Ideas behind Infectious Ideas' approach might be contagious

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When John McGonigle walks into The Brig, an after-work spot in Venice, Calif., popular with TBWA/Chiat/Day staffers, he looks at first glance like one of Lee Clow's disciples, a hotshot creative straight out of central casting. Turns out that despite the carefully cultivated scruffiness, the tattoos, tousled hair and soul patch under his lower lip, McGonigle is what is known in this business as a suit.

The contradictions don't end there; the 33-year-old is a married father expecting his second child, a songwriter and bass player who still dreams of landing a big-time record contract and a wicked-smart entrepreneur determined to challenge conventional wisdom about branding.

McGonigle spent three years at Chiat/Day, where he oversaw Sony PlayStation and helped set up an Internet think tank. Last year, he and Ivan Wicksteed, a strategic planning director, left to start their own branding consultancy, Infectious Ideas.

At a time when big agencies are preaching media neutrality and integrated marketing but delivering 30-second solutions, Infectious Ideas is establishing a truly platform-agnostic business model. In an age of global consolidation, the four-person start-up is also out to prove a company can make up with brains what it lacks in brawn.

"Too often the brand discussion and the advertising discussion are one and the same" at traditional agencies, McGonigle says. "It's a mis-definition of what a brand is. A brand grows out of an idea, creates a business and drives everything the business does. Advertising agencies make ads. That's what they do. It's how they're compensated."

McGonigle insists he's got nothing against traditional agencies, but he and Wicksteed decided that to be neutral they needed to start from scratch, without departments and without a biased compensation system. "They're brave, they're smart, they're apolitical," says the partners' former boss, Tom Carroll, president of the Americas for TBWA Worldwide. "It's not that they have contempt for agencies. They just think there's a better way."

Infectious Ideas starts by selling potential clients a "brand audit," which involves questioning everyone from the CEO to the engineers. "If you ask very basic questions-What business are you in? Who are your competitors? Who is your consumer? Why should they care about you?-people inside most companies can't consistently answer them," McGonigle says. "If they can't do that, how in the world are they going to explain it to the consumer?"

After the audit, Infectious Ideas extends the relationship by helping a company create and execute a brand strategy. Its recommended solutions range from ads to public relations initiatives to logo design. The advisers don't create ads, but can help clients hire an agency or tap other resources.

For Gold's Gym International, Mc-Gonigle and his partners developed a public relations strategy and sought out a PR agency, created a new tagline and logo and presented ideas about the design of Gold's fitness centers. They're even shooting a documentary about the gym.

"We had a need for a branding perspective, but we weren't looking for a full-blown agency," says Gene LaMott, chief operating officer at Gold's. "We've had a lot of experience with big agencies and never got the partner we were looking for. [McGonigle] works as if he's my senior VP of marketing."

In addition to McGonigle and Wicksteed, Infectious Ideas' partners are Lena DiGenti and Greg Perlot; the latter used to oversee advertising and research for Microsoft before leaving five years ago to become a college baseball coach. All four are still in their 30s.

Although Gold's is their largest client, McGonigle says his company has enormous growth potential. "We don't see this as a small, modest business. The relevance of this company is huge. If we're a small business five years from now, we will have failed."

If that happens, McGonigle and Wicksteed at least won't be out of work long. "I'd take either of these guys back in a half-second," says Carroll. "They've got guts."

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