The Rise and Rise of the New Mad Men

While Mad Men takes us back to halcyon days, a new revolution is currently taking place in the New York agencies of 2008.

The atmosphere in today’s New York couldn’t be more different from the macho, flashy impression of life on Madison Avenue given on the show however, with the resurgence coming through a group of small, independent shops scattered across the city that have breathed new life into an advertising scene that had become somewhat stale. New York is back, and is emerging as the place most likely to help lead US advertising away from the traditional and into advertising’s brave new world.

If anything, it seems surprising that the New York scene has ever been away, yet for the past few years companies such as Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, Wieden+ Kennedy and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners have moved the focus of US advertising to such unlikely locations as Miami, Portland and San Francisco. Suddenly though, New York appears awash with new start-ups. Why now?

“The best quality of New York is that it’s chaotic, and in this case the chaos really works,” says Nick Law, executive creative director at R/GA New York. “In London, there’s a reverence towards craft, the English love craft. New York is a very practical place, their romance for craft isn’t as strong …

New Yorkers have an entrepreneurial nimbleness, they are very optimistic about the new advertising environment and are trying to make it work.”

For some the renaissance in New York is just part of the regular ebb and flow of agency life in the city – traditional agencies grow too big and slow, creatives get frustrated, they leave and begin small, energetic start-ups, which in turn become big and slow… and round and round it goes. Yet what feels different now is the emphasis on new media and new marketing strategies in the city, and an even greater hunger to experiment and push at the boundaries of what is possible within advertising.

“New York is really the centre in terms of new marketing,” agrees Steve Wax of brand entertain­ment agency Campfire, which aims to create ‘interactive stories’ for its clients, rather than traditional campaigns. “A lot of young people who came out of art schools, did independent films and then needed to earn a living are now in marketing here. And a lot of young people at agencies left and started their own agencies. It was so quiet here, and suddenly it exploded in frustration.”

What has emerged out of that explosion is a number of new companies, that have a tendency toward being lumped together, in part because they have largely eschewed the name-on-the-door approach of traditional agencies in favour of quirky, one-word monikers such as Anomaly, Amalgamated or Campfire. There is also a similarity in their style of work – all are trying to offer brands alternative ways to reach audiences that are increasingly ignoring tradit­ional media, a phenomenon that has happened partic­ularly fast in the city. “In New York the media has fragmented a lot more and a lot quicker,” continues Law. “It’s a dense urban environment, the environment isn’t as controlled as somewhere like London…. Seeing TV isn’t really a common experience anymore. A lot of the ads I see for the first time when I’m judging on an awards panel, not on television.”

Perhaps even more surprising is a lack of competitiveness between the agencies, on the surface at least, and a sense that they are all in it together. “As a group we’re stronger than the individual agencies,” says Charles Rosen of Amalgamated. “There is this collective strength – when we see each other at things we see each other as comrades in arms. Some­how we’re thought of in one breath. There isn’t this sense of competition.”

Despite this, certain agencies are already naturally rising to the top. At the forefront of these is Droga5, the company formed by David Droga in 2006. Almost every campaign and project produced by the company since its formation has proved exciting and innovative, from its launch with a viral spoof for Ecko clothing company, which appeared to show a graffiti artist tag Air Force One, to the Tap Project which raised millions for Unicef’s World Water Day. Droga5’s most recent project, Million, looks set to garner similar attention. “We were briefed to brand ‘achievement’,” explains Droga of the campaign which aims to improve educational standards in New York City’s public school system. “The public schools here are huge and have big issues. We didn’t want to just say ‘school is cool’ and so on, so we said ‘why don’t we talk to them in a way that uses technology?’” This led to the production of a phone/personal computer (shown below) that is automatically disabled during school hours (except for emergency calls), when it functions as a teaching tool, but can be used as a regular phone outside school hours. It is to be given free to all students, who also receive credit on the phone as a reward for good attendance, participation and grades. The Million is currently been piloted by 20,000 students in New York City and it is hoped to eventually roll out nationally.

Similarly interesting is Anomaly, founded in 2004 with the intention of developing new solutions within advertising, and, most unusually, placing intellectual property at the core of its business strategy. It now has two shops in the city, Anomaly and Another Anomaly. Among Anomaly’s most noteworthy moments so far was its campaign for the charity Keep A Child Alive, which saw staff at the agency buy the first ever iPhone and then auction it for on eBay for $100,000 after having it signed by Alicia Keys, a ‘global ambassador’ for the charity. The company also did the marketing for Aliph, the Yves Behar-designed Bluetooth headset more commonly known as the Jawbone, and has a stake in the company, earning a royalty on every headset sold. Current IP projects in the pipeline include a line of skincare and a tele­vision show with French chef Eric Ripert. With such a diverse output, Anomaly’s style can feel hard to pin down, yet it has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the industry. “Everyone I read about now starts to feel like what we’ve been talking about for a long time,” says co-founder Jason LeLand. “I consider that to be a good thing, because we’re very open source about the business model and we like to collaborate.”

Other companies, particularly R/GA and Campfire, have emerged from the production company model and find themselves poised with the perfect skills for the new advertising landscape. “Our history gives us an advantage,” says r/ga’s Nick Law. “We were a production company initially so we were always about making stuff. When people are just talking about the work, we’re doing it.”

This notion of a lot of talk but little action appears regularly alongside the more excited commentary about the revitalised New York ad scene. Agencies such as Mother, Strawberry Frog, and Taxi have all opened offices in the city but are arguably yet to achieve the impressive standards set in their flagship shops. This is undoubtedly indicative of the individual obstacles the city presents. “Advertising in New York is unpredict­able,” say Linus Karlsson and Paul Malmström, partners/creative directors at Mother New York.

“It feels like our weather. A few solid weeks of great work will be pumping out of the machines, and then there are weeks that are more hit or miss. Either way, its always interesting: chasing or racing to the finish line.”

“I feel like sometimes the conversation is making it seem like it’s happening when it’s not,” says Amalgamated’s Charles Rosen. “Very few agencies are doing meaningful work, whether it’s in new media or traditional…. What you are seeing here in New York is this new and fresh opportunity for small agencies, who are all working with very large clients. Big clients are coming to these small, aggressive agencies to stir it up. Although I haven’t seen the work yet, I feel we are poised to do some­thing interesting for these clients… but if we as a group do not start doing some big and exciting and notable work, I don’t think the frenzy can last much longer.”

As more big clients approach these smaller companies, it is inevitable that the traditional agencies will take notice and compete accordingly. “It’s nice being challenged every day,” says Gerry Graf, who recently joined Saatchi & Saatchi in New York as chief creative officer from TBWAChiatDay. “That’s what keeps me on my toes, makes me work harder. It makes me feel like I want to work harder.”

“I’m sure a lot of bigger agencies don’t care, as long as they are making money,” he continues.

“But whenever I see something great, I get really mad that I didn’t do it first…. In this environment you have to create advertising that you want to watch. A lot of our bigger clients are changing, but at a bigger agency there’s always going to be some clients that are slow to change.”

With the US economy on a knife-edge, it is difficult to predict just how the younger New York shops will develop over the coming years. Recession is beginning to bite, yet this may prove to be a boon to the younger, fitter agencies who are used to producing significant results with smaller budgets. But it may also leave them vulnerable, if nervous clients decide to return to the sanctuary of the more established agencies.

Whatever happens, one thing that is certain is that the city itself is unlikely to ever lose its creative allure. As Gerry Graf lovingly explains –

“I love New York, and when I moved back from San Francisco, I promised New York I would never leave her again. I can have the worst day in the world, but I’ll walk home and remind myself that I’m in New York City, and it doesn’t feel like the worst day anymore.”


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