Former Heineken CMO Launches Agency

Marketing Vet Christian McMahan to Lead Smartfish Group

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Christian McMahan
Christian McMahan
Backed by nearly 20 years of marketing experience in the beer and spirits industries, Christian McMahan, the former CMO at Heineken USA, is leaving the client side to launch a new agency.

Mr. McMahan has set up Smartfish Group, which is the result of the merger of two Boston-area marketing agencies: Jackrabbit Design, a digital design firm, and DotGain Solutions, a creative shop. Mr. McMahan has worked with both agencies in the past and has a personal connection to the founders of DotGain, Jim Coveno and David Matthy, whom Mr. McMahan met in college at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

"For a small- to medium-sized brand, we can offer world-class marketing skills and leadership, and for the larger brands and companies, we can serve as a challenger agency," Mr. McMahan told Ad Age . He believes his experience on the client side will help set the agency apart, and from his experience working with both holding-company agencies and indie shops in the business, he thinks indie shops have an edge.

"Having worked with some great independents in the past, whether it's Wieden or the Richards Group, I always enjoyed that and I think there's something special about it," he said. "It's not [that ] the old agency model is a dinosaur," but, according to him, being flexible and "having the skill set and knowing the people you can pull in to help you with challenges" is what's most important, especially when dealing with complex, global brands.

Just how much global business Smartfish will be able to attract remains to be seen. The newly-combined shop will still be a small one, with just under 30 employees currently and another five to 10 positions expected to be added this year. It will keep two Massachusetts locations and launch a third in the New York area, where Mr. McMahan will be based.

Smartfish will have no CEO role, but Mr. McMahan will lead the agency as managing partner. Messrs. Coveno and Matthy will stay on and will lead the account team, while Dave Belyea, the founder of Jackrabbit Design, will serve as creative director of Smartfish.

Said Mr. Belyea in a statement: "It is extremely rare when you can get a small group of individuals who are so completely aligned in the collective vision of where we want to be as an organization and who also share the same core values. Over the years we have worked together as client and agency. It is an amazing evolution now to do it together as an agency team."

Between them, the agencies' clients in the past have included Converse, Boston University, The American Lung Association, Guinness beer, Smirnoff and John Hancock Financial Network.

Together, Smartfish launches with a new client, Llanllyr Source Water. Said Karyne Bazzano, president of Llanllyr's parent, Preston H2O, in a statement: "When I heard about Christian and Smartfish, I immediately contacted him to discuss the chance for us to work together. It is such a unique situation to have someone with so much client experience be in a position to support us as our agency in all our U.S. marketing efforts."

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