Rockfish Is No. 3 on Ad Age's Agency A-List

Our First Small Agency of the Year Doubled Its Staff and Boosted Revenue by Working Like a Software Company

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- While the rest of the agency world frantically tried to jam technology know-how into its core, Rockfish Interactive spent 2009 layering more creative, account and strategy thinking onto its already healthy web-platform business.

Kenny Tomlin
Sam Hadley
ROCKFISH
CEO: Kenny Tomlin
EMPLOYEES: 80
CLIENTS: Walmart, Sam's Club, Tyson Food Service
The Rogers, Ark., shop -- which was the winner of Ad Age's inaugural Small Agency Awards last year -- in many ways looks a lot more like a software company than your typical ad agency. But there's a lot agencies can learn from Rockfish. For starters, play up your strengths, even if they're unsexy.

"We've always been strong from a tech standpoint, so on the creative side, we focus on usability," said agency founder-CEO Kenny Tomlin.

Case in point: the state-of-the-art food service platform that's knocking the socks off new client Tyson. "From a process standpoint, Rockfish understands how to interface their technologies with our systems," said Rodger Starnes, VP-marketing and customer development for Tyson Food Service. "Having worked with major clients, those guys know how to do that and protect all our assets. There's a lot of great creative, but if you don't have that link into the process, that's only 20%-30% meeting our needs."

For Walmart, Rockfish created an internal social network, MyWalmart, so the mega-retailer's employees could connect with each other and the company. Of Walmart's 1.4 million employees in the U.S., 900,000 have registered. It's done work for Pantene, P&G, Hershey's, Sara Lee and Conagra, and in late 2009 was asked to create web apps for Oppenheimer Funds' college savings plans and implement a couponing site for Dr Pepper Snapple's Rose's mixer brand, among other things.

All told, Rockfish nearly doubled staff to more than 70 people and revenue to $8 million in 2009.

IP lab
Even more impressive than its client list is its intellectual-property incubator, formalized with the creation last summer of an internal unit called Rockfish Labs, which has already turned out a collection of web tools. Agency employees are rotated in and out of the Labs unit to foster their entrepreneurial spirits and help keep Labs resources fresh and relevant to projects at hand.

Labs already creates a nice alternate source of revenue -- Rockfish estimates about 10% now comes through that unit -- and the technology coming out of the practice is being woven into client work.

In 2009, Rockfish created a customizable online coupon system that lets brands tweak copy and imagery and set limits on downloads to initially solve the client problem of exorbitant third-party coupon fees and content restrictions. "A number of our CPG clients were using companies for online couponing, but there were third-party-provider issues to deal with, like bottlenecked lead time," said Mr. Tomlin. "We got frustrated with that and built our own."

Today, the coupon tool is available to any Rockfish client and provides the agency with another revenue stream. Businesses that use the couponing system pay Rockfish a one-time set-up fee and then seven cents every time a consumer prints a coupon. To date, the system has distributed more than 500,000 coupons for brands such as Dr Pepper and White Cloud toilet paper.

It's also a foundation on which it can build out bigger digital plays. In August, Rockfish built a website for Pepperidge Farms, Mott's and Smucker's with a lunchbox design tool and printable coupons for kids' lunch foods using its proprietary system. While the companies had hoped to send coupons to 15,000 users, the site topped traffic expectations in its first week, and printed more than 45,000 coupons.

Labs is now busy working on a widget to embed and distribute coupons on blogs and websites, with incentive fees for publishers.

Tech development
Even pet IP projects yield learning for the agency. For Silver Joe's, a coffee label and café Rockfish launched, it developed an iPhone app for the brand that allows customers to view the café menu, and order and pay all within the phone. Those mobile-marketing lessons won't be lost on the shop.

"We'll be building technology to place orders from phones and complete transactions within the app for other food service clients," Mr. Tomlin said. The Silver Joe's app easily set Mr. Tomlin into a stream of ideas for other brands. "In a coffee shop where you have waitresses, we can easily create a version of it," he said. "They can just carry an iPod Touch. Or, put the Touch in the table and customers can order from there."

The shop last year also created technology in the social-media space that other agencies are using. Labs created TidyTweet to pipe Twitter feeds scrubbed of inappropriate language or users into websites. For its clients, the agency uses TidyTweet every time it needs to filter content in social-media campaigns. For other brand and agencies, Rockfish set up the application as a service, where anyone can sign up and use the technology for a $10 per month, per filtered-stream rate. More than 800 companies have opted in, including Warner Bros. for the recent Sherlock Holmes movie site.

In September, a panel of app developers and venture capital entrepreneurs selected Tidy Tweet as the overall best Twitter app at the 140 Twitter Conference in Los Angeles.

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