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Five Digital Shops in the Heartland

  |  July 11, 2011   |  Comments

Interactive agencies ply their crafts between the coasts.

heartlandNot every aspiring agency founder in land-locked states packs up a U-Haul and moves to The Big Apple, SF, or LA. Some stay put, raise funds and start their own shops.

While that was certainly true pre-Internet, the digital age seems to have opened up opportunities for heartland agencies to gain the attention of big-time clients with quality creative and technology solutions. Sometimes you wouldn't know it, but there's a digital advertising world out there that doesn't involve names like Razorfish, AKQA, Deep Focus, SapientNitro, or 360i.

To compete with those coastal entities, ad men and women between Appalachia and the Rockies tend to shoot their campaign pitches with proverbial guns locked and loaded. And every once in a while, explains Charles Hull, managing director at Archrival in Lincoln, NE, client relations can literally mean bringing out the bullets.

"A few weeks ago, we had a big project meeting with client reps coming in from Europe and Los Angeles for a three-day strategy session," Hull told ClickZ News. "To have some fun, we took them out in the country to fire semi-automatic assault rifles at a huge assortment of fruit. It was the highlight of their trip, and something they still talk about. [It's] tough to do that in Los Angeles or New York City."

Archrival is a Facebook preferred developer and social media/youth marketing shop that was purchased by Dachis Group last November. (The 14-year-old company's official name is now Archrival Dachis Group.) During the past year, Archrival's 20-odd staffers have run campaigns for Red Bull, Colt 45, Harper Collins, Foursquare, and other brands.

"In the early days," Hull said, "we thought we needed to open up a Los Angeles or New York office for business development and image purposes. But as we got bigger and our clients got bigger, the less we felt that need. Today, we actually use our [low-key] Nebraska location to our advantage - many of our clients who are from Los Angeles and large urban markets enjoy getting out of the grind and coming to visit us for days at a time."

Dave Knox is chief marketing officer at Rockfish Interactive, which is located in the Northwest Arkansas town of Rogers, nestled in the Ozarks. Knox said there are numerous advantages to being located more than 1,000 miles from either the East or West Coast.

"For starters, when you look at the top national advertisers, an overwhelming number of them are located in the Midwest," he said. "This proximity becomes increasingly important given the speed of digital marketing. Second, there is access to incredible talent in the heartland, especially people with deep backgrounds in brand building and retail marketing. And this talent doesn't have to make sacrifices between their personal and professional lives given the more affordable cost of living. Finally, these agencies have the ability to see first-hand the digital behavior of consumers, avoiding the echo chamber sometimes created by early adopters on the coasts."

rockfish-s-in-house-coffee-shopTo Knox's first point, Rockfish's brand clients include the Arkansas-based Sam's Club, Walmart, White Cloud, and Tyson Foods, as well as other non-coastal names like The Nutro Company (Tennessee), UnitedHealth Group (Minnesota), and P.F. Chang's (Arizona). It also counts Los Angeles-based EA Sports as a customer, as well as Cisco in San Jose, CA. Since the beginning of 2009, Rockfish has opened offices in Dallas, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Little Rock, AR, while building a staff of 150-plus. Its Rogers employees enjoy the perk of having a Silver Joe's coffee shop on campus (pictured above).

"There are pros and cons no matter where you are located," Knox said. "There are no significant disadvantages [to being in the heartland], especially given the geographic location of so many large brands and companies."

Rockfish and Archrival are among numerous digital shops likely deserving a little ink while being situated between the coasts. For good measure, based on industry sources, here are three more doing quality work for brand-name clients.

VML, Kansas City, MO: This is one of the larger and more well-known centrally located shops, boasting dozens of name-brand clients like Microsoft, ESPN, Kellogg's, Southwest Airlines, and Colgate. But as one competitor admitted to ClickZ, the agency "doesn't get as much credit as they should." A recent example of VML's creativity: For Colgate, its London division orchestrated an effort that entailed uploaded photos by Facebook "likers" being randomly displayed on digital billboards across London, Birmingham, and Liverpool.

Tocquigny, Austin: Long before its Texas state capital hometown became a technology hub, this agency was helping Dell achieve juggernaut status in the computer hardware space. And it certainly doesn't appear to have fallen behind the times, also calling Jeep, Caterpillar, IDG, The Washington Times, and Teradata clients. For a Teradata effort, Tocquigny was nominated this year for a South by Southwest Interactive award in the "Kiosk/Installation" category. It featured a videoed wall utilizing 52 LED monitors and three large LCD panels, which pulled information from YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, stock market indices, and 20 other crowdsourcing points of interest.

Electric Pulp, Sioux Falls, SD: This Web design, iPhone/iPad marketing, and e-commerce agency has more in common with Archrival than the other examples, employing a skeleton crew of 10 staffers that work on an eclectic mix of brands. They include Ford, Justin Bieber, Comedy Central (book sites for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), New York's Apollo Theatre, and Incase, an iPhone accessories manufacturer.

Stefan Hartwig, a partner at Electric Pulp, said brands that want to keep innovative campaigns hush-hush appreciate the fact that his company is located "from a lot of people's perspective, in the middle of nowhere." And the Sioux Falls native described the satisfaction of being able to build an advertising firm that attracts national clients in the small city he knows intimately.

"It's more than we ever expected we could do from here," Hartwig said. "It's cool knowing you don't have to take that huge jump, that you don't need that address. Your track record of being able to deliver is more important than being from San Francisco or New York."

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Christopher Heine

Christopher Heine was a senior writer for ClickZ through June 2012. He covered social media, sports/entertainment marketing, retail, and more. Heine's work has also appeared via Mashable, Brandweek, DM News, MarketingSherpa, and other tech- and ad-centric publications. USA Today, Bloomberg Radio, and The Los Angeles Times have cited him as an expert journalist.

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