TBWA's Media Arts Lab Offers (Limited) Glimpse at the Future

Inside the Secretive Shop That Produces Apple's Stunning Ads

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"There are two ways to talk about what we're doing," James Vincent told me. "You could say we're trying to build the agency of the future. Or you could say we're trying to build what an agency should be today."
Brilliant strategy
It's a brilliant strategy, at once raising and lowering expectations for the 3-month-old Media Arts Lab. This isn't Spacely Sprockets, just a small, protected corner of the agency world where people are carrying out an experiment remarkable for its simplicity. Unlike other would-be agencies of the future, this one isn't (just) a digital shop. It's centered not around a discipline but around a concept: "What if ..." What if planners and creatives worked within clear sight of each other? What if the digital guys sat alongside the "old media" folks? What if agency employees could create the things they conceive without leaving the building?

The answer: We'll find out.

Behind the frosted glass
To get to the Media Arts Lab, you follow the directions to TBWA/Chiat/Day's L.A. office but hang a left just before you get there. Around the corner is another Frank Gehry-designed building, a concrete and glass former warehouse. At the far end is a set of glass doors etched with the likeness of a grizzly and the mysterious letters MAL/TBWA. Three monitors playing a loop of familiar ads (Big Brother, dancing silhouettes) and a lone receptionist (unshaven, casually dressed) perched behind an iMac give the first clues of the work being done behind the frosted glass.

It's work that's taken so seriously, for a client so protective of its secrets, that a visitor has to wait before being escorted inside so assistants can clear tabletops and bulletin boards of any proprietary materials.

MAL/TBWA was born of two impressive daddies, Lee Clow and Steve Jobs. It is run by Vincent, an intensely smart, charmingly rakish Brit still coming to terms with his 40th birthday. It's a way for Clow to explore some of his theories on brands as media but also a chance for Vincent, who has headed the Apple account for years, to run his own thing.

Dream client
Apple is MAL's first, and for now only, account and a dream client -- one of the most innovative and creative marketers in the world. The shop has 85 people across every discipline: account management, creative, planning, digital and media. There are also Flash designers, an HD camera, a sound studio and an editing suite, so creatives can play around with online concepts or shoot test commercials before bringing in a production house.

Bringing everyone -- including OMD employees -- under one roof hasn't been easy. Vincent finds himself telling the online guys to stop talking tech or the media team to put away the spreadsheets. "It's all about storytelling." And anyone can have a good idea. "We agree on where we're going," said Duncan Milner, who heads creative, "even if we fight about how to get there."

It helps to have just one client. "I'm not worried about revenue," Vincent admitted. "I'm worried about whether we have the best people and the best ideas." MAL might seek other clients down the road; then again, it might not.

Some of the work has been in "new" areas such as social media (various iPod Nanos have their own MySpace pages), but there are plenty of billboards and TV spots. "If we were just experimenting with newfangled things, we'd belie the Apple brand."

Redefining planning
MAL is also out to redefine planning, with Elena Hale shifting the focus of the function from defining brand values to understanding how audiences digest media. The agency will share its learnings throughout the TBWA network, although there aren't too many clients like Apple, and successful experiments developed in this lab may be difficult to replicate.

But for Vincent, what might happen tomorrow is of less interest than what he can accomplish today.
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