Why Denuo Keeps Refreshing

NEW YORK When Publicis Groupe new-media consultancy Denuo set up shop in early 2007, it chose a Latin word meaning “afresh.”
Since then, it has lived up to its mantra, regularly shifting its focus, structure and operations. This, said CEO Rishad Tobaccowala, is keeping with Denuo’s charter to be nimble and flexible — and try new things based on what’s working and what’s not.
“One of the key things in our model is we truly believe this is something we’d continuously iterate,” he said. “We learn from working.”
While a majority of its work was initially in advising clients on how to deal with the changing digital media landscape, the 25-person company is moving more toward crafting real-world programs for clients. Its consulting work — or what Tobaccowala calls “framing” — will recede from half its work in its first year to a quarter in its third. Denuo has crafted programs for several clients, particularly gaming campaigns through Play, the Starcom gaming unit it absorbed.
Tobaccowala is seeing clients more interested in having Denuo bring ideas into the real world than supplying them with consulting decks or concepts that sometimes would never be executed. In this way, it is less of a think tank than a new source of ideas for a client’s existing agencies.
“Increasingly, our clients say I get this, now can you help me,” he said. “We’re more focused on the tangible today.”
Even as it gets more hands-on, Denuo has no interest in supplanting clients’ roster shops, Tobaccowala said, working only on a project basis. It does not have the scale or desire to take on all parts of an account, maintaining its “plug-and-play” notion.
“We design but do no manufacturing,” Tobaccowala said. “The production and management is done by other people.”
That has meant the creation of new specialists that Denuo calls “alchemists.” These are people like Saneel Radia, who has a mixture of a media agency background and spent the past year working as a creative at Leo Burnett. He is building a team of alchemists at Denuo, drawing talent that is not necessarily from the copywriting, art direction or media disciplines. The goal: help shepherd what Tobaccowala calls “mash-up,” ideas that bridge the old agency divides.
“The creative ideas most coveted are media-sensible ones,” said Radia, who believes “media agnostic” is simply another way of traditional creatives ignoring media. The goal is to move beyond what he calls “the containers model” of creativity divorced from context.
One example of a project is work with Burnett on client Hallmark to determine how to get the Facebook generation interested in sending out greeting cards for special occasions. While a traditional campaign might look to impart a message about why Hallmark cards should be part of their lives, Denuo is working on an idea that will make Hallmark part of their existing activities, Radia said.
Denuo itself is in a new position within Publicis. When it was created, Denuo was held up as the company’s major digital initiative. It was then eclipsed with the $1.3 billion acquisition of Digitas in late 2006. Last month, Publicis reorganized its digital holdings to create VivaKi, a cross-agency initiative encompassing the digital operations of Digitas, Starcom MediaVest, Zenith Optimedia and Denuo.
The creation of VivaKi has led to other changes. A key differentiator of Denuo when it launched was its ventures arm that advises digital media startups in exchange for equity stakes. It recently spun out the unit, led by Tim Hanlon, to be part of VivaKi Nerve Center, the unit set up to create Publicis-wide tools and industry partnerships. Tobaccowala said it made sense to keep the ventures practice closer to Publicis’ mergers and acquisitions team within VivaKi.
Another precept of Denuo was its ability to maintain key talent. It initially took a flexible approach, embedding personnel in Publicis agencies to work there and for Denuo. This brought executives like Scott Witt to Droga5, Radia to Leo Burnett, president Nick Pahade to Starcom Mediavest and P.J. MacGregor to Burnett. In the end, the arrangement didn’t work, Tobaccowala said, resulting in some staffers remaining at the “embed” shops, such as Witt and MacGregor, and Radia going to Denuo full time. Pahade left Publicis in January to join GSI Commerce.
“It’s difficult to be an organization that has talent in it and contracts talent to other organizations,” said Tobaccowala. “We determined it makes best sense to decide the talent should be in the sister company or inside Denuo.”
Denuo has also honed its practice areas. The explosion of social media has risen in importance for Denuo. It has created a tool called Socialight for brands to gauge online chatter. Denuo is also pressing into content by bringing in Todd Krieger from Yahoo!. Tobaccowala sees opportunities for Denuo to help both producers and advertisers figure out new models for funding content creation.
“This is not like a think tank that issues position papers,” he said.