Cutwater 2.0

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Back in 2007, when veteran agency creative Chuck McBride was given the blessing by Omnicom Group to launch Cutwater, he explained the origin of the agency's name as having roots in seafaring. The moniker refers to the forward edge of a ship's prow, "the first and sharpest point to cut through the ever-changing sea."

Cutwater
Cutwater

The tides have certainly turned for Cutwater, which four years after its birth as a spinoff of TBWA/Chiat/Day is now a wholly independent shop that's trying to regain its footing in the San Francisco ad market.

In December 2010, at the tail-end of the recession that whipsawed the industry, Mr. McBride and Omnicom Group negotiated a separation. But rather than shutter the agency, Mr. McBride recruited two partners to help him give it another go. Former TBWA exec Travis Britton is the new executive creative director and a principal of Cutwater. He co-leads the creative and cultural vision of the agency, while Christian Hughes, who was at JWT most recently, is managing director and a principal. It's a lean operation of just 10 in-house staff, plus what it calls a "planning syndicate"-- a network of specialists in brand innovation, digital activation and other disciplines.

"It's really different because the business has changed even since 2007," Mr. McBride, who's laid low since the Omnicom split, told Ad Age recently. "You can use the best-of-breed, you don't have to use the people who are under the umbrella already as your primary services. ... The world doesn't need, necessarily, another ad agency."

Like many in the industry today who are eschewing the traditional agency model, Mr. McBride describes his now-autonomous company as less an agency and more of a content-creation engine. "It's more diversified, this isn't just a straight-up ad agency. We're doing websites, identity, naming products. We're doing brand friendly-technology. Advertising is really the last thing we try to accomplish."

Without the funding of the mothership, Cutwater has moved to a less-expensive office space in a loft on San Francisco's Townshend Street, outfitted with Steelcase desks and other hand-me-down furniture that once belonged to Mr. McBride's grandfather. Its clients to date include Ubisoft (Rocksmith and Assassins Creed), Easton Baseball and Feeding America. Rather than multimillion-dollar TV campaigns, the work has focused on viral campaigns.

Cutwater 2.0, if you will, has been quiet up till now, but will likely be more vocal in the coming months as the agency aims to attract more clients and new talent. Mr. McBride finds himself in the same boat as many of other senior creatives in the industry who gained credibility at large network agencies, and are now trying to cash in on it as agency owners. Among them: Gerry Graf and his agency BFG9000, and Ty Montague's firm with partner Rosemarie Ryan, Co.

Mr. McBride's creative career was spent largely at West Coast shops, such as Team One, Goodby Silverstein & Partners and Wieden & Kennedy (where he had two tours of duty). It was through a six-year run at TBWA, where he ascended to executive creative director of the North America region, that he was given the opportunity -- with Omnicom's blessing, and financial backing -- to launch his own shop in early 2007.

Cutwater essentially replaced TBWA's San Francisco outpost, taking with it some of the agency's clients, and winning new ones. Right out of the gate, the agency was tapped by Chrysler to handle Jeep work. The following year it continued a winning streak, picking up accounts such as LensCrafters and Nvidia, but things cooled off amid the recession.

Just who initiated the separation between Cutwater and Omnicom is a mixed story. Mr. McMcbride contends it was a personal decision, but buzz within Omnicom is that the agency was cut loose because it was no longer profitable after losing accounts such as Luxxotica Group's Ray-Ban and Lens Crafters.

"It was my decision to part ways with the holding company," Mr. McBride maintains. "Being independent has always been a long-term goal. During the past four years, we learned a lot about who we are and what we want to be. As the agency matured, we realized that certain aspects of being wholly owned didn't align with our plans for growth. We wanted more freedom, both as a creative house and as a business, and we needed autonomy over our client relationships, our work, our culture and our talent. There were growing pains over time, acknowledged by both Cutwater and Omnicom, and we amicably parted ways. Omnicom has been supportive of us and we've kept the name Cutwater because we're proud of what we accomplished with them," he said, adding: "That way, we didn't spend any time in vain when we were a publicly held company."

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