Nonsense names

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Blame it on Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Euro RSCG.

The New York agency's name blossomed over the years into something you couldn't fit on the back of a varsity jacket without dropping it down to agate type.

Whatever the cause, start-up ad agencies increasingly avoid putting partners' names on the door. Instead they're running in the opposite direction-going not for corporate-sounding names that at least suggest they're in the business of helping clients sell products, but for oddball monikers that at times signify next to nothing.

The recent trend may have started with Mad Dogs & Englishmen, an agency started in New York in 1991. Since then, the industry has seen agencies formed-and in many cases succeed-with such names as Pyro, Gyro, Core, Ground Zero, Work, Fusion Idea Lab, Open Minds, Band of Gypsies, Amster Yard, Working Class and Black Rocket. And don't forget Secret Agent Marketing, which operates undercover as the Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co.

Surprisingly, most of those shops made their debut long before the Internet explosion made companies with names such as Amazon, Monster and Yahoo! seem commonplace. The trend also surfaced on the global ad scene, with Mother and St. Luke's in the U.K., Taxi in Canada and Strawberry Frog and 180 in Amsterdam.

Having a hipster handle now seems de rigueur, and some shops are re-christening themselves to promote a more radical image. A Louisville, Ky., shop formerly called Halblieb/Beggs is now known as Red7e. The former TraverRohrback in Kalamazoo, Mich., answers to Copper, while the former FJC&N, an award-winning Salt Lake City shop, now calls itself Richter 7.

Then there's the Boston start-up called Six, and its Beantown peers, Rattle and Fort Franklin. The Republik in Chapel Hill, N.C., was founded last fall by a former partner of the conventionally named West & Vaughn.

The principals of these shops insist the names make symbolic statements about the businesses. Copper, said Steve Kunkel, managing partner and client service director, is the fastest conductor of electricity. Richter 7 seeks to "create messages with enough magnitude to move the proverbial needle," said partner Dave Newbold. Velocity is defined by founder Lisa Hickey as "speed in a specific direction." Red7e, President Tom Halbleib cheerfully noted, "means nothing, but that was one of its main attractions."

Kevin Lynch, a partner and founder of Hadrian's Wall in Chicago, said the Roman emperor who built the wall, which still stands in northern England, was a champion of art and architecture who established good communications within the empire. "He was also a bisexual who murdered his gay lover, but everyone has their bad days."

As with every trend, there's a backlash. Two new agencies sound quite like agencies of old: Boston's McCarthy Mambro Bertino and San Francisco's Venables Bell. "We think those [other] names are silly, they don't seem to last and clients don't take them seriously," said Venables Bell founder Paul Venables. "We wanted clients to know we were doing our own thing, and that's why they come here, to work with us."

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