NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- We're in a nondescript office building in an equally nondescript business park in a burgeoning, standing-on-the-shoulders-of-Walmart section of northwest Arkansas on a hot August day. Clusters of young coders and developers sit in a dimly lit room, their eyes glued to giant flat-screen computer monitors. On another side account directors yammer with clients in cubicles that are cluttered with boxes of Walmart's Great Value cereal. And in the center, the CEO's wife stands barefoot in an oversized kitchen, baking blueberry muffins.
This is Rockfish Interactive: A mix of technologists and marketing thinkers working on big brands like the aforementioned uber-retailer -- as well as Procter & Gamble, Tyson Foods and Hershey's -- in a place that has a simple, intimate, family feel. You might call it the agency of the future, except that its time is clearly now. In 2008 the agency brought in revenues of $4.6 million, and for 2009, it's projecting it'll bring in $7.8 million. That's a growth rate of nearly 70%, impressive in any year, let alone during a recession that's knocked the wind out of many agencies -- even those with a strong digital bent.
So how has Rockfish Interactive not only survived but thrived? First of all, it has the whole spectrum of digital marketing work covered. It is as competent building complex online-platform solutions -- such as Walmart's internal communications platform -- as it is creating a brand blitz on behalf of a shampoo. And it has shown the business smarts to develop revenue streams beyond client fees.
"We don't want all of our cash flow and revenue to be 100% client-driven," said Founder-CEO Kenny Tomlin. The agency's revenue model, Mr. Tomlin explained, requires that a healthy percentage of its dollars come from innovative businesses -- sprung from the minds of Rockfish staffers and created on the shop's own dime -- that generate positive cash flow for the agency. That experimentation, of course, attracts the kind of tech talent that can also be used on programs for marketers. It also speaks to one of Rockfish's core principles: That there's no better way to understand the marketing challenges of a client than launching and running your own business.
Early on, the company applied its expertise to launching Silver Joe's Coffee, a premium coffee company, which has spun off into a national brand retailing in 400 stores, a café in Tokyo and 10 U.S. locations planned over the next two years.
Today the organization is divided in two to try to ensure future success in such ventures. There's Rockfish Interactive (the agency operation) and Rockfish Labs, which they describe as an incubator of technologies and products. To date, the incubator arm has launched a slew of web-based products, with an eye on spinning each off into standalone ventures. They include TidyTweet, a real-time filtering tool to help companies keep their Twitter feeds spam-free; job-listing site CrazyHotJob.com; and church management software Fourthbook.com.
To keep the ideas coming, Rockfish recently launched a contest offering a $5,000 cash reward to the staffer who comes up with the best new idea.
A brief history
Rockfish was formed in 2006, the product of a merger of a design studio that Mr. Tomlin formed shortly after leaving Walmart -- where he had been responsible for launching its financial-services business -- and a local ad shop.
The name? Well that was an ode to a lunchtime spot Mr. Tomlin frequented years ago living in Texas. Mr. Tomlin, along with fellow entrepreneur Steve Clark, owns the agency, but detests the notion of putting his name on the door: "With other professions, like painting, or law, you can be great all on your own, but the agency business is one where it's really about the whole team."
Although he worked there, Mr. Tomlin never imagined Walmart would become a Rockfish client, so he was excited when the retailer called and asked if Rockfish could build its Walmart Facts website to help it get its message out to those pesky journalists and other sometimes skeptical influencers.
Soon after, Walmart hired Rockfish to conceive and design MyWalmart.com, to help the retailer stay connected with its 1.4 million U.S. associates.
While large agencies like Martin Agency and R/GA are the shops most often associated with the marketing of Walmart, Rockfish has made a major contribution to the retailer's runaway success in grabbing market share in the online world while its competitors in the value-oriented space, like dollar stores and Costco haven't come close to nailing digital media.
For MyWalmart.com, Rockfish designed a site that could simultaneously serve as a platform for the retailer to disseminate important information to its staff and offer a social community to host conversations. The site's only open to Walmart associates and hosts blogs, forums, shared stories, live video chats and more, with a customizable user experience. Suraya Bliss, senior director of communication for Walmart Stores, said the retailer was blown away by the engagement levels: "The site is less than a year old and we've got close to 450,000 users."
"When you are dealing with a large company and security [issues], people are concerned with creating a product that's fun to use that's also a safe environment," Ms. Bliss said. "They've helped us address some tough issues, and haven't lost sight of creativity in the process." While acknowledging that flashier stuff gets the attention, Ms. Bliss said, "What's really nice is to be able to work with an agency that's been able to help us with the challenges on the back end as well."
Ms. Bliss isn't alone. Today platforms are often the brand idea, rather than something that supports or spreads that idea, and clients are increasingly looking for agencies that can build, not just hire a contractor on their behalf. All of which bodes well for Rockfish's continued growth, given that technical specialists outnumber creatives at the agency by nearly four to one.
Still, it'd be a mistake to pigeonhole Rockfish as a platform developer. The agency has managed to apply its we-breathe-digital thinking successfully to more traditional marketing problems, as it did for P&G's premium shampoo brand, Pantene.
With sales declining, the package-goods giant asked Rockfish to develop a plan to help persuade consumers that Pantene offers salon-quality care at cheaper prices. Rockfish came back with the "Secret to Great Hair," a viral campaign that gave a number of moms an unbranded supply of the shampoo to use and discuss on their blogs and on a custom YouTube channel.
P&G mailed the moms a custom safe that revealed the actual brand upon opening, allowing them to be the first to "break the news" that the secret shampoo was Pantene. Rockfish utilized social media to distribute 250,000 free samples in less than 30 days and amass hundreds of user testimonials -- the holy grail of much marketing today.
The result: An impressive 3% lift in Pantene sales in a crowded category and at a time when cash-strapped shoppers are turning to generics. P&G has tapped Rockfish to work on a slew of upcoming product launches. "Rockfish is a great collaborative partner who understands our brand strategies and ideas and helps accelerate them in unique and different ways," said Jody Johnson, brand manager, noting that the agency's "connection with mom bloggers and in-depth knowledge in that space has helped improve our marketing initiatives."
Despite the blue-chip kudos, it's pleasing to note that Rockfish remains committed to working with local businesses and regional marketers too. One is Arvest Bank, an area banking chain with $10.7 billion in assets and some 200 locations in Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, with which Rockfish has worked since 2007. In a difficult time for the banking industry, Rockfish has helped Arvest bolster its customer service with a revamped site and consumer blog, and is putting the finishing touches on a custom iPhone app.
"The thing that impressed me the most in the initial meeting was that everybody in the room already our customers, were familiar with our website, and were not at all hesitant to tell us what was wrong with our website, said Jason Kincy, VP-marketing manager at Arvest Bank. "I really appreciated that candid feedback."
Techy but homely
While its Rogers, Ark., headquarters are humdrum by Madison Avenue standards the range of talent at Rockfish is anything but average. Allyson Malone, director of HR, says the chief requirement for any candidate is a sharp mind, and willingness to live and breathe digital. Staffers -- about 65% male and with a median age of 30 -- range from a former TV news anchor to a part-time Jazzercise instructor.
The culture is hard-working yet homey. The appointed keeper of that vibe is Dana Tomlin, she of the blueberry muffins and Kenny's wife of 16 years, whose title at the agency is "cultural architect." Staffers prefer, "the Rockfish mom."
The way Ms. Tomlin sees it, the agency is an extension of her family, which means making sure they're well-fed and comfortable from the time they arrive at their desks around 8 a.m. Every Friday, Ms. Tomlin cooks lunch for staffers, serving up food such as tacos or spaghetti and meatballs (clients have been known to ask for an invite too) though she admits the meals are becoming more challenging to churn out on her own.
That's not surprising, given Rockfish has grown in the last year from 35 to 56 employees. Early '09 marked the opening of Rockfish's Dallas office, and Joel Dollar, exec VP-general manager -- formerly of Omnicom's Targetbase -- is now building a full-service outpost, which aims to have 30 or 40 staffers by next year.
In fact it seems highly unlikely Rockfish will be eligible to enter the Small [75 staff or under] Agency Awards in 2010, but it ran out a worthy winner of the title in 2009 and has clearly built the foundations for success for years to come.