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Organic Is Ad Age's Comeback Agency of the Year

After a Number of Stumbling Losses, Digital Player Rebounds With a Strong New-Business Streak, Creative Work

By Published on .

San Francisco's organic is no stranger to fighting for survival.

Once lumped with shops that no longer exist, such as MarchFirst and Agency.com, Organic endured the dot-com bust. When its digital-agency peers fell into bankruptcy, it recovered by going from public to private to holding-company ownership. Then, the Great Recession took out the Omnicom agency's two biggest clients over the past two years -- but the shop once again came back from the brink.

"When those losses happen, you can't panic," said Organic CEO Marita Scarfi, who's been with the agency for more than 10 years. "You need to not feel like you have to pitch [everything], otherwise you will never move the agency forward."

The first to go, in 2010, was the agency's largest client, Chrysler. The automaker underwent bankruptcy and new leadership before reviewing agency assignments across the board and leaving Organic . Then, at the start of 2011, its second-largest client, Bank of America, jumped ship, consolidating digital creative at Publicis Groupe alongside its media shop, Starcom.

Parting with giant chunks of revenue from two tentpole clients would have crushed most agencies, but Organic shored up those losses by taking on more wide-ranging accounts. After Chrysler, Organic managed to keep its 100-person Detroit office open with minimal layoffs thanks to a win from Hilton Hotels and assignments for Kimberly-Clark.

"It's credit to the management team to endure the challenges that come in any agency's life, having to work through ups and downs," said Jeff Jarrett, VP-global digital, CRM and e-commerce for Kimberly-Clark. "The good news is they've done a great job rebuilding their business and at the same time keeping their core team in place," he said.

Thanks to that resilience, Organic has added Kimberly-Clark baby-care brands Pull-Ups and Goodnights to its portfolio, following its successful U by Kotex campaign in 2010. "[Organic has] helped us develop a new way of planning for our integrated marketing process around understanding consumer digital behavior," said Mr. Jarrett. "They're always the smartest guys in the room."

Other new business includes work from Nike , Visa, Walmart Stores, which in total has replaced the $22 million Bank of America took away from the agency. It also picked up work from Hasbro, PepsiCo and Cablevision.

The wins haven't only buoyed revenue; they have provided a framework where a lost client or two won't lead to disaster. "Diversifying clients was an important strategy to ensure we have a much stronger foundation when it comes to building our business," said Ms. Scarfi.

Hasbro recently brought Organic on as its first digital agency of record for the Playskool brand. "We needed to make sure we had somebody would be a partner, not a vendor," said Victor Lee, VP-digital brand marketing for Hasbro. "We didn't want to get lost. Even though we may not be the biggest-spending client, we didn't want to feel like a logo on the wall," said Mr. Lee. "We didn't get that feeling from [Organic ]."

And despite the tumult, last year ushered in some of Organic 's best creative work. For Walmart , the agency helped build the big-box retailer's commerce app for iPad. Organic built mobile apps for Hilton Garden Inn. For anti-drug nonprofit The Meth Project, the agency even made its first TV ads, with film director Darren Aronofsky.

Organic has also retooled to handle more experience-driven work, larger web initiatives and mobile and social-media duties for clients. For example, it is working on Walmart 's global intranet social network for employees.

Said Ms. Scarfi: "When you go through this type of change in an organization, it's not about me, it's about everybody contributing together and landing firmly on our feet on the other side."

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