A Conversation with Euro RSCG SF’s Alan Burgis

Sixteen months ago, Alan Burgis was anointed Euro RSCG San Francisco’s chief executive to bring some digital chops to the ad agency’s West Coast office. The pragmatic executive, known for being personable yet direct with colleagues and clients alike, is working to build out the agency’s West Coast office.

Among the steps already taken:

  • Acquire the 35-person digital shop Kadium

  • Establish the Hot House, an incubator for Web 2.0, digital advertising, and new media start-ups, located on the second floor of the agency’s San Francisco headquarters, to nurture talent and exchange ideas

During a trip to SF last month, I met with the executives of three agencies, including Burgis, for a reality check on the state of the SF digital marketing scene today. (More on the others — AKQA CEO Tom Bedecarre and Pereira & O’Dell’s P.J. Pereira and Andrew O’Dell — in coming weeks.)

Burgis’s appointment to head up RSCG’s San Francisco office in 2007 was a homecoming of sorts. He had worked at Euro RSCG’s base of operations in Sydney, Australia, from 1994 to 1998. In between, he worked at Agency.com San Francisco, as well as other agencies, living through the dot-com boom and bust.

Burgis, 52, is carrying out Euro RSCG global CEO David Jones’s vision to develop an agency for the future. “Being the size and where we are — the West Coast — it’s an experiment. And it’s expected to work and be profitable,” Burgis said.

One clear sign of that goal is RSCG’s acquisition of Kadium, headed up by CEO Kevin Newby and chief creative officers Derick Daily and Mike Fung. Its clients include Adobe, 2K Sports, and the U.S. Air Force.

“We [RSCG SF] had a good traditional and direct marketing skill set, but we were not as robust when it came to digital,” Burgis explained. “That’s the main reason for the Kadium acquisition.”

Burgis’s success in the interactive space will hinge on how well Burgis manages the Kadium team, said one San Francisco digital pro. “Can Europe RSCG, through Kadium, step it up to being an interactive creative shop? That’s the big question. Acquiring a company can be a Band-Aid on bigger problems an agency might have.”

Burgis concurred that the SF agency had a problem: it wasn’t digital at its core. He opted to acquire a digital shop rather than try to build one in house, because the latter approach is fraught with challenges. It’s tough to attract talent when you don’t have clients requiring their skills, and it’s tough to convince clients to work with a team that doesn’t have a track record working as a team.

So how’s the integration going?

The Kadium team moved into RSCG’s offices two weeks after the deal closed. The Kadium acquisition nearly doubles the size of RSCG SF, which now employs about 70.

“Culturally, we’re in the same place,” Burgis said. “The great thing is they are digital experts. But they never felt they were given an equal seat at the marketing table because a lot of CMOs still hire a traditional agency to own the brand or to own the strategy, and delegate execution for digital. Most people deny that happens. It does.”

Just the day before our meeting, Burgis and his team pitched a potential client. It was the first time out of the gate for the new team, and Burgis was jazzed. “It felt fantastic,” he said. They were able to discuss the agency’s breadth of services, which include media buying, planning, digital advertising, site development, direct marketing, brand consulting, and strategy — something they couldn’t do before.

In another initiative, RSCG established and is the primary sponsor for the incubator supporting Web 2.0 digital and new media start-ups including two ad networks. For $600 per cubical, the start-ups — comprising two to five people each — secure a low-priced rent, work in a community of like-minded entrepreneurs, and get access to RSCG executives, according to David Cannington, who oversees the Hot House. In exchange, RSCG executives are exposed to the latest digital developments.

“It’s an interesting experiment in how well we integrate something that’s not part of our business…integrate ways we think about new business,” Burgis said.

RSCG, for instance, hosted a panel discussion, Bootstrapping as a Start-Up, that included Stephen Weir, chief executive of MadeIt.com, an online ticketing site based in the Hot House incubator. Weir said his participation at that event, along with traditional marketing tips provided by Burgis, have brought media exposure to his company.

So, what’s Burgis like to work for? I posed that question to Ali Grayeli, a former Agency.com colleague who’s now group creative director at Organic. While Grayeli has seen some ad execs try to “finesse their way around an issue” with a client, he found Burgis to be straightforward and direct.

Burgis excelled at communicating with agency staff as well. “He managed to lead from the top down,” Grayeli recalled. Yet, Burgis would look for input from the bottom up. “He was always chatting with people, of any level, in the hallway.”

I asked Burgis if he thinks interactive advertising will be hurt by a recession — and got a sample of his frank style.

“People who say that digital won’t be affected by a recession are idiots,” he replied. “Having said that, it’s not going to suffer anything like newspapers, radio, probably TV. To think it’s completely recession proof is crazy.”

While the economic downturn isn’t top of mind in San Francisco, it can’t be ignored. “Living here day-to-day, we never talk about the recession. Most of my clients aren’t talking about a recession,” he said. Yet with the people losing their homes in the United States and food shortages elsewhere in the world, he said, “I’m hard pressed to say things are not tough.”

Meet Anna Maria at ClickZ Specifics: Online Video Advertising on July 22, at Millennium Broadway in New York City.

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