This San Francisco Agency Wants to Fix Everything That’s Broken About Client Contracts

Partners in Crime builds on the death of the AOR

Headshot of Patrick Coffee

Many clients don't want agencies of record anymore or loosely affiliated networks of freelancers to satisfy their marketing needs. Stephen Goldblatt is proposing a solution that diverges from both models.

In his more than 20-year career in advertising, Goldblatt has worked at companies ranging from traditional creative agencies like DDB to more ambiguous entities like West, the consultancy run by former Apple marketing chief Allison Johnson.

Goldblatt, who was named among Adweek's Top Creative Minds in Digital in 2011 while serving as executive creative director at EVB, based his newest venture, Partners in Crime, on his varied experiences in the agency world.

"There's a reason our logo is a handshake," Goldblatt told Adweek. "Marketing has lost sight of the handshake—the agreement—with audiences as well as creative partners." In order to refocus on those relationships in an era that demands ever more of agencies, Goldblatt has made his new unit's business model flexible in every way, from payment methods to staffing efforts to the sorts of clients it chooses (currently ranging from the Oakland Raiders to startups of various sizes).

This month, Goldblatt is ready to go public with his vision. Along with the logo, a San Francisco office and a website, the official launch of Partners in Crime coincides with a campaign created for inaugural client Intel Security's True Key. It stars singer, songwriter and viral video star Rob Cantor, who's probably best known for his live musical tribute to Shia LaBeouf.

True Key uses facial recognition and fingerprint technology in place of the much-derided personal password, so it's only fitting that Cantor's anthem doubles as a tribute to all things viral. The campaign also encourages viewers to submit their own potential mega hits using the #1in7Billion hashtag.

Goldblatt believes his agency's clients are just as unique. "Each client relationship is different, and this calls for a bespoke model," he said. "We have a storefront on Union Street where we host brand experiences, and in the back, we have a staff of what I call entrepreneurs coming from very different disciplines—editors, directors, writers, UX designers, photographers and strategists."

By "bespoke," Goldblatt means each client's contract will be different. In some cases, he's arranged for clients to compensate Partners in Crime with a combination of cash and equity. He sees the organization developing three sorts of relationships: brand partnerships, entrepreneurial ventures that offer scale to aspiring creatives and filmmakers, and collaborations in which clients use the agency's office space to test products or execute event ideas.

Stephen Goldblatt Partners in Crime

"We're looking through the filter of experiences," Goldblatt said. "Our mission is to build these experiences for brands and then help show them to the world." He added that the agency has done nothing to promote itself so far and that all existing clients and employees have come his way via word of mouth.

Just as Partners in Crime will treat each client's contract differently, it will also set up rotating teams of staffers to work on each project. "We create the team around the brand partners we are working with," Goldblatt said, adding, "The entrepreneurs in our industry are thriving. They're not waiting around for a brief to allow them to be creative—they are doing their own things like starting companies and building applications. They bring projects in, and we all work on them together."

The big question: How will the services offered by Partners in Crime differ from those of other agencies where Goldblatt has worked like Goodby Silverstein & Partners or MullenLowe?

"We are starting from scratch each time," said Goldblatt. "We offer a custom creative and financial model for each client pushed through our own creative lens. There are no rules. Clients can really be part of the creative process, and we can do everything from making recruitment videos and taking headshots for executives to determining where art should go in a company's office. To me that is the hook."

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.