailed.” The exclamation point was added for emphasis and to stress it’s not an acronym.
WHAT THE NAME BRINGS: “It’s really helped us from a new-business standpoint. It’s pretty obvious that people remember the name. It pushes you creatively, and it’s also a first filter for new business, before we even talk to the client. It also sends a message that anyone can rise up through the ranks within the shop.”
name envy: “Taxi in Toronto stands for something cool. They believe you can’t do anything good creatively with more than five people. And you can’t get more than five into a taxi.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Clients are mainly dot.com startups. “Many of our clients have very similar business models as we do. You have to get creative to compete with the noise, just to get above the fray and get hype behind you.”
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blazing paradigm, San Francisco
–Sam Pond, partner
blazing (adj.), outstanding power, speed, heat or intensity. paradigm (n.), example,
pattern, esp. an outstandingly clear or typical example or archetype.
Derivation: “Blazing” stands for blazing trails into the future; “Paradigm” stands for looking back to the proven methods of the past.
RUNNERS-UP: More than 500 other names were considered, including Q, Opposable Thumbs and 17 Reasons.
WHAT THE NAME BRINGS: “Clearly, if you want a new solution, one that’s imaginative, you’re more likely to go to a place with an interesting name, not one that sounds like a law firm.”
THE BOTTOM LINE: Agency’s trailblazing clients include The North Face (for which the shop has created a series of documentary specials on NBC), Food.com and Embark.com. “We wanted a name that had some kind of meaning, not just something that sounded cool or good. Of course, words are just words. They have no meaning until you fill them with it.