Renegade communications strategy shop Naked talks bias-free media, brillian misfits and why the time is right to bring Nakedness to America. On a rainy day, back in August 2000, guests were ushered across a wobbly gangplank onto a rusty old riverboat moored on London's River Thames. The host, John Harlow—Heineken and Marlboro Light in hand—wanted to show off his new office, a dingy little cabin in the boat's bowels, where his new business partners, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin, were gathered around a single laptop. "Welcome to Naked," Harlow announced.
The oldest of the partners, Wilkins, was only 33 then, and although they all had burgeoning reputations as up-and-coming media thinkers, the setup seemed more like three young guys larking around—a fact underscored by their choice of a pair of genital gesticulators known as Puppetry of the Penis as entertainment at their launch party—than the formation of an agency that would change the U.K. agency landscape.
But that's exactly what Naked did. In the five years since its launch, Naked has set new standards for creativity in choice and use of communications channels, and, in doing so, persuaded many European marketers to separate communications planning from other agency functions. Its influence has been felt not only in the U.K. but in Holland, Norway and Australia. Now, Naked is coming to America.
Harlow, Wilkins and Collin weren't the first to go to market in London as a media-agnostic communications planning shop with no financial ties to the mainstream TV-dependent ad or media agencies—they followed the likes of Michaelides & Bednash and Unity in that respect—but they were more aggressive in pointing out that the old "the answer is TV, now what's the question," marketing method was fatally flawed.
They still preach from that hymn sheet: "All traditional agencies try to do, at their worst, is perpetuate a model that is eroding in potency," says Wilkins. "If your primary income is derived from ad production or the purchase of media space, and planning is only of secondary importance financially, then when push comes to shove it's not going to get the attention and resources it deserves. By being unshackled from any formal agency structure—not having any creative or media buying mouths to feed—we have no inherent biases or predispositions and no limits to our thinking. We can come up with the right answer, not an answer that supports an existing business model." They also charge differently for those answers: There are "no hidden markups or production costs on invoices," just a straight charge for staff time, plus an enviable 25 percent markup.
That nakedly aggressive approach combined with the force of personality of the founders, their comfort collaborating with agencies and their partnership with London's hottest shop, Mother—one of Mother's partners invested in Naked, and, after fleeing the boat, the guys took an office next door to the ad shop—propelled Naked to rapid growth. Within two years, the shop had grown to around 30 staff and was punching above its weight in snagging European planning and brand strategy assignments for the likes of Playstation, Honda and the Central Office of Information, the big-spending marketing center for all government marketing programs.
It helped, of course, that the work lived up to the hype, achieving the balancing act of pleasing sales and marketing directors as well as awards juries. Among Naked's early successes: The "Warholiser" and "Sofa Games" campaigns. The "Warholiser," for London art gallery the Tate Modern, encouraged visitors to upload images of themselves to the gallery's website to be, well, Warholised. An early viral campaign success story (using no PR and no ads), it attracted 200,000 users in two months, opened the Warhol exhibition as the second biggest ever at the gallery, and won a Cannes Media Lion. "Sofa Games," for Reebok, was a series of one-day events in major arenas, in which young fans, lured by free alcohol and live big-screen sport took part in five-a-side soccer matches that used sofas for goalposts. The campaign, which was sparked by a Lowe ad showing a man fighting his sofa, and was supported with clever in-store promotions, fueled Reebok to overtake No. 2 two player adidas in the U.K. sneaker race. (For a while it even seemed Reebok might challenge the hegemony of the mighty Nike.)
Naked didn't apply its fresh thinking only to its clients, either. When the agency grew beyond 50 people, a size that the founders knew might inhibit its irreverent culture and free-form brainstorming approach, it found inventive ways to grow. Apart from opening the European hub in Amsterdam and targeting Asia from Australia, it also launched what a more traditional agency might call a conflict shop: Naked Ambition. More cleverly still, it created "Naked Inside"—a riff on the Intel business model—helping hotshop Clemmow Hornby Inge establish a communications planning function, by selling the agency the Naked name and methodology. It also co-created a digital consultancy with Fallon.
Now the guys say they are coming to America. They won't name a date—"we're at the negotiation stage with key partners in the market"—but they've done their research, having spent much of the last three years exploring the U.S. market and they believe now is the right time.
"Two and a half years ago, it wasn't right," says Wilkins. "There were a lot of CMOs on the platform talking about getting away from the traditional model, saying they were fed up with the slavish adherence to TV, but there wasn't much action. What we've detected in the last six to ninemonths is people actually putting different strategies into place, and P&G has made a commitment to communications planning. On a parochial level, you're also seeing lots of interesting creative boutiques that are not only appearing but taking big chunks of business because they have the biggest idea rather than the biggest staff."
Both those shifts play into Naked's hands. If you force the three partners to define the agency, they will tell you it's an upstream communications strategy business, and, because they know much of their work will involve collaborating with agencies, they are unlikely to mess with that positioning too much. But there's nothing to say Naked can't compete in creative or idea-seeking pitches.
In fact, when Coke recently convened a meeting in Paris of all its agencies, Naked received the same brief as the other agencies like Ogilvy, Berlin Cameron, Publicis and Wieden & Kennedy. "That happens increasingly often," says Wilkins. "Clients don't see us as an ad agency, but they do want us to come up with our own approach in parallel, rather than as a follow on or bolt on. In Coke's words, we're just as likely to come up with the big ideas. It's not always that the big idea lies with the advertising solution."
Still, America, with its cautious, conservative marketing culture, will be a big step for the Naked guys, who admit that they aren't great at being corporate. But their timing for a pioneering channel-planning operation looks good: they have a long roster of global clients who will likely give them U.S. work from the get-go (Nokia and Coke seem like potentials); they somehow always manage to find smart staff, what they call "Naked people," or "brilliant misfits"; and they are seriously committed to the idea, promising offices not only in New York but also in other key markets.
Just as long as the launch party doesn't involve Puppetry of the Penis, they should be all right. -Jonah Bloom
Across the Great Divide
Q: How will the media and creative disciplines reunite to offer truly integrated thinking in a climate of mutual respect? A: Very carefully.
The expression that's been used most often by industry leaders (like, say, Martin Sorrell) on the subject of the media buying and planning/creative split is this: "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube." Aside from being another annoyingly overused and meaningless ad catchphrase, the expression is an odd choice for the likes of Sorrell—master of the ad universe—in that it smacks of such powerlessness, of a messy accident that can't be cleaned up. Paul Woolmington, founder of communications strategy shop Media Kitchen uses an equally pithy yet more action-oriented phrase to sum up the state of creative/media relations: "Collaborate or die."
Whether or not the media operation toothpaste stays out of the agency tube on an institutional basis, for companies at which the two disciplines have been separated, survival does indeed dictate that creative and media move closer together by other available means. The complete remaking of the media landscape in recent years has meant that content must be inextricably linked to where and how it is experienced by an increasingly fragmented, diverse and distracted audience.
With the goal of bringing media and creative together at an earlier stage, many companies have altered creative and media roles and their proximity to each other in different ways, with creative agencies bringing media in-house to varying degrees and in varying combinations, and working with outside strategists like Naked (see story opposite), and on the flipside, media companies bringing on agency creative directors (at press time, at least one such signing was being discussed). If the industry evolves as it should, creative and media designations will be blurred to such a degree that the terms become almost useless. The journey to that place has thus far been marked by attempts at collaboration, hurt feelings, and competition. Everyone agrees that integration, collaboration and mutual respect are key, but there are diverging opinions on how those things will be achieved and according to all of the constituents, turf battles and assertions of primacy often overwhelm ideas and partnerships. On one extreme are creative agencies that have been slow to adapt, on the other, media companies that increasingly have the marketer's ear and budget, and that, according to creative agency players have positioned themselves as the lead dogs, the standard bearers for marketing communications into the next era.
"There is a big debate right now about where media should reside," says Graham Bednash, co-cofounder of London-and New York-based Michaelides & Bednash, considered perhaps the first of the media-neutral, communications strategy independents, companies like Naked and Media Kitchen, which position themselves as offering unbiased and innovative creative media solutions, often working closely with the creative agency and whoever else should be involved. "There is an opportunity for creative agencies to connect with media companies in a new kind of way. In a lot of cases, agencies have used media for amplification, saying, 'OK, here is the idea, how do we amplify it in loads of other media?' Whereas, I think the interesting thing is how do we bring media in at the very beginning of our process to influence the output."
"There is a sense of being in the crosshairs at the moment where lots of agencies are saying we're going to get left behind if we don't have media channel sensibility built into what we do," says Woolmington. "And if we're not gong to get it from our media brethren, we'll have to get it another way."
Ty Montague, ECD at JWT/New York, acknowledges that "the separation of media and creative probably made sense at some point and it still may for certain clients and certain situations," but he is one of the creative agency leaders taking steps to bring the divorced disciplines together under the creative umbrella. "I don't see a remerging of the big media houses and big ad agencies," says Montague. "But I do see media people and creative people beginning to live together again under one roof. Because in my estimation, media is creative. In order to create the kinds of integrated campaigns we need to be creating media people and creative people need to be if not living together then talking to each other on a daily basis." Montague says the agency currently has two communications planners working inside the agency and says three hires of this nature are imminent. "They live and work in the creative department and work with creatives so we can provide the kind of solutions where you can't pick the context and the content apart."
So that's one approach, though Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer at Publicis Groupe Media warns: "If creative agencies think they can conquer the vast world of consumer contact by inserting media people into their creative teams, they are sorely mistaken. If instead they are merely trying to inform their marketing plans with the perspective of someone who has robust insights about how consumers interact with messages and where and when, then that is a valuable step. Generating contact ideas and delivering them are two different things."
Tobaccowala acknowledges that there isn't one ideal model for bringing media and creative thinking together. "There may be as many viable models as there are partners. I think the Naked model is brilliant—for Naked and its clients. For companies like mine, creative and media have to find better ways to partner, and we're constantly working on it. We have to stop fighting over who owns the relationship or the contract and who has the right to lead. I've said before that creative conflagration will destroy us. We all want to be first. But that position belongs to our clients."
But others say the big media model is fundamentally hobbled when it comes to delivering unbiased communications solutions. Woolmington points out the recent excitement generated in the creative community, with several new launches promising integrated creative thinking, "but what's been noticeably lacking is the appropriate response from the media community," he says. "I think there is such frustration among the rank and file in the traditional media company—it's the siloism. Yes, they have their independence, but to what end? It seems that what people haven't tried to tackle is the more fundamental issue of turf ego and greed, and beyond that, fundamental structure."
The belief that big-box media companies simply couldn't accommodate true media neutrality and the scope of change required was what drove the creation of the independent communications strategists. Like the founders of Naked and M&B, Woolmington was a network player before starting a new-model media shop (with Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, now backed by MDC). "When you talk about the toothpaste quote, I think what's going to happen is that clients will say, 'We need impartial and independent and media neutral.' It's an oxymoron to be media neutral and have 300 people in a broadcast buying department, 100 people in a print buying department and 60 people in an interactive buying department."
Big media companies have responded to the call for integrated thinking in some cases by adding strategy arms and other media-specific branches. "I think it's great that they've recognized that this is important," says Naked's Jon Wilkins. "I just know because I've done it that it's harder performing that role inside a business that has a primary revenue that's not derived from thinking.
They haven't dedicated the necessary resources and infrastructure to developing a team that has the luxury to do this kind of stuff," he adds, pointing out how proportionately few communications strategists are employed at the average 500+ person media shop. "Without a really significant investment on their part, they can't do it. And they spend most of their time investing in tools rather than people, which is another error. Trying to automate strategic thinking doesn't work."
Both Tobaccowala and Publicis' Starcom MediaVest are considered to be among the forward-thinking big media players, and SMG has been especially active in adapting to changing media culture, spearheading initiatives across multiple media, like the Video Investment Group, which deals with all visual media in a multiscreen world. Tobaccowala says the company has taken a flexible and holistic approach to expanding its range. "We have one of the most successful and effective IP teams in the industry, and yet as a stand-alone division, it is obsolete," he says. "That's because digital is no longer a new or emerging communications platform. Digital is the dominant platform. The IP mindset has to permeate every member of our organization. The same is becoming true of multinational consumers. The general market has a new face, so every consumer contact architect has to think of himself as a multicultural marketer. We launch new practices until they become strong and viable, or are proven unnecessary. The future keeps shifting so we have to be flexible as we try to be predictive."
That flexibility is becoming a key indicator of success in an environment in which roles are changing daily—but most admit that lines in the sand remain. Existing turf issues are thrown into sharper relief when it comes to working on "nontraditional" content—like longform brand-sponsored programming—which has no clearly marked box on the organizational chart.
"Right now you have ad agencies who are being told every day by clients that they have to change, yet within the holding company structure, where they are also probably being told to change, there are these turf battles going on," says Woolmington. "So when it comes to something like branded entertainment, one entity will say, 'Well, we're the branded entertainment specialist.' But what if I have got the great idea? It should be a collaboration, yet these demarcations are the first things that people discuss."
As roles continue to evolve, such demarcations should look increasingly anachronistic. "If there is a hallmark of our business in the future, it's flexibility and collaboration," says Montague. "Staying flexible on the people we work with, the way we work and the partners we choose is really important." On the evolution of the "creative" team, Montague says the best creative people have always been great media thinkers and vice versa. 'Those people already exist. We need to encourage that."
The "really interesting" people in the industry, says Woolmington, are "those who aren't worried about the title they carry. What I think will be really interesting is the extent to which people's roles will blur. Media is such an inadequate term for what is going to be the future—we're having to redefine what media is." -Teressa Iezzi