Agency brands are nothing new -- most of the major global networks already consider themselves brands. But these upstarts are leveraging their brands in new -- and unorthodox -- ways.
Work, a 4-year-old Richmond, Va., shop founded by Cabell Harris that handles creative projects as a subcontractor to established agencies, is in the process of transforming itself into a hybrid design and advertising agency that will seek assignments directly from clients.
Work is also negotiating to produce its own apparel and children's books lines, and even a microbrewed beer, all bearing the Work brand.
In New York, Ad Store President Paul Cappelli has licensed that name to a French agency that has opened the Ad Store/Paris. Plans are under way for similar operations in Moscow and Madrid.
Also in New York, David Metcalf's 3-year-old Working Class is crafting not merely ads for clients such as Martha Stewart but also hip leather jackets, boots and accessories bearing the elegant black and yellow Working Class logo.
Mr. Metcalf, too, has been approached about opening a version of Working Class in London and offering his products in Japan.
New profit centers? Maybe. But the real motivation behind these ventures is a chance for the shops' principals, all of whom are former agency creative directors, to do a little stretching as big-picture thinkers and satisfy entrepreneurial zeal that isn't limited to producing print and TV work.
The moves reflect the ongoing efforts of small agencies to recast their images and mix of services in search of a new paradigm, one that will ostensibly lead to a better understanding of how to shape and communicate the branding messages of their clients.
"Everything we taught our clients we're having to practice ourselves," said Mr. Cappelli. "We're having to constantly refurbish our brand."
The Work brand is the one currently going through the greatest refurbishment. The company has maintained a low profile as an outside creative resource, working for a lengthy list of agencies.
Mr. Harris' goal is for Work to stand for a retro salute to honest labor and pride in a job well done.
Indeed, if Work's irreverent view of itself is any indication, Mr. Harris intends to infuse everything he undertakes with a degree of humor and irony. The company has done a series of team cards, complete with funny photos of its few staffers on the front and silly write-ups and illustrations on the back. It boasts generic maxims like "no job too big or too small" in its breezy capabilities handbook, along with tongue-in-cheek offers of a "free ad with each five paid ads."
In a playful demonstration of its design arm's skill, Work has also produced more than a dozen variations of its logo, each bearing the look of Depression-era industrial graphics.
While busy hatching plans to make Work-related products the next hip thing, Mr. Harris makes no bones about his ultimate goal.
FOCUS STAYS ON ADVERTISING
"My main focus is on the advertising," he said.
Should he succeed in getting the branded ventures up and running, he plans on turning them over to experienced pros in their respective fields while maintaining a financial interest in the operations. He'll also keep creative input on products and control of their ad and marketing campaigns -- achieving, in the process, the lofty goal of becoming one's own client.
Mr. Metcalf's motivation for producing products "was no grand vision," he admitted. The street-level TriBeCa location he found to open his shop three years ago had a retail space, so he figured he'd open a shop. The next question was what to sell. The answer: his client's products, of course.
The Working Class boutique is the sole retail outlet for Martha Stewart's catalog items, but it also offers goodies that "reflect the dichotomy of the concepts of `working' and `class,"' Mr. Metcalf said.
UPSCALE AND WORKING CLASS
Essentially, the boutique sells upscale versions of working-class goods -- like the fancy leather version of what's called in England a donkey jacket, a light coat worn by workers and tradesmen.
"The store is interesting because it gives us a face with consumers," Mr. Metcalf said. He also considers it something of a laboratory, a place where the agency gets to interact with consumers.
The Ad Store opened its doors the same year Work did, 1993, though with a different strategy. Mr. Cappelli, who worked on Coca-Cola at McCann-Erickson Worldwide, saw the Ad Store as a creative resource that could work for anyone and everyone, from multinational brands to local retailers.
Its first foray into licensing came last year, when Mr. Cappelli was approached by a French ad executive backed by several partners, among them FKGB, an independent French agency that specializes in entertainment and media.
Mr. Cappelli said that, in addition to giving him a sense of what brand stewardship feels like from the client side, his licensing efforts also provide him with the seeds of a network, albeit one that does not share common ownership.
"We're not bogged down by bureaucracy because we're all independently owned," he said.
The branding process these agencies have undertaken is not without risk. It's difficult and costly, Mr. Metcalf said, and takes up time that otherwise would be devoted to clients' challenges.
And once you've got a brand, you have to protect it. Mr. Cappelli's lawyers have already had to send threatening letters to a guy in Frankfurt who opened an unauthorized Ad Store, while Mr. Metcalf has sought trademark protection for the Working Class name in several countries.
The key, overall, is finding the right balance between what branching out into apparel, publishing or franchising can do for an agency's overall level of marketing expertise and the perceptions of what agencies can do for their clients.
Said Mr. Harris: "If I can make Work a successful brand and show that I can develop something from A to Z, then I think clients will feel much better about going with us."