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10 hot creative agencies to watch

10 hot creative agencies to watch Michael Estrin
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Above all else, getting serious about digital means getting serious about creative, whether you're talking about a simple banner ad or a cutting-edge viral campaign. After all, big ideas move successful campaigns in any medium, and the web is no exception.


But as larger agencies struggle to redefine themselves in the lean-and-mean digital ecosystem, a grassroots army of smaller, specialty shops is raising eyebrows. Some work on assignment from larger agencies, but others have begun taking ownership of the client relationship for themselves. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are some of the independent agencies that made us stand up and take notice with campaigns and ideas that push web creative forward.




Last Exit

Agency Details:
Based in New York and London, Last Exit splits its clients evenly between agencies like McCann and Dentsu, as well as directly with brands.


Something Cool:
There are a lot of campaigns that run on Facebook. Frankly, most of them miss the big idea of the platform, which is to add value to users, not distract from what people prefer to do on the site.


But Last Exit's work on the Canon "My Story" campaign illustrates what brands can do to enhance, rather than detract from, the user experience on social networks.




Through the power of a simple Facebook app, Last Exit helped Canon inject itself into an activity that is practically a Facebook pastime -- uploading, tagging and viewing photos.


Biggest Challenge Facing Digital Right Now?
"The most challenging thing about digital now is to keep existing and prospective clients off the track of following hype and pursuing cool for its own sake, and [instead] keeping them on the path of delivering long-term value," says Last Exit partner Nuri Djavit.


Next page >>

The Visionaire Group


Agency Details:
Based in Los Angeles, The Visionaire Group has a heavy emphasis on entertainment brands. But don't let the Hollywood flair fool you, the agency also has done work for companies like Mattel and Jaguar.


Something Cool:
Anyone can build a widget, but will that widget connect with users? While we're not stock market junkies (probably a good thing these days), we do like the idea of a branded product that translates economic mumbo jumbo into clear English, which is exactly what The Visionaire Group did for Scottrade. The easy-to-use widget tracks stocks in your portfolio, but with the click of a button, the user can switch to plain English explanations for key terms.
 


The Ideal Client?
"We look for clients who are open to innovation, who put their trust in us, and who understand the realities of the digital space," says CEO Dimitry Ioffe. "The online world is a combination of principles used in both print and audio/visual marketing, but you can't manage it exactly like either of those traditional mediums and still take full advantage of its capabilities. The clients who understand that are the ones who allow us to create projects that really stand out and reach their consumers online."

Conversation


Agency Details:
Conversation does about 60 percent of its business with other agencies, bridging the gap between idea and execution for clients that include HGTV, Bad Boy Entertainment, and several Omnicom agencies.


Something Cool:
It might be odd to highlight one agency's work for another, but in Conversation's case, we'll make an exception. The agency built a fast-loading, slick, and most of all, attention-getting website for Big Fuel (also on the list).


You'll have to see it for yourself here, but one of the great features about the site is that it delivers the punch of a 30-second television spot with the latitude of web video, which lets the user easily explore for more information.


What's Challenging About Digital Right Now?
"[A big] problem now is that 'big agencies' are making a play to be 'digital agencies' without being truly in the space," says Conversation's Frank O'Brien. "We get at least a call a week from an agency (big or small) saying, 'Hey, we pitched this project and don't know where to start to get it done.' A line we frequently use is, 'If we don't do it, there's a good chance we know, and have worked with, someone that does, or we can point you in the right direction.' Most agencies say 'We do it all.'"


Phenomblue


Agency Details:
Phenomblue, with offices in Omaha, Neb.,  and Montreal, isn't a big agency. But its team of creatives and programmers has worked for some household names like Budweiser, Quaker Oats, Gatorade, and Samsung.


Something Cool:



Where branding can last years, and some campaigns are built to run for months, the web is often about day-to-day, minute-to-minute exchanges. So how do you own a web minute? If you're Phenomblue, you leverage the repeal of Prohibition as an opportunity to raise a digital glass of beer, compliments of Budweiser. To celebrate the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, Phenomblue created 10 photo-quality glasses and bottles for users to “toast” with. Toasting took place via email on Facebook throughout the day.


What Do You Look for in An Employee?
"We hire creative people who can solve complex business problems instead of hiring for a position," says CEO Joe Olsen. "The ability to think is what sets apart an employee as a person who will contribute substantially to the intellectual property of the organization, rather than someone who shows up Monday through Friday and collects a paycheck."

Ascentium


Agency Details:
Ascentium sits squarely on the razor-thin line that divides technology from creative in the digital space. Though the agency has its own brand clients, it often works closely with Microsoft and its agency of record, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, to deliver the technological expertise that brings creative to life online.


Something Cool:



Working on behalf of the California Strawberry Commission, Ascentium built a virtual town, Strawberryville. The town is really a game, and the game is really a teaching tool designed to educate children about the benefits of Strawberries. What we loved about Strawberryville was that the platform works for kids of all ages as well as parents and teachers. Each user group gets a site packed with info, and there's hardly an animated portion of the site that you can't click on to learn more.


What's Challenging About Digital Right Now?
"Digital suffers in sympathy with [the] market," says the agency's CMO Romi Mahajan. "Right now, all customers are challenged with budgets, and as such, some of them hew back to traditional methods because risk-taking is seen as frivolous [by some]."


Big Fuel


Agency Details:
One part think-tank for brand strategy and one part entertainment company, Big Fuel sees itself as the go-to agency for building user engagement. To date, it has worked with a diverse group of brands from FOX and NBCU to the U.S. Department of Justice.


Something Cool:
Some brands do media buys, others make media, which is exactly what Big Fuel did for Neutrogena's "One Less Stress" campaign. Building on a successful Spring Break event, Big Fuel got teen girls using Neutrogena to audition for a web-based reality show that details a range of issues young women must face. Throughout the series, Neutrogena was positioned as the product that helps teenage girls reduce and manage their daily stresses. 




The Most Exciting Thing About Digital Right Now?
"These are exponential times -- from the way content is being consumed to the dramatic shift in audience control when it comes to marketing and advertising messages --  and there is a need for new methods of engaging with consumers," says Big Fuel founder Avi Savar. "This need is driven by new channels of communication and more audience fragmentation. Where it gets really exciting it that independent creative shops have tremendous opportunity to make a dramatic impact. Smaller agencies are able to leverage new technology, new media platforms, efficiencies in production process, etc., to do a lot more for brands with a lot less money -- and typically in a third of the time. The opportunity to do great work while pioneering new ways of thinking is truly exciting."

Gigapixel Creative


Agency Details:
Based in New York, Gigapixel is a creative agency specializing in technology and design that engages the user and achieves brand goals of buzz, touchpoints, and revenue.


Something Cool:
Any consumer can figure out how cotton relates to the clothes they wear, but every consumer has been plagued at least once by the eternal question: What should I wear?


Enter Gigapixel, which created an interactive video quiz that helps women choose what to wear based on their mood. The cool part is, it was actually right on the money for some women we asked to test it out.



The Ideal Client?
"We look for clients who are interested in innovation, those who are looking for new solutions with technology, and are open and willing to change," says CEO Yao-Hui Huang. "We like to go beyond creative design by attaching it to smart business."


IQ Interactive


Agency Details:
IQ Interactive evolved from IQ Television to apply television engagement best practices to internet marketing. The agency specializes in disseminating complex value propositions, especially in the financial services and B2B sectors.


Something Cool:
We can't explain exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Heck, we didn't really know what they were. What we do know is that they're complicated. Really complicated, which why Barclays Global Investors wanted a simple site explaining all the details of the financial instrument to an audience of financial advisors.



What we liked about the creative is that it boiled down a complex concept to simple language, and it did so in a very approachable way. However, the creative also has the ability to resonate with more sophisticated users because of its non-linear format, which allows you to jump to the category you need to brush up on.


The Most Exciting Thing About Digital Right Now?
"Brands are coming to the realization that they must have a comprehensive plan for the digital space that is at the center of the marketing efforts," says CEO Tony Quin. "They are recognizing that the days of the fun microsite are over, and that they must turn their dot.com websites into marketing engines, complete with the persuasive power that broadband now makes possible."

Fuseideas


Agency Details:
With clients ranging from Fortune 500 brands to small businesses, Fuseideas sees itself as destination for versatile creative solutions in the digital space.


Something Cool:
Promoting a shoe can be a tough sell online where consumers don't have the ability to touch and feel the physical product. But Fuseideas' work on behalf of Reebok manages to give the user a nice look at the shoe in an environment rich with brand attitude. As you mix and match colors while rotating the shoe 360 degrees, a trash-talking narrator keeps you engaged and laughing. The site also features videos of the next generation of basketball talent using and talking up the shoes.



What Do You Look For In An Employee?
"We need people who generate ideas," says CEO Dennis Franczak. "Everyone needs to collaborate and come up with new opportunities and approaches. Technical abilities are the bare minimum requirement."


Rassak Experience


Agency Details:
Fancy technology aside, Rassak's primary focus is keeping brands like software maker BigFix and Slide in conversations with real people. Sometimes that means inventing a fictional presidential candidate, and other times it means asking a simple question: How will people use this product?


Something Cool:
Word-of-mouth can be a difficult thing to wrap your arms around. After all, it's about getting impartial people to identify so much with a brand that they actually pass along the message to their friends.



This photo of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes may look like the run-of-the-mill paparazzi shot, but it's not. The picture actually came from the Consumer Electronics Show, where Slide engaged Rassak to experiment with getting bloggers at high-profile events to upload their photos onto the image-sharing site.


The cool part? Although Rassak had its own bloggers in attendance, this picture actually came from a user.


Biggest Challenge Facing Digital Right Now?
"Disintegration between brilliant creative people and brilliant technologists," explains Principal and Creative Director Barak Kassar. "[Disintegration] between algorithmic approaches and warm, human approaches; between transformational and informational appeals; between branding and direct selling; between channels; between online and offline; between top-line and bottom-line; between the desire and need to control brands and the desire and need to accept that control always was in the hands of consumers; between hand-crafted experiments and massive branding at scale.


"Digital doesn't only change things on a medium-by-medium basis, it changes everything fundamentally --- because, above all, digital is a tool to integrate. The challenge is there aren't many people with diverse enough backgrounds thinking about this."



Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

Michael Estrin is freelance writer. He contributes regularly to iMedia, Bankrate.com, and California Lawyer Magazine. But you can also find his byline across the Web (and sometimes in print) at Digiday, Fast...

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