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Group of Senior Execs Depart Huge to Form New Digital Shop

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Brooklyn-based Huge just got a bit smaller.

Gene Liebel
Gene Liebel
Mohan Ramaswamy
Mohan Ramaswamy
Marcelo Eduardo
Marcelo Eduardo
Joe Stewart
Joe Stewart
Felipe Memoria
Felipe Memoria

A group of senior executives from the Interpublic Group of Cos.' digital shop are decamping to start a new shop. Dubbed Work & Company, the agency is launching with: Huge's Founding Partner and Chief Strategy Officer Gene Liebel; Creative Director Joe Stewart, Partner and Head of Product Design Felipe Memoria and VP-Product Design Marcelo Eduardo. Mohan Ramaswamy, a former product strategy lead at Huge and most recently, an engagement manager at McKinsey, is also joining the new shop.

Mr. Liebel has given notice but remains in his role at Huge for the time being.

The new shop touts headquarters in the Dumbo neighborhood of New York City (known as home to many digital shops), just a stone's throw away from Huge's headquarters. For now, the office a is a modest space decked out with Ikea furniture and vintage plastic chairs.

Work & Company is launching with clients; two which they disclosed to Ad Age were entertainment media startup Bedrocket Media Ventures and Google Creative Labs.

While the furniture and location might shout "startup digital shop," the partners are hoping that their offering of senior-level talent will appeal to marketers frustrated with a lack of access to the very best minds adland has to offer.

Unsurprisingly, given their ties to Huge -- which was founded in 1999, then sold to Interpublic's Lowe unit in 2008 -- they are drawing inspiration from their early days in adland to forge a "new model."

For example, the executives are placing an emphasis on creating and designing actual products for brands. Mr. Liebel used the example of HBO Go, a brainchild of Huge, as well as big ideas that eventually became lasting products and category leaders, such as Netflix and the iPhone.

"There are moments where you'll encounter a product that makes life better," said Mr. Stewart, the lead creative at Work & Company. "After Gmail, life got better. Netflix made life better. It happens all the time, and it's hard to do in a typical agency model. What we're trying to do is bring about more of those kinds of experiences and we have to create a new model to do that."

After years in adland, Mr. Liebel thinks he and his cohorts have cracked the code to what marketers need today in a digital shop. "The trick is it requires a small, amazing senior team designing without a net," he said. "We're so close and aligned. It's one of the healthiest things; like Huge in the early days, we're good at disagreeing and good at getting to a consensus."

He added that the shop will also do its best to eradicate the many steps and formal briefs that are part of the standard procurement processes, and instead convince clients to focus more on steps such as prototyping.

Mr. Memoria, one of the key product designers, said: "What we were noticing in all those years [at Huge] is that the most successful projects we ever made were all following that different path, [which included] a small senior team working closely with the client and having no major presentations."

Joshua Dern, SVP and chief product officer at Bedrocket, believes in Work & Company's approach.

"Every agency talks about user experience, but in my experience, few are actually capable of delivering on the promise...The team behind Work & Co are proven stars, having designed some of most beloved web sites and apps, so they are one of the few teams I would trust as a partner to help us bring our visions to life," he said. Mr. Dern noted that he also prefers working with an agency that's owned and funded fully by the partners.

"We want to be independent as long as possible," said Mr. Memoria. "We're all thinking this is our last career move. We want to do something where we're happy to work for a very long time."

So what's next for Huge?

The turnover in top talent means the shop will continue to evolve to embrace the thinking of new staffers, and let a new generation forge a path forward.

Mr. Liebel's exit comes after the agency lost founder and global creative director David Skokna, as well as technology head and partner Sasha Kirovski in 2010. Upon their departure, Aaron Shapiro, who joined the company in 2005 as the 10th employee, assumed the role of CEO. Mr. Liebel, the fourth original partner, took on the role of chief strategy officer overseeing product design and analytics. At the time, Mr. Stewart was also promoted to executive creative director and Mr. Memoria to head of product design.

When Ad Age reported the management changes in 2010, Mr. Shapiro had said: "The nine employees I met when I joined the agency are now running divisions of the company." He had also emphasized that he was "not worried" about maintaining the agency's culture after it loses its founder because so many original employees were in leadership roles. A year later the shop hit $100 million in revenue and made it onto Ad Age's A-List.

But now, the shop must rely on newer talent to assume the duties of the executives that have left. A Huge spokesman could not immediately comment on the matter beyond insisting that "there's no disruption to the management structure." Global Creative Director Conor Brady and Michael Pasternak, head of user experience and product design, both had co-run their groups with Mr. Stewart and Mr. Memoria and will continue in the roles. And for now, Ken Allard who oversees business strategy and Jonathan Lee who runs marketing and brand strategy will oversee strategy upon Mr. Liebel's departure.

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