March 13, 2023

A-List & Creativity Awards 2023

Data & Insights Agency of the Year

Known won 30 clients as brands hungered for data

By Lindsay Rittenhouse

The Known team, photographed in formation from the balcony of their New York office overlooking Bryant Park.

Just Egg’s first national brand campaign “Really Good Eggs,” which kicked off in late 2021, was everywhere it needed to be—it swept billboards in major cities including New York’s Times Square, it ran on YouTube and on streamers like Hulu—and it expanded the plant-based Just Egg’s brand’s pool of potential purchasers to 53% in 2022 from 11% a year earlier.

The campaign was successful because it relied heavily on data, which independent agency Known used to inform which ads would run and where in real time. It was one of the first major efforts from the lesser-known agency that got the industry talking and proved that a midsize agency with a headcount of 400 can deliver big results.

Despite economic uncertainty causing marketers to pull back on media spend and layoffs to sweep the industry in 2022, Known took off in terms of growth and reputation as brands were hungrier than ever for the type of data-infused advertising services it provides.

Known’s projected 2022 revenue jumped to $145 million from $120 million in 2021 on the heels of 30 client wins including Shake Shack, AMC Networks and YES Network.

“We were actually astonished by the appetite that’s out there for this kind of model,” Known CEO-Chairman Kern Schireson said.


A new marketing model
Roughly one-third of Known’s revenue comes from data consulting and advanced analytics, but the agency handles a breadth of work including creative and media as well.

Schireson said he doesn’t like to categorize Known as an ad agency, because everything it’s doing is antithetical to the ways in which agencies have traditionally operated.

“When people say ‘ad agency,’ we get a little bit nervous because it’s evocative of all this traditional thinking,” Schireson said. “You know, (Mad Men character) Don Draper sitting in a room, coming up with a big idea, giving a pitch to a client and people getting excited about an idea. We feel like that’s probably the dominant form in which advertising has been delivered for like 75 years. But it’s not actually the way it works today.”

Schireson said modern advertising ideas need to come from a deeper understanding of consumers; knowing how and where they want to be reached and also how and where competitors are reaching them. He said that approach needs data.

All of Known’s capabilities are integrated and powered by its proprietary tech platform, Skeptic, which uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to predict and optimize everything the company does. Schireson said the company is “not a bunch of chopped up parts of agencies” like traditional holding companies.

“The science team provides continuous feedback to creative services and into the mechanisms through which these campaigns are activated to make sure that they’re constantly improving, that they’re constantly fed more data,” Schireson said.


An approach that wins
This type of work performs well in a shaky economic environment where every marketing dollar counts.
“From our vantage point, what we’re seeing is people now saying ‘OK, I still have to sell products, build my business, grow my consumer base, and I know that it’s going to be a trickier year economically than 2020 and 2021. So what am I going to do differently?’ That’s actually a really good place for us to be,” Schireson said.

One company Known helped to take off in 2022 was Stackwell, an investment app designed to close the racial wealth gap in America. Known helped the company better understand its competitors and audiences. On the creative side, the agency refreshed Stackwell’s website with an updated design and copy and produced its first social ads and educational videos. The team even helped write the creative briefs for Stackwell’s pitches to the National Basketball Association and the Women’s National Basketball Association to help amplify the app and create engagement with athletes and fans.

Known’s work for Stackwell helped the app raise $3.5 million in seed funding last August and launch publicly in September.

Known also doubled its media business since 2020, as the agency claimed to be able to outperform Google’s ad optimizer by 20% and reduce customer acquisition costs by 60%.

Big media wins included the global agency-of-record assignments from Sesame Workshop and AMC Networks; the latter followed a highly competitive pitch that included holding companies such as incumbent Dentsu.

“The first time we met the Known team, and in every meeting since, they have never felt like an agency ‘pitching’ us,” AMC Networks President of Marketing Len Fogge said. “We have meetings. They are an extension of us. And they are the smartest and nicest group of people you could imagine. Right out of the gate, they dove into our business, and we got results instantly. I couldn’t be happier with our choice.”

AMC Networks adds to a growing list of clients in the media and entertainment space. (Known has helped launch six of the last nine TV streaming platforms: Disney+, HBOMax, TelevisaUnivision, AMC+, CNN+ and Discovery+.)

“Somebody wrote when we landed the AMC Networks business that one company in a category is an opportunity, two is a conflict, but three is a specialty, and I think we are starting to be seen as having a really deep, differentiated specialty there,” Schireson said.

Michael McGarry, VP of brand marketing at Shake Shack, which awarded Known its media buying and planning business last year, said the burger chain chose the agency for its “ability to flex different muscles in different ways [which] allows them to tackle obstacles head-on. It’s always a blend of media expertise, data science and creativity, but the methodology and how those elements come together is always surprising,” he said.

Original content is another big area that differentiates Known; the agency developed and executive produced two hit original series for Netflix including the six-hour “Jeen-yuhs” trilogy chronicling the rise and fall of controversial rapper Kanye West and “Countdown: The Inspiration4 Mission to Space,” Netflix’s first real-time documentary, about the first all-civilian SpaceX mission to space.


Growth path
Known completed what it called phase one of its global expansion in 2022. The agency is executing quantitative and qualitative research on the ground in 13 countries and has launched or is managing media campaigns in many more. Its global clients include Amazon’s Audible, Microsoft and Google.

While global business represented less than 5% of its total revenue in 2022, the agency plans to double that in 18 months.

Schireson said Known will open its first of 10 planned agency offices outside the U.S. in 2023, beginning in Europe. “Phase two is really about physical presence outside the U.S. to serve some of those growing international brands,” he said.

With 30 client wins in 2022 and big global ambitions, Known has had to staff up heavily. And while some agencies have had trouble filling open roles amid movements like The Great Resignation, 33,500 people applied for 98 open positions at Known in 2022.

Of 400 employees, Known said 51.2% identify as female and more than one-third of its workers identify as non-white.

Schireson said Known spends “a lot of time on culture, on employee experience” and despite some of the narratives out there about creatives being wary of data, people are eager to be doing the type of contemporary advertising work the agency does.

“As more people wake up to what’s possible, to all the ways in which data, science and technology can help the creative work go faster and further, be smarter and work harder, it’s just not going to be an oppositional thing,” Schireson said. “Art and science are best friends. They’re not having an argument—they’re unlocking each other’s superpowers.” 

Reprinted with permission from Ad Age. © 2023 Crain Communications Inc. All rights reserved.
Further duplication without permission is prohibited. Visit AA23025