Courtney Buechert, CEO of Eleven, thinks a smart digital agency has to expand its services boldly and yet be humble enough to be a client of another specialist that has a bigger point of view. It’s like a brilliant surgeon willing to jump into bed and be another doctor’s patient. Not bloody easy, but possibly life-saving.
Eleven, an indie San Francisco agency that blends interactive marketing with branding, strategy and advertising, is in the second year of a digital transformation. Key clients include Apple and airline Virgin America. The shop recently crafted a digital Virgin America ad for Virgin’s iPad magazine Project, and launched a social website (SwitchToVirginAmerica.com) that helps customers write funny ‘Dear John” letters to their former airline. In September the shop hired famed strategic consultancy IDEO to guide its efforts to “reboot” itself beyond industry conventions.
Eleven is also putting its money where its mouth is: It took over the fifth floor of its building, gutted it and constructed a new video production business, Film@11. Buechert tells ClickZ about that gamble on video and how the 120-person shop is trying to reorient itself to for a more innovative – and healthy – future.
ClickZ: What’s Eleven’s take on digital’s role in building strong, profitable brands?
Courtney Buechert: The agency was founded 12 years ago on synchronicity – the understanding that access to consumers should not be not siloed, everything matters equally. Now businesses are demanding that integrated approach. Digital offers a massive capability in accessing people, but it’s not enough. Access and utility via digital are fine, but we think the digital work has to be accountable to the narrative of the brand – the story a company tells about itself.
CZ: Agencies of all stripes find they have to adapt, sometimes drastically, as consumers change their digital habits. How about yours?
CB: Video is fast becoming the vocabulary of consumers, replacing text, so we decided to build Film@11, made up of three state-of-the-art post production studios. It is a large investment, but like I tell the skeptics, “If you want to produce sharpshooters you have to give them rifles.” Now we can film content on the fly and we can do all the animation for our client NetApp right here. When we want to explore ideas for clients, instead of using scripts and storyboards, we send creative teams out to follow people around and shoot what they find. So instead of spending more than $100,000 and a lot of time exploring an idea, we can check out the video that we shot and tell quickly if the idea works.
CZ: How have you reached outside the marketing agency world for help in your evolution?
CB: Perhaps our most unusual decision was to hire IDEO [the international design consultancy] last month to help us reboot. As their client, we are paying them to get beyond our frame of reference as ad agency people. We are learning to have a more fluid, agile creative process. We figure that if creativity means freedom of ideas and expression, then agility is a core metric. I think we’re also learning that it is less about being a digital agency and more about speed, about an agency’s fluency in going quickly from idea to execution.
CZ: What can you tell us about Eleven’s work with Apple?
CB: Not too much. Apple is very private, as you know. The account has really grown in the five years that they’ve been our client. They use our range of capabilities and they push us to be more innovative, often by example. When it comes to digital, particularly social media, you could say Apple is a good host, but not a great guest. They want people to come to their site, their [fiefdom]. They don’t participate in social marketing, but they use social media for learning.
CZ: As you reboot, what are some key hires? Do you have trouble finding talent?
CB: Our new director of search media is Lisa Bari, formerly with AKQA and our new director of analytics is Antonio Guzman, formerly with Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. To build a digital production team, we hired Dan Murphy, former senior producer at Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Another recent hire, MDavid Low, is the agency’s first creative technologist, handling user experience, strategy and visual design.
We have been lucky in finding talent, partly because we are interesting at the moment. There are currently about a dozen jobs unfilled, which is less than many other shops in this market. One challenge in finding people is that when I put together specs for a job, I often end up defining some very specific need. There is not one job description or a group of easily defined skill sets that we are seeking.
CZ: Speaking of new talent, is it hard explaining your agency name to a generation that has never heard of the 1984 movie “This is Spinal Tap”?
CB: Yeah, the name is related to that funny scene when they are talking about an amp with dials that go one click higher than 10. But the younger people do get the notion that eleven stand for one level higher than the norm. It means pushing yourself one level higher. But you really don’t own your own legend. Many people seem to think it is our name because 11 is a [powerful] prime number. Or something like that.