Small Agency of the Year, 76-150 Employees, Silver: Eleven

Lauded for Raising a 'Higher Bar,' Shop's Connection With Its Impassioned Clients Sets Them Apart

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There is a particular reference, a pop-culture curio that is certain to bubble up in people's minds when you hang a shingle outside your company's offices emblazoned with a conspicuously appointed prime number: Eleven.

"The agency actually started with 11 employees," agency president Courtney Buechert explained of the San Francisco-based firm founded in 1999. (The agency now employs 120 people.)

Yes, but isn't there also that movie --

"Yes, there is also that movie, that line from 'Spinal Tap,'" he affirmed, talking about the iconic faux documentary, in which the lead guitarist shows off his prized amplifier that goes past the typically demarcated limit of 10 to 11. "That's part of the name too," he conceded. "There was sense that here, everything goes to one degree more, everyone goes one more."

Eleven was started by three creative executives, Rob Price, Michael Borosky and Paul Curtin, all from different disciplines -- digital, design and advertising -- with the idea that integrating those elements into one company would set them apart.

"Agencies were talking about being integrated and we're well past that now," said Mr. Buechert, who came on board a few years after its founding, and though a combined services firm is hardly a unique proposition anymore, he said there's a more intangible quality to Eleven these days that sets them apart.

"The clients we do the best with and enjoy the most are ones that either had an iconic founder or a focused and determined sense of what they do for the world," he explained. "So you get this interesting pressure from both the company and from the marketplace -- as an agency when both are strongly opinionated, we tend to do the best work."

He ticked off some examples: Virgin America, Apple, Peet's Coffee, companies with determined founders, but also ones that elicit passionate response from its customers.

"As an agency you will get phone calls and email from customers if they don't like what you're doing," he said, "and it creates a real challenge. You have to be right for the customer, and you have to be right for the client -- it can't be just one of them."

A brand that wouldn't fit into Eleven's working thesis, such as a Bud Light, according to Mr. Buechert, "has a very strong sense of self, and a very large audience-base, but I don't know they have the same ferocity as an Apple."

Speaking of which, as one of Eleven's biggest and most important clients, Apple remains very tight-lipped (as it always has) and forbids the agency from discussing its specific work. But you can imagine what it is , Mr. Buechert said.

Virgin America, a more visible client, worked with Eleven on its recent "Breath of Fresh Airline" campaign, which Mr. Buechert considers "our best work yet, capturing the spirit of the airline and how different they are from others."

The agency is looking to grow over the next year, increasing its employee count another 10% before the year is out, and is looking forward to new campaign work coming out this fall that reflects its belief to speak to the consumers as well as the client.

"As an agency it sets a higher bar," Mr. Buechert said, "a greater good."

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