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How Rap Cat Made It Into This Headline

As old ad agencies try to get a grip on their future, the new guerrilla ad guys think they’ve got it all figured out.

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So much depends on the Rap Cat, a stuffed animal purchased online for $17.99, dressed in an infant’s basketball jersey, and yanked with fishing line out the door of the Don Juan bodega on Forsyth and Broome Streets over and over again. It was February when the film was shot, and crammed into the Don Juan were maybe twenty people from Amalgamated, the ad agency that had been working on Rap Cat for nearly a year. All around them were writers and producers, cameramen and a puppeteer, and the woman who asks passersby to walk into traffic so Rap Cat can do his scene.

Since then, it’s been a Cinderella story for Rap Cat, and for little shops like Amalgamated. Rap Cat is a genuine phenom, based on a simple joke: He’s a cat, he raps. Born in a throwaway scene in a TV ad for Checkers, a drive-through fry-and-burger chain, Rap Cat took off when a user called grandefutbol24 posted the ad on YouTube. It was a marketer’s dream, of course, spawning many thousands of voluntary viewings. And then Rap Cat went “viral,” with all the agglomeration of style, form, meaning, and nonsense that has come to characterize an Internet movement. Fans started making their own Rap Cat videos and posting pictures of themselves dancing like Rap Cat. They uploaded videos of their own live cats rapping and filmed themselves calling up strangers and meow-rapping repeatedly and generally applied all the random intellect of the mass mind to the concept of a rapping cat. Today’s project is the music video. An album, ringtones, and merchandise are all in the works.

The shoot was a long dreary process of scooting Rap Cat out the door again and again, and the day went very late, but it meant Amalgamated could try once again to demand the attention of users like sythblade22, psycotikbastard, and fishbucket–head. And they succeeded. Five months later, fishbuckethead is one of more than 838,654 users so far to visit YouTube and watch the video. He added his thoughts, which read, “dgbgffjf gfgfgjgfgfddsdgfghhghgjglfglgf.” It might be gibberish, or it might be an ironic comment on the literacy rates among rapping puppets. Or add a few dollar signs and an exclamation point, and you have a pretty good description of advertising in general, as an industry gropes to figure out the collapse of one medium and the rise of the next.

Step from a crappy elevator into a loft and you are at the headquarters of Amalgamated, but you could be at any of the little agencies that have sprung up in the city in the last few years. They’ve slipped like hermit crabs into the shells of studios and galleries and other inspiring spaces, mostly in Soho, sometimes in the teens, only rarely (as in the case of Amalgamated, which is in the West Thirties) farther up, and in general have adopted the vibe of an Internet start-up, circa 1996.

The very oldest appeared at the tail end of that boom, but most started in the last three years, arriving now at some Malthusian spawning frenzy. Their numbers relate directly to the rise of a true boom in Internet ad spending, as corporations retune their strategies in a once-in-a-generation way. The Internet currently represents a little more than 6 percent of a $149.6 billion ad market, and it’s the only fast-growing sector of an otherwise shrinking business, going up 20 to 30 percent annually in the U.S. and faster abroad. Moreover, the field is wide open.

It’s altogether enough to tempt you to quit whatever you’re doing and start your own mini-agency, and it would probably be a good idea to do so. You’ll need a quirky name. Fifties-style monikers like Ogilvy & Mather, Wieden + Kennedy, and J. Walter Thompson are on the way out, as are initials, making DDB Worldwide, BBDO, and JWT, as J. Walter Thompson belatedly rechristened itself in 2005, seem dated. Most of New York’s micro-shops, instead, seem to have stolen their names from dweeby bands trying to cut their own vinyl in Brooklyn: Besides Amalgamated, there’s Anomaly, the Barbarian Group, Big Spaceship, Campfire, Droga5, Deep Focus, Mother, Taxi, and Toy, just to list a few.

A rush on talent has followed. Salaries for digital creative directors rose 60 percent nationwide in 2006, from an average of $115,000 to $185,000, according to a survey by the recruiter TalentZoo. “We’re trying to hire two people right now,” says Charles Rosen, “and we cannot find them.” Rosen is one of the co-founders of Amalgamated, which started with six people in 2003 and has just hired its 40th employee. “People who were juniors when we left Cliff Freeman, where some of us used to work, want $250,000 or $300,000 now. Good solid people are looking for half a million dollars. Headhunters will say, ‘We have a great team for you,’ and we’re like, They were our interns! They’re, like, 8 years old! They can’t be a creative director—they don’t even shave yet!


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