Regional Agency of the Year: Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners

It’s late on a Friday afternoon at the end of December, and Richard Kirshenbaum and Jon Bond have gathered their staff in the lobby of their SoHo headquarters to present an unlikely trophy—a dry, crusty bagel that’s been spray-painted gold and tenuously mounted on a black base.

The “Golden Bagel” is given out annually to the team that creates Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners’ most innovative and integrated work. This year’s winner is a group from KB+P’s Dotglu interactive and direct unit that came up with a mock-reality “Fabulous Pet Makeover” campaign for Hartz. A TV spot shot in the now-familiar guerrilla-makeover style offered free pet-product samples and generated 14,000 names for Hartz’s database in a month. “Hartz was a sleepy brand that didn’t have a high profile, that had lost its way, that could’ve been a bore and a snore,” Kirshenbaum, 43, tells staffers, who are scattered on white beanbags.

The Golden Bagel contest was crowded this year, the principals tell the staff. Other contenders included PR and promotions unit Lime, which launched the Aquos Gallery in SoHo to showcase Sharp’s high-definition TVs, and media unit Media Kitchen, which slapped promo stickers on dollar bills for the USA Network series Traffic.

The success of its various units contributed to an impressive year for the New York-based agency, which after a history of ups and downs has become a destination for major marketers. Because of its strong new-business record—it won nine of the 15 accounts it pitched—and its always interesting and innovative creative product and approach to marketing, KB+P is Adweek’s Regional Agency of the Year for 2004.

The year was the culmination of a sometimes fitful period of growing up for the shop. “They’ve come a long way in the last five years from being an edgy, very New York-y creative firm,” says Russel Wohlwerth, principal of Select Resources International in Santa Monica, Calif., which oversaw the $25 million Mohegan Sun review, won by KB+P. “People travel from other places to work with these guys.”

The 17-year-old agency has often seemed on the verge of breaking out. It gained early renown with unique media tactics for clients like Kenneth Cole and Snapple. (It once slapped “Now available in Snapple” stickers on 30 million mangoes.) It was brought to earth by the loss of Snapple in 1996 and the dot-com crash in 2000. Now, the 240-person shop has developed into what Bond, 47, calls a working “combination of autonomy and integration” through its four operating units, which in 2004 successfully collaborated on pitches while also winning business on their own (see the chart).

For example, Media Kitchen, a KB+P unit since 2001, collaborates with “dozens” of third-party creative agencies, says its CEO, Paul Woolmington. In 2004 it worked with Mother and MDC Partners sibling Mono, among others. “We set out to be a fully fledged media company,” Woolmington says. “Working with KB+P has furthered the reputation that we’re better at collaboration” than shops with a more commoditized media offering.

The agency also left the ranks of the independents in 2004, selling a 60 percent share last January to Toronto’s MDC in a cash-and-stock deal estimated by sources to be worth $50-75 million. In becoming part of MDC’s effort to form a holding company made up of independently run, creatively driven small and midsize shops, KB+P gathered capital to further expand its integrated offerings and keep up with the changing marketplace.

“There aren’t very many really good independent agencies of any size left,” says Chuck Porter, MDC’s chief strategist. “They were always, from day one, on our list.”

The agency says it benefited last year from a restructured new-business approach following a flat year for revenue in 2003. Instead of throwing 10-20 people at a pitch, the shop uses smaller teams. Team leaders consult colleagues in other units, but those colleagues do not have veto power over what goes into a presentation. “You have a faster, smoother, more focused pitch,” says New York president Aaron Reitkopf. “The people involved had a lot more ownership, a lot more credibility and a lot more fun.”

KB+P began a series of strategic shifts in 2000, when the two name partners decided they had to reshape the agency culture. “The culture used to be, ‘Let me show you how smart I am,’ ” Bond says. “And I include Richard and I in that.” They began to focus on finding managers who were “smart and nice … and not toxic,” Kirshenbaum says. “We went from a ‘me’ culture to a ‘we’ culture.”

At the same time, the agency began to break out disciplinary units to better brand its offerings. Among its 11 managing partners (average age: 40; total agency experience: more than 180 years) are Claudia Strauss, whose PR and promotions department was spun off as Lime in 2001; Steve Thibodeau, who joined in 2001 to help lead Dotglu; and Woolmington.

Rob Feakins in December became sole executive creative director following the departure of co-ecd Logan Wilmont. Four creative directors report to Feakins, who joined four years ago. Reel highlights include new campaigns for Liberty Mutual, which humorously shows the ways in which large calamities can have small origins, and Edward Jones, which suggests that having an amateur conduct one’s financial affairs is akin to do-it-yourself surgery. Dallas Kersey, general partner of marketing at Edward Jones, says Feakins’ strength is his conviction. “Some would say he’s stubborn,” Kersey says. “I would say he’s doing his job perfectly, because every time somebody says ‘Change this,’ he just doesn’t bend.”

KB+P also made moves in 2004 to shore up its San Francisco office. Named partners and running the office are president Matt Hofherr, ecd Noel Cottrell and general manager Porter Gale. “We’re still trying to bring a replica of this office out there,” Bond says. KB+P opened S.F. outposts of Dotglu and Lime last year, and plans a Media Kitchen mirror this year.

Over breakfast one morning at Balthazar, Kirshenbaum and Bond note that their 18-year partnership has lasted longer than many marriages. It’s an apt comparison, as the stylish Kirshenbaum and the more intense Bond banter like any longtime couple—Kirshenbaum even casually calls Bond “honey” at one point, and Bond doesn’t flinch. “When we started the agency, we were young and brash,” says Kirshenbaum. “Now we have a managing partner group who are old enough to have the experience to make any client comfortable, but still be mainstream cool.”

Kirshenbaum and Bond can initially come off as too cool, too New York for heartland clients. “To have these guys with beanbags come in from New York, normally it would make one nervous,” Kersey says. “But they went to school on our business.”

George Galinsky, vp of advertising and PR for Mohegan Sun, says the agency has proven adept at churning out retail ads while also delivering a new brand campaign that launches today—a six-spot TV and print campaign, tagged “A world at play,” that stresses the variety of entertainment options at the complex.

The shop’s major shortcoming last year was a failure to win a coveted car account. It was cut as a semifinalist for Subaru, then lost out in the final round for Kia. “I think it’s time. I think we can handle it,” Bond says. “You have to have your house in order to do a car account. You have to have a lot of key people working on it. You have to be at a certain level of maturity.”

The MDC purchase has fueled greater ambitions. Bond sees seven or more units total, possibly including urban marketing, content production or Hispanic marketing. “Each new unit is always representing the newest, most cutting-edge way to go to market,” he says.

Reitkopf recalls one staffer at a meeting saying, “I’ve been here about a year and a half, and you guys have announced changes like three times. When are the changes going to end?” Reitkopf says he replied: “Never.”

“The worst thing we could do is be complacent,” he says.