Inside the creative petri dish of an agency that would rather not be called an agency.
No doubt you remember the Fiat 500 Superbowl ad showing a sexy Italian model playing with foam from the latte held by a short, nerdy fellow standing on a street corner.
Digital agency SapientNitro got the enviable job of extending that TV ad by the Richards Group into a sultry web series. Designed to drive people to the Fiat 500 Abarth site, the month-old video series features the same woman flirting with a guy who’s taller and more confident than the TV guy - reflecting how the digital audience sees itself. That shift sums up the approach of Gaston Legorburu, SapientNitro's worldwide chief creative officer. He treats digital work as the hip, creative player in any campaign.
Sapient Group hit $1 billion in revenue last year, the first time in its history, and SapientNitro brought in a whopping two-thirds of that. As a result, Legorburu and his team barely give Sapient's IT roots a passing nod as they concentrate on upping the shop's creative cred. Lately they are busy snagging senior talent from traditional networks such as Ogilvy, DDB and BBDO, to work for blue-chip clients including Minute Made and Chrysler brands Fiat, Dodge and Jeep.
Legorburu offers ClickZ a frank insider’s view of the creative ambitions of one of the world's largest digital ad agencies.
ClickZ: Most independent digital shops are small and they brag about being nimble. Is it hard to be a large agency that is not part of a holding company?
Gaston Legorburu: It used to be you had to be part of a holding company in order to be global. But the Internet knows no boundaries and digital marketing lends itself to being global, so we don';t need the scale and reach of a global holding company.
When it comes to adding talent in storytelling and films, it really helps to be independent because we can welcome these hires with open arms. In holding companies, there are a lot of corner offices at stake. Holding companies struggle with combining digital and (traditional) creative. They try to do these shotgun weddings pairing two different agency brands.
We, on the other hand, are a Petri dish in which thinking from different perspectives can be connected. We can do mashups, like exploring the story behind an e-commerce assignment.
CZ: Finding talent seems to be a challenge for everyone. Your tricks?
Legorburu: Frankly, we are finding amazing creative talent at [agencies] that were once great. We are investing a lot in proving that we are strong in storytelling. It helps when people see emotional work like the Fiat 500 Abarth web series in which a beautiful flirtatious woman embodies the car and each episode builds anticipation for the next. For us, it's not about the new shiny widget.
CZ: Could you name a few key hires from non-digital agencies?
Legorburu: Our European chief creative officer Malcolm Poynton is a former ECD at Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi in the U.K. Our creative director Barry Fiske is a former Group CD at DDB Los Angeles and our creative director Bill Paulsis is the former ECD at BBDO Atlanta.
CZ: Lately you've picked up more clients in the sports world, most recently NBA star LeBron James. Why focus on sports?
Legorburu: Sports companies make a lot of money on TV deals but they don't know how to monetize the tons of digital content they own. They need to figure out how to get people to engage with their sites before and after events, not only during the event. With that kind of interaction they could attract different sponsors and fans.
They are learning that the event is a splash that causes ripples in social media. A brand might want to sponsor both the splash and the ripples. What's a tweet by LeBron really worth?
We are also finding that good social content isn’t just coming from sports celebrities, but also from hundreds of passionate fans interacting with their followings. An idea could be for a brand to offer subscriptions with a sale. So if you buy a certain product, you will get more access to sports content that you care about.
It is absolutely not about finding more places to put banner ads.
CZ: Since you oversee creative worldwide, do you see work overseas that could teach us something here in the U.S.?
Legorburu: I could get shot for saying this, but the most innovative work consistently comes from overseas. It’s driven by the fact that the markets are smaller and clients have less money. Clients in the U.S. have enough money so that they can hire a TV agency to do only TV and a social agency to do only social. They can afford to have multiple shops.
But elsewhere the budgets are so small that the same people have to do search, mobile, display, whatever. Things have to connect, so you have a story-scape instead of a story line.
CZ: Sounds good in theory. Do you have an example?
Legorburu: Sure do. For our U.K. client Ladbrokes, which is a betting and gaming company, we broke some groundbreaking TV spots and online ads in summer 2011. In the TV work that ran during live matches, the ads were made on the fly to include the real-time odds. The ads then offered viewers a number to call to make a bet at that moment. The ad campaign was designed to promote Ladbrokes' Bet In Play app, which delivers live betting results against live odds. The ROI of the ad campaign was through the roof.
CZ: You seem to see your role as a commerce services advisor as much as an integrated marketing agency. What should we call your company?
Legorburu: Good question. We don’t like being called an "agency;" we don't like being called a "consultant." We don't like anything (laughing). You can say we [are a company of people] that don’t like to conform.
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
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