For marketers, all this amounts to the disappearance of a readily available mass audience. The Internet audience is far more fragmented, picking content in nearly random ways, and the barriers to creation have dropped as well. You could be a kid with a guitar or a team at a 12,000-person agency, and you have about the same chances of mass success on YouTube. The odds might even be slightly in favor of the kid with the guitar, especially if he could play like funtwo, who has racked up 23 million views for his version of Pachelbel’s Canon.
The threat to the traditional agency model, with a stable of “creatives” trained to provide print, radio, and television ads to a passive audience, is obvious. If you’re a big marketer, why would you hire an enormous staff at great expense when you could have somebody like those guys who made the funny JibJab video about Kerry and Bush, the one that everyone saw and loved, for relative pennies? Budweiser asked itself the same question, and hired the guys who created it for the brand’s new Bud.TV “network.” Or you could swing by some cool shop in Soho. The little ad shops, in a way, are just glorified and more corporate-friendly versions of those geeks coming up with stuff in their bedrooms, and it turns out it’s a great way to make an ad.
Which may be why they are now competing against enormous marketing and advertising agencies, all of whom are starting their own little hot shops. For some of the larger agencies to appear small and fresh and full of new ideas would seem an insurmountable challenge. One of the biggest, for example, is DDB Worldwide. It has been around for nearly 60 years, it has 10,000 employees, and it is just one part of Omnicom Group, the world’s largest marketing and communications holding company. Omnicom also owns ad firms like BBDO, TBWA, and GSD&M. (Even the name “Omnicom Group” sounds like it was invented for a movie about an all-engulfing, soul-crushing corporation.) If a trend looks promising, it is no problem for Omnicom to open up an office, give it a kooky name, and see what happens. So DDB’s “little” Internet shop, Tribal DDB Worldwide, appeared in 1998 and now has 38 offices, 1,000 employees, and, with clients like Philips Norelco, Pepsi, and Exxon, about $160 million a year in revenue.
It doesn’t seem a fair fight until you visit their HQ, which is actually on Madison Avenue. It’s a typical cubicle penitentiary, with that weird polymer smell of industrial wall-to-wall carpeting. You wait in a truly windowless waiting room. This is no Soho loft.
But, of course, it is not as bad as it looks. At the end of the hall is the office of Matt Freeman, 37, the global CEO of Tribal DDB, an appealing guy in the old New England mode, with the shoelaces on his bluchers untied in what must be a kind of subtle nod to the ancient code of the nutty adman. A PR woman settles in on the couch with us to monitor the talk.
Tribal seems like a success. The Wall Street Journal gave it a Best Ads of the Year award, and a spot about a Philips razor meant for men who don’t stop shaving at the chin (shaveeverywhere.com) ran up nearly 2 million unique visits. As with the little guys, the numbers are good; their 2006 revenue represented a 60 percent increase over the previous year.
Freeman is as uncertain about how the future will unfold as most people in the business. How does a company like DDB, for example, fit into a model like Revver, a new site that supplies video as YouTube does but gives revenues to the creators? Not only do you not buy time on Revver—you’re supposed to get paid for it. It’s completely backward! Anyway, he doesn’t know. Weirder still, he says, “you could argue that our clients are becoming media companies themselves. They have audience aggregations on their own sites that are significant. Everybody has switched seats.” Pepsi’s Website, he points out, is more like a TV station than anything else, and it’s drawing better than some of those.
It’s an upbeat and interesting talk, but, still, there’s that PR woman hovering at the end of the couch. It is a hint that, despite all the fun, there is danger around. Or, as Amalgamated’s Charles Rosen, also a veteran of the last Internet boom, puts it, “it’s not sustainable. Of any eight companies you write about, I guarantee you no more than three will survive.”
But never mind all that downer talk. Right now, the money is flowing. Droga calls it a “gold rush,” and that is only one of many frontier metaphors floating around these days. As one director working on a viral campaign for Intel told me, “If I hear anyone say ‘It’s the Wild West out there’ again, I’m going to vomit.”
As for Rap Cat, his video went live on rap-cat.com in March, and Rosen says it’s been getting 30,000 hits a day. Rap Cat has thousands of friends on his MySpace page, and the fan club has been gaining about 500 new members daily. That’s in addition to the 800,000-plus viewings on YouTube.
The Rap Cat ringtone isn’t out yet, but Amalgamated is turning its attention to new campaigns, which include another Court TV promotion and an online global-warming initiative for Ben & Jerry’s. And Amalgamated continues to grow and field offers from conglomerates. “We’re talking with the landlord about taking over the sixth floor,” says Rosen. “And if we can’t do it, we may have to move again.”