April 13, 2010

Being the Cutting Edge [vs. just being on It]


By Wendy McHale

What does it take "to be" one of the world's most creative agencies? Do you have to be a Superhero? Almost. It does in fact takes a certain kind of breed. A team that has the strength to create work that's beyond the cutting edge. Work that is universally considered the edge itself. Who are these agencies? We can name a few. [ayzenberg] is certainly one of them.

The [ayzenberg] Group is an agency that specializes in helping advertisers market their products and services among young men and women. In order to do this, like any agency they have to find them, then impress them and then incentivize them to take action. Pretty simple, right? If that was true, then why do two out of three new products fail? Click on to [ayzenberg.com] and decide if they do that or not.

Now. what is it like "to work" at one of the world's most dynamic agencies? Read further and decide if you have what it takes. That's what I was trying to determine myself when I recently met with [ayzenberg's] Stu Pope, Creative Director and Vincent Juarez, VP, Media!


(Please click on the EyeWonder unit).

Wendy: Thanks for taking time out to meet with me!

Stu: Thanks for asking us.

Vincent: It's our pleasure!

Wendy: Before we get into discussing your take on the industry, tell me about your backgrounds. From what I've seen and heard, [ayzenberg] is a "very" creative shop. How did the two of you come to work here?

Stu: Eric Ayzenberg founded the agency 15 years ago with the whole interactive space in mind. It was his vision even back then to build a creative agency focused on interactivity - the entertainment business and video game business. Things were just beginning to happen with the Internet. As he looked at all those opportunities, he started bringing in people who shared his vision. I had a big agency background. I'd worked at Grey and Lois and was really excited at the prospect of catching the wave that was taking place. That was a little over 7 years ago.

Wendy: Yes, I was just going to say, 15 years ago that seems like incredible vision considering most of us got involved in the late 90's,


(Please click on the EyeWonder unit).

Vincent: Eric essentially put a stake in the ground realizing that one part of the business is about having a vision and the other part is luck! We've really benefited from this based on the way the interactive entertainment industry has unfolded. I also came from a big agency. When Eric filled me in on his vision, I was really excited and didn't think twice about making the move to a smaller shop.

Wendy: I toiled in the big corporate publishing companies for years; it's such a different world working in a small company with a more entrepreneurial spirit, isn't it? In a less structured environment you're allowed to take a lot more risks and you don't have to wait for the internal politics to allow you to make these moves. You can be at the forefront of the changes and tech and all the new opportunities that are out there.

Stu: I think that reflects the way we think about what is happening today. The small, more nimble groups are the ones who are really at the forefront of making things happen. We're actually splintering into a much more fractured type of society, yet we're all tied together by things like the Internet.

Wendy: Yes, it's amazing how the Internet has changed the way we communicate and work. It's now possible to conduct business from basically anywhere - not just at a desk or conference room.


Vincent: Yes, as a matter of fact, most of our clients are actually outside the Los Angeles area. Technology has really broken down the barriers.

Wendy: Your video was intriguing particularly because it featured you, Vincent, "the media" guy and you, Stu, "the creative guy". Should I assume that both of you and your departments work in concert with one another?

Stu: Absolutely - that's one of our strengths. The interaction between media and creative here is so synced up that we're feeding each other ideas and seeing where the synchronicities lie.

Wendy: As you know, most of the large agencies are still incredibly siloed and don't share resources.

Vincent: That's for sure. I worked at Initiative for 5 plus years and at the time it was the largest media agency in the country - one of the biggest in the world. It epitomized the siloed approach. All we did was focus on one part of the marketing mix. We never really got to see the fruit of our labors and how everything else was integrated into the overall campaign. The move to Ayzenberg was huge draw for me because of the full service structure and distinct lack of internal boundaries. The media team, creative and all other folks in the agency work hand-in-hand. There are no internal boundaries as to the type of input each of the various disciplines can have on the campaign. That helps us create better campaigns for our clients.

Stu: And if you're at an agency like Ayzenberg, everyone is creative - whether they're an account, media or creative person. Because of that, we want to be sure to draw on the creative ideas of everyone. If we don't, we’re not tapping into the full potential power we have here.

Vincent: To give you some insight into our lack of boundaries here, the initial interview for EyeWonder was based on just the media perspective - but I didn't think that was an accurate representation of the way our agency is structured. So I suggested that both media and creative be featured in the video so it would accurately represent the DNA of our agency organization.


Wendy: That makes a lot of sense, especially in the digital agency environment. Things move too fast, there are many moving parts to a campaign and decisions have to be made quickly.

Vincent: Exactly. Our agency is designed is to maximize interactivity and communication between all the various groups. All the teams sit amongst each other in order to facilitate changes easily, because especially with online, we have to be able to optimize - to change on the fly. In those instances, it helps to have no boundaries.

Stu: And our clients are able to be a part of the process as well. They can take advantage of real-time reporting. As a result, they feel empowered; they're part of the process and they're helping make things happen. The tools that EyeWonder and other web partners give us are helping us strengthen the relationships with our clients. As you know, in the ad business good relationships are paramount.

Wendy: In terms of your backgrounds, did you both work on traditional media prior to making the switch to working on interactive media?

Stu: Actually, I began my career as an air force officer. When I got out, I really wanted to get into advertising. It was such a different experience from what I had done, I had to start from scratch. When I walked into Grey with years of experience and an MBA, I still had to start at the bottom as a management trainee and worked my way through every area of the agency, including media for 6 months.

Wendy: Really?


(Please click on the EyeWonder unit).

Stu: I worked as an AE and then I switched over to the creative side as a copywriter. Eventually, I worked my way up at other agencies in order to become a creative director. But as I did this I started learning more about the interactive space, partly through my own personal interest in that field. I was always looking for opportunity to delve deeper into it and as I mentioned earlier when I spoke to Eric Ayzenberg and he described his vision for this company, it synced up perfectly. A quick example: years ago, Eric showed me how Ayzenberg at the time was presenting creative to their clients through an extranet. Immediately putting things up, giving them a call, getting on a teleconference and walking the clients through it in real time, while at my other agency we were still comping up boards and sending them out through FedEx. Things at Ayzenberg were happening much quicker; the interaction, the feedback and ultimately the approval process happened much faster.

Vincent: My experience is in traditional media and in client services. Being at a traditional agency is almost like a walled-garden environment where everyone is limited to their own discipline. A general planner has the ability to plan a lot of traditional kinds of media, but when it comes to emerging media, let's say online, it's almost like it's a unique turf with distinct boundaries that a traditional planner wasn't supposed to cross. So one very appealing thing about coming to Ayzenberg was to create a media department that integrated the creative team. Since Ayzenberg's focus was essentially in the gaming category, I knew that online was a going to be a very important aspect of the media mix. So a major part the media department's growth was structured on being at the forefront of the online advertising wave.

Wendy: Makes sense.


(Please click on the EyeWonder unit).

Vincent: So basically I've adapted the best of what I've learned through traditional planning and integrated this with the best that online media has to offer. This, combined with the integrated campaign approach allows us to effectively compete with any other agency in the country today. It's one of the reasons we were fortunate enough to be featured in the EyeWonder campaign.

Wendy: I would agree. There are some people out there who contend that online planning is so radically different that traditional experience has no relevance.

Vincent: My philosophy is that if you're a great media planner it doesn't matter what discipline you have to plan. You should be able to figure out and master anything. Even though we had a vision of how online media was going to become an important part of the media mix, it still took quite a lot of time, effort and education to actually convince our clients that it was the future for advertising.

Stu: It's interesting too that, as far as I can tell, the power of the metrics on the internet are actually forcing a reevaluation of traditional media. A lot of clients say, "Hey I'm getting this amazing amount of information and data from my campaign on the internet. I can't get that sort of thing on television. I feel much more in control with the campaign I'm putting online than running it on television."

Wendy: Yes and that's why all of this streaming video content and pre-roll advertising has been increasing at such a dramatic pace. The usage of rich media is also exploding.


Vincent: And to that point, not only have we been optimizing traditional TV commercials for the web, we've actually put together campaigns where the "TV spot" ran nowhere but the web. And when we were able to sell that approach to our clients, we really got a lot of traction.

Stu: The production of a TV spot is a very small fraction of what a media buy costs. If you're going to put that so-called TV spot online, you can reach people at a much more efficient cost.

Vincent: In addition to the efficiency, it's also about the back-end ROI tracking, where we can track every single aspect of a user's interaction with our creative. However, there are still clients who are wary to jump into online marketing. It is a little bit of an education process for us at times, but with the speed and emergence of new technology and the buzz of the internet, it's getting easier.

Stu: I think we have an advantage because of the category that we're in; video games, entertainment and consumer electronics are naturals for the internet. In the near future, we think even manufacturers of toilet paper will realize interactivity is universal. It's not limited to people who are tech-savvy.

Vincent: There's a new kind of accountability for the media dollars that are being spent. It's revolutionizing the way both we and our clients are looking at things. There are pros and cons because traditional media - broadcast, outdoor, print - have been around for a long time. Advertisers don't tend to hold those as accountable as online - but because online advertising has such advanced tracking, clients hold online advertising to a whole new standard. In some ways the double standard works to online media's disadvantage.

Wendy: For example, magazines were always used primarily for branding purposes. But in today's world, if you're going to use traditional media, it is much more effective to buy it in conjunction with the internet to extend the reach of your campaign.

Vincent: Because of the extreme fragmentation of media usage, you need multiple vehicles to impact consumers, their brand perceptions and purchase decisions.


Wendy: So let's talk about some technology advances and what excites you both coming down the road. Gaming and entertainment tends to be ahead of the curve.

Stu: Mobile gaming is already here, not down the road. It's going to have a presence in a much bigger way. We work with Nokia to improve the mobile gaming experiences and take advantage of the platforms they're developing. Some of the new phones have such great potential. Some of the games themselves are quite sophisticated. The mobility and wireless aspect of being able to play together with other people that have the same type of platform is going to become a major part of the gaming experience.

Vincent: But for now, mobile advertising is still in its infancy. All the reports are saying consumers don't want to receive the content. The same could have been said of other emerging media platforms. But once the format and advertising is standardized and it becomes more commonplace, it will become a great opportunity to reach people on a one-on-one basis. It's just a matter of time before marketing and tech companies figure out how to provide that and ultimately create a friendly user experience.

Stu: I think to some degree there is a lack of sophistication right now in a lot of mobile advertising. Once we start defining and honing down the user's interest on an individual basis, consumers will no longer feel they're being advertised to. They'll feel like someone is providing them with an opportunity they didn't know existed.


Wendy: I think behavioral targeting on any device is exciting because personally I'd much rather have a message targeted to me and my interests. I compare it to search technology. It's hard to believe Google didn't exist several years ago but I can't imagine living without it now.


Please click on any one of the EyeWonder units.

Wendy: Let's talk more about behavioral targeting. We just interviewed Dave Morgan, founder of both Real Media (24/7 Real Media) and Tacoda; the later of which was just sold to AOL for several hundred million $$. What are some of the larger issues on technology tracking and how are you using it?


Please click on any one of the EyeWonder units.

Stu: Good question. The larger issue fundamentally is that technology's ability track people is almost big brother-like. People probably won't want to hear this, but we have the ability to geo-target people based on their exact whereabouts and are able to analyze their behavior in sort of a Minority Report-type scenario. I'm not sure how much consumers understand and embrace that.


Please click on any one of the EyeWonder units.

Vincent: The average consumer doesn't know about the technology and its ability to track their behavior. We're immersed in it and we take it for granted because we know about cookie tracking and all the different methods that can be used to track interests, but the average person has no idea how it works. Right now the online campaigns we create utilizing rich media platforms can serve specialized ads to individuals based on behavioral targeting. It hasn't been used to date to the extent it can be because marketers are a little behind the curve, but that is one of the technologies that could really explode in the future.


Wendy: It's funny how many people I talk to who are not in the industry think the idea is creepy but have no idea it's happening right now on the web and they don’t even know it.


Vincent: Of course, online video has been getting a lot of buzz in the past year, but it's actually something our agency has been immersed in over the past several years. It's interesting to see the buzz and the PR machine behind online video positioning it as the next big thing. We've actually been involved in those kinds of campaigns for some time. Right now we’re producing unique video experiences that users interact with that actually impact the way the video is served. It's an immersive, interactive video experience built around an online ad campaign.


Wendy: That's very cool.

Stu: What's really cool is, once the user realizes their decisions are impacting the experience, they may want to go back to try it again and again to see how different decisions affect it, which increases the impressions of the message you want to get across.

Wendy: Right. Now since you are focused on a younger audience, do you use social networks for advertising campaigns – and if so, how?

Vincent: We were at the forefront of advertising on My Space, and over time we learned a lot about how to reach that social marketing crowd: understanding the value of community, the viral dynamic, and having evangelists out there promoting our brands and services.

Stu: And I want to point out the “young” demographic we reach increases by one year every year because many of the guys who got into video games back in day have not abandoned them. And as we were talking about earlier, people of all demographics are adopting platforms like the Wii. Whereas once you would say the demo was 18-34, with each passing year we add a year on top of that.

Wendy: Interesting, I wouldn't have considered that. In essence, the market just keeps getting bigger.


Vincent: Especially as Stu and I get older!

Wendy: Okay, if that's the case, other than gaming and consumer electronics, what are the categories out there – other verticals that need to step up to the plate and expand their online marketing initiatives?

Stu: I personally think that every category out there is going to be part of the interactive experience within the next 5-to-10 years. That's because the heart of advertising is interaction. It's not a one-way conversation. It's really creating a dialogue. Motivation is a big part of advertising, and it can be amplified by giving consumers the opportunity to provide feedback.

Wendy: Okay, let's switch gears to talk about some personal issues. You both sound incredibly enthusiastic about where you work and what you do. What specifically do you enjoy?

Stu: The constant change. Things happen so fast. It's always fresh. There's never a boring day, month or year. It's really about being on the cusp of things as they're happening, and I think that's enjoyable. It's a fun ride.

Vincent: And because the focus of our agency is gaming, consumer electronics and lifestyle, the best thing for me is that I get to put together campaigns that are essentially targeting me. It's great to work on goods, products and services that appeal to you on a consumer level.

Stu: When we take work home with us, it's not work. It's like having a hobby 24 hours a day that you really get to immerse yourself in and enjoy.


Wendy: I would imagine one of the best moments is when you win a new piece of business.

Stu: There's almost no bigger thrill.

Vincent: It's a new frontier, which means there are no real boundaries - no disadvantages of a small agency versus a large one. We can effectively compete with any agency in the country. And being able to win pitches against multi-national global entities is probably one of the best experiences that our team could actually go through – and does go through.

Stu: Another great thing is that the people we work with on the client side have the same interests as we do. They're really in the same business, and because they have those same interests it's like having a group of friends on the other side of the fence. People you like to hang out with after work. In the bigger agencies, you work on many different categories – some you don't always sync up with. We feel we're in sync with our clients on many levels.

Wendy: I've heard from many different people one of the biggest challenges today is trying to get clients to try new things. Is that something you face as well?

Stu: For the video gaming clients we work with, no. With the consumer electronics accounts we're pitching, there's a little more of an education process. But even in that case, many of the players are very savvy in this area and can actually help us with ideas, so it's really a synergistic process. We're all bringing opportunities to the table in the interactive space.

Wendy: Hmm...does that mean you don't have any challenges (laughs) and if so what are they?

Vincent: Well, education is part of the challenge. The buzz surrounding interactive marketing has definitely given us a boost in the last several years, but there are still some mainstays on the client side that haven't figured out the priority of off-line versus online. While it’s a challenge we still face, the boundaries are definitely starting to crumble. Nevertheless, it's still something we need to educate clients on. A lot of clients come to us because they've been focused on the old traditional ways of doing media and advertising. They’ve actually come to us to help educate their internal marketing team on the virtues of online advertising technology.


Stu: Clients for the most part are concerned about the ROI, and with good reason. And sometimes with interactive campaigns there's a challenge in proving the ROI to them because it's not just about the number of click-throughs. You also have to consider things like branding and how much their brand is really being strengthened by the campaign as opposed to specific actions that we may want the consumer to take.

Vincent: Yes, and because online is so measurable it's almost like a double standard. It's harder to prove whether traditional media is successful and so marketers aren’t as critical about ROI. But because we can tell right away if online is successful or not, it's held to a much higher standard.

Wendy: Exactly.

Wendy: Okay, so last question, what is your collective advice to a college grad looking to break into this really cool industry now? Does your agency hire college interns?

Vincent: Absolutely.

Wendy: Do you actively recruit from the colleges in the area?

Stu: One the best design schools in America, the Art Center College of Design, is here in Pasadena. Eric Ayzenberg went there. It's not just a great place to recruit – it’s also great for us to interact with the college itself. There are so many fresh ideas coming from the students there. It keeps us energized when we talk with them and see what's happening in the college scene.

Vincent: When students learn what kind of agency we have, they're very motivated to come in. They have a perception that, "Hey, all you guys do is play games all day, I want to do that." Or, "You mess around with consumer electronics.” Or, “You’re involved with all this lifestyle stuff.” That's where we have interns volunteering their time. They want to get a sense of what we do on a day-to-day basis.

Wendy: Vince, I want to ask you this because a lot of people I interview from media departments comment on this: "Would you say that there's a lack of understanding from the college perceptive as to exact what media planning is?"

Vincent: Yes, I have marketing degree and when I went into planning it was a rude awakening for me. Sometimes in college you lose sight that going into the real world is a whole new education. What I instill in my team is the philosophy that you can never truly master this field. Once you think you have, that’s when you start falling behind. That's why I’ve really made a big push on the interactive space. It's based on the belief that you have to embrace technology and change in order to bring the best new ideas to clients.

Stu: Vincent has a good point. I think you have to keep a student mentality throughout your life, especially in this space, because there's always something to learn every day in the space – and if you don’t learn it, you're going to fall behind.


Vincent: To that point, I still consider myself a student of the industry. Throughout my career, that's been the mentality I’ve taken. If not, you just fall in a rut and get passed over really easily.

Wendy: I know each day I get practically all the major trade newsletters and I read them all because I have to and sometimes I think, these technical advances and ideas are happening so rapidly that you can blink and miss an important piece of information or breaking news. One thing I've noticed is that because there are very few courses in "media planning and buying" in colleges there is a real lack of understanding of what the discipline is. So many people I know just fell into it.

Vincent: People who are new to this industry often don't realize that all of the departments have to work in sync to put together a successful campaign – which goes back to our point of integration and not having silos within an agency.

Wendy: So many of the smaller agencies are being snatched up to add to the massive holding companies. Is your agency in an aggressive growth mode?

Stu: No, we're not in an aggressive growth mode at all. It's much more organic, from what I've seen the last 7 years I've been here. We want to make sure we can ramp up for new clients, but we don't want to overextend ourselves.

Vincent: To add to that, the agency in the last few years has basically had a shift in the way we work with clients. Historically, we've worked with a lot of major clients on a project basis, and the big change in our agency is the focus on integrated campaigns, where we’re not just handling one part of the marketing mix. We’re handling many of elements in concert with each other and managing the whole process to come up with more powerful campaigns. Don't get me wrong – we still do some work on a project basis; it's more of a philosophical shift on managing the business.

Wendy: It's funny, clients would like a more cohesive team to manage their business in large agencies but it rarely happens.

Vincent: A lot of it has to do with corporate bureaucracy – the walled-garden approach and the turf wars between departments in big agencies. You just don't have that problem at an agency like ours.


Stu: Some of the best people we have left big agencies to get away from the bureaucracy. They’re able to put their arms around a whole project and really get the feeling they’re part of every aspect of the project.

Wendy: So how many people currently at the agency

Stu: About 50 now.

Wendy: Tell me what you look for in a potential hire. How do you know who will fit in well?

Stu: The people we're looking for are people that have a very broad range of experiences. People who travel, who've read a lot, enjoy interacting with strangers, surfing the web. You really have to have an interest in almost everything in the world, because when you come here you're not assigned to one specific task. You're expected to jump in, focusing on whatever your strengths allow you to contribute. So, while we may have titles on our business cards, when it comes to working here it's your strengths that come to the forefront. A lot of times your position here at the agency will evolve and change as time goes by. We don't always know completely what those strengths are when a person starts the interview process. But there's an energy, a vibe, and a chemistry that happens. And sometimes you have to go with your gut. It's tough to define in words, but it's easy to feel.

Vincent: I was just talking to someone about this recently and Stu hit it right on the head. It's chemistry. There are a lot of talented people out there but if they don’t have the potential to fit into the DNA of our industry and our agency, it's something that would affect our decision to hire a potential candidate. If you have a candidate with the right talent and the right chemistry, they can be molded and moved into nearly any position. A lot of individuals who come to the agency started off in a totally different position. We've even promoted receptionists who have worked in the front lobby because we discovered that they were not only smart but they also had great chemistry with the team.


Stu: You mentioned that you and your husband have both been involved in bigger organizations, as I have, where employment can be like a revolving door. We're really careful about building a family as much as an agency. People tend to stay here longer. I've been here many years longer than I've been in any other agency. The real core of our team has been here a long time and tends to stay.

Vincent: Here's another factor I consider before hiring someone. I ask myself, "Would I like to hang out with this person after work?" We spend so much time together at work that it’s really important that we connect on a personal level. The other questions are, "Is this candidate a consumer of the goods and services and the lifestyle we’re trying to promote? Will they eventually be able to help us with campaigns from both a professional and consumer point of view?"

Wendy: I worked for magazines for many years and while I may not have been a passionate reader of all of them you have to understand the mindset of the reader who is and embody that image to the clients as much as you can.

Stu: I was exposed to that same thing. Early in my career, I had to become an expert in categories I had no previous interest in or knowledge of, and I just had to basically cram knowledge into my head and master it, whether it was a product targeting retirees or some other audience I had absolutely no connection with.


Wendy: So because of the way you all interact together and collaborate on projects, do people tend to become generalists?

Stu: That's absolutely right. They are specialists first and foremost, but they do gain knowledge in all areas. We think that's motivating from a work perspective because you have so many more things to think about and be a part of.

Wendy: Wow, sounds ideal. Hey, I want to thank you both. This was great!

Vincent: You're welcome, Wendy!

Stu: Take care!

Check out the amazing Ayzenberg Site for various case studies and awards from the Telly Awards, Play Magazines awards and Gamespots Awards among others. - The Editors


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