The Hottest Digital Agencies Around

Could These Indy Shops Be the Next Acquisition Targets?

By Published on .

Digital Indie group shot
Photo: Darryl Estrine

The Digital Indie Who's Who:

1. Michael Koziol, exec VP, North America, Nurun; 2. Richard Lent, CEO, AgencyNet; 3. Adam Lavelle, chief strategy officer, iCrossing; 4. David Skinner, CEO, WhittmanHart; 5. Eric Drunkenmiller, media director, Deep Focus; 6. Darren Paul, managing partner-strategy and innovation, Night Agency; 7. Michael Ferdman, founder and president, Firstborn; 8. Alan Schulman, senior VP- executive creative director, IMC2; 9. Amy Shah, senior VP, Sapient; 10. Patrick Sarkissian, president, Sarkissian Mason; 11. Bryan Wiener, CEO, 360i; 12. Michael Lebowitz, co-founder and CEO, Big Spaceship; 13. Kip Voytek, senior VP-strategy and experience design, IconNicholson; 14. Benjamin Palmer, CEO, Barbarian Group; 15. Ryan Hefner, interactive developer, Fantasy Interactive; 16. Tom Ajello, co-founder, executive creative director, Poke, New York; 17. Michael Monello, partner, Campfire.

Meet the digital indies.

Despite waves of consolidation across the ad-agency business, there remains a healthy bunch of independent digital shops doing everything from search optimization to building web interfaces to simply doing damn good creative. Some of these shops are near-acquisitions for digital-hungry giants; others are adamantly opposed to becoming part of something larger, hanging onto the romantic notion of David vs. Goliath.

But there lies the challenge: While many of these agencies are accustomed to scrapping with others that don't have a lot of resources and scale, today they're increasingly up against deeper-pocketed shops, thanks to holding companies and private-equity firms that are snapping up once-small rivals.

"There is still enough market demand that most [independent digital shops] are still doing well, but they're competing against firms that have the creativity of an independent agency but the resources of a holding company or private-equity firm," said Michael Seidler, CEO of Madison Alley Ventures, a newly formed investment-banking firm focused on helping independent shops.

Buying a digital indie can offer a holding company or traditional shop an instant injection of skilled interactive -- and ensure it won't miss out on that next digital project it might not be able to handle otherwise.

But independence can also be a boon. "We have not been beholden to our P&L," said AgencyNet founder Richard Lent. "That allows us the freedom to select the best clients and innovate."

So here's a look at some of the lesser-known digital independents. (We didn't include agencies such as AKQA, for example, that, while digital powerhouses and not part of a larger holding company, are relatively well-known). So while this is by no means a comprehensive list -- talk to any of the shops on these pages and they'll be able to rattle off five or six more competitors they admire -- it's intended as a valuable snapshot of some shops that generally fly under the radar.

TOP EXEC(S) Richard Lent Benjamin Palmer (CEO-chief creative)
ANNUAL REVENUE $6 million $9 million
HEADQUARTERS Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Boston; two other "official" offices
WHAT IT DOES A full-service interactive shop, AgencyNet specializes in creative web development, persona work, and widgets and applications. It's all interactive and done on a project basis. Recent jobs include a Saturn installation at Wired's NextFest for Goodby and a direct-to-client website project for Kashi.
WHY IT'S HOT The shop has handled work for Bombay Sapphire, and it has an agency-of-record relationship with Bacardi, the company for which it launched the buzz-generating campaign The Barbarians broke out in 2004 with Burger King's Subservient Chicken viral site. The shop has been on a tear ever since, earlier this year hiring a president with both agency and client-side experience, Bruce Winterton.
TOP EXEC(S) Michael Lebowitz (co-founder) Mike Monello, Steve Wax and Gregg Hale (partners)
ANNUAL REVENUE $5 to $7 million $10-$15 million
HEADQUARTERS Brooklyn, N.Y. New York
WHAT IT DOES It calls itself a digital creative agency. It doesn't do hard-core back-end transactional work, instead focusing on the storytelling aspect of interactive advertising. Founded by producers of the "Blair Witch Project." Does it all: branded entertainment, digital design, web films and social media.
WHY IT'S HOT Recent projects include the HBO Voyeur project with BBDO and for Royal Caribbean, for which it handled everything from character development to music composition. Campfire has a strong foothold in branded entertainment. Recent work includes a virtual 112-acre car theme park on Second Life for Pontiac.
TOP EXEC(S) Ian Schafer David Martin
ANNUAL REVENUE $10 million $9 million to $10 million
HEADQUARTERS New York, with an office in Los Angeles Stockholm, Sweden, with an office in New York
WHAT IT DOES Media, web design and development, social media and PR for clients including HBO, Comedy Central, Dewar's, Court TV, New Line Cinema and CBS. It's done web applications, design and rich media for clients including Time Warner Cable, AT&T, AOL, Xbox and MTV.
WHY IT'S HOT Started in 2002 by Mr. Schafer, former VP-new media at Miramax, Deep Focus has a rep for solid work in entertainment. A recent web video for HBO had an interactive job interview with super-agent Ari Gold from "Entourage." Known for web design, the shop made a name for itself when it designed Road Runner, Time Warner's online platform for cable broadband. Since then, it has turned out sites for Xbox and MTV and developed a platform called Propod, a rich-media blog.
TOP EXEC(S) Michael Bennett Ferdman (president) Jeffrey Herzog
ANNUAL REVENUE $7 million $110 million
HEADQUARTERS New York, with an office in Los Angeles Scottsdale, Ariz.; 12 other U.S. and U.K. offices
WHAT IT DOES This creative digital agency specializes in interactive experiences -- from video installations to large web-development projects to sophisticated content management. Search marketing, social media and web development for clients like Toyota, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Office Depot and Travelocity.
WHY IT'S HOT Firstborn has created some beautiful online video work. It also recently redesigned the Starwood Preferred Guest program site and created an application that lets prospective designers of Le Meridian properties create their own rooms. ICrossing has been on a tear in recent years, snapping up digital assets such as web-development shop Proxicom to expand its digital offerings, � la aQuantive, which was acquired by Microsoft for $6 billion.
TOP EXEC(S) Doug Levy Robert Pickering (LBI), Tom Nicholson
EMPLOYEES More than 500 1,300; 120 at IconNicholson, New York
ANNUAL REVENUE $92 million $212 million global; $40 million U.S.
HEADQUARTERS Dallas, with four other U.S. offices Amsterdam; offices including New York
WHAT IT DOES Web and application development, relationship marketing, planning and search for clients like Pfizer and Eli Lilly. LBI considers itself creatively driven with technology roots, which allow it to build and connect to analytics and conversion/loyalty systems. IconNicholson is LBI's New York presence.
WHY IT'S HOT Specialized expertise in pharma and consumer products has made IMC2 one of the most sought-after independent digital agencies on the market. It remains fiercely independent. IconNicholson has coined the term social retailing�it used RFID and social-networking technology to tackle a project for fashion designer Nanette Lepore that allowed Bloomingdales' shoppers to try on her clothing.
TOP EXEC(S) Darren Paul, Evan Vogel, Scott Cohn David Eriksson
EMPLOYEES More than 30 21
ANNUAL REVENUE $5 million U.S. $5 million
HEADQUARTERS New York; partner agency in Brazil Skelleftea, Sweden; Stockholm
WHAT IT DOES It's done web development and design, brand strategy, guerrilla marketing, and production for clients including MTV, STA Travel, Symantec and Lucky Brand Jeans. Online design, rich media, web production and corporate branding for clients including Toyota, Coca-Cola, Absolut, Vodafone and Starwood Hotels.
WHY IT'S HOT Known for its innovative approach to marketing�whether it's creating a website for client Christiania Vodka to showcase an art contest or "ass-vertising" (marketing on rear ends) for the New York Health and Racquet Club. North Kingdom's interactive 3-D board game, "Get the Glass" for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners client California Milk Processor Board secured its spot as one of the industry's most innovative creative shops.
TOP EXEC(S) Jacques-Herv� Roubert Ian Karnell
ANNUAL REVENUE About $76 million worldwide $11 million
HEADQUARTERS Montreal; 10 other global offices Boston, with offices in Baltimore and London
WHAT IT DOES Web development, CRM, e-commerce development and design for customers including Home Depot, AT&T, Louis Vuitton and Microsoft. This shop views itself as a sort of mini holding company, modeled after the aQuantive recipe of interactive-communications agency meets technology meets media.
WHY IT'S HOT Known for its work with luxury marketers, Nurun has built a strong global footprint online. One of the few shops with major global scale. It's got a smart model�after all, who doesn't want to be the next aQuantive? What's more, it's not afraid to take on equity to buy the assets it needs to get there. That's caused clients such as McGraw Hill, Comcast and GlaxoSmithKline to take notice.
TOP EXEC(S) Nick Farnhill (managing partner) Daryl Arnold
ANNUAL REVENUE About $10 million $25 million
HEADQUARTERS London, with an office in New York London; 10 other global offices
WHAT IT DOES Creative web development and design for clients including Orange, BBC Worldwide, TopShop, American Express/Red, Alexander McQueen, Dell and J&J. Full-service (creative, media and technology) digital work for clients AstraZeneca, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Dyson, Mini, Puma, Expedia, Ikea and J&J.
WHY IT'S HOT After recovering from the end of the dot-com boom, this agency, which has won accolades for its work on sites for telecom Orange and BBC Worldwide news site Top Gear, recently opened a Big Apple office with executives from Margeotes Fertitta Powell. Known for all-around digital capability, Profero received major recognition for its Mini Cooper work, which took web surfers on a journey through the internet with a series of creative banner ads.
TOP EXEC(S) Alan Herrick (president-CEO) Patrick Sarkissian (president)
EMPLOYEES 5,375 30
ANNUAL REVENUE $525 million worldwide $8 to $10 million
HEADQUARTERS Cambridge, Mass.; 23 global offices New York, with offices in Detroit, Los Angeles and Phoenix
WHAT IT DOES Sapient in 2005 bought Miami-based creative hotshop Planning Group International, making it a surprise player in the digital-marketing space. This boutique digital-design firm specializes in web design and development, film/TV production, gaming, and mobile.
WHY IT'S HOT Although many don't think of it for marketing, Sapient's technology backbone gives it a leg up. It handles digital marketing, website design, e-commerce, media buying and planning for clients such as Citibank, Motorola and Sony. It's done several cool sites of late, including, which let users create their own Air Force One ads, and the Boeing 747 Dreamliner site, which allows visitors to virtually explore the new jet.
TOP EXEC(S) Bryan Wiener David Skinner
ANNUAL REVENUE $25 million $50 million to $70 million
HEADQUARTERS New York; three other U.S. offices Chicago; 10 other U.S. offices
WHAT IT DOES Search and social-media marketing for clients including NBC, H&R Block and Saks Fifth Avenue. Website design and development, strategic planning, and online marketing for clients including Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Epson, Fox, Harley-Davidson, Pepsi and Scion.
WHY IT'S HOT 360i has built a strong presence in entertainment and retail marketing, capitalizing on its core search capabilities to build an emerging social-media practice. WhittmanHart recently turned heads with its work on, designing a site for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that featured blogs, video and interactive maps of the South Dakota event.

Note: All revenue figures are current-year Ad Age estimates.
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