Creative media, au naturel

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On a rainy day, back in August 2000, guests were ushered across a wobbly gangplank onto a rusty old riverboat moored on London's River Thames. The host, John Harlow-Heineken and Marlboro Light in hand-wanted to show off his new office, a dingy little cabin in the boat's bowels, where his new business partners, Jon Wilkins and Will Collin, were gathered around a single laptop. "Welcome to Naked," Harlow announced.

The oldest of the partners, Wilkins, was only 33 then, and although they all had burgeoning reputations as up-and-coming media thinkers, the setup seemed more like three young guys larking around-a fact underscored by their choice of a pair of genital gesticulators known as Puppetry of the Penis as entertainment at their launch party-than the formation of an agency that would change the U.K. agency landscape.

But that's exactly what Naked did. In the five years since its launch, Naked has set new standards for creativity in choice and use of communications channels, and, in doing so, persuaded many European marketers to separate communications planning from other agency functions. Its influence has been felt not only in the U.K. but in Holland, Norway and Australia. Now, Naked is coming to America.

Harlow, Wilkins and Collin weren't the first to go to market in London as a media-agnostic communications planning shop with no financial ties to the mainstream TV-dependent ad or media agencies-they followed the likes of Michaelides & Bednash and Unity in that respect-but they were more aggressive in pointing out that the old "the answer is TV, now what's the question," marketing method was fatally flawed.

They still preach from that hymn sheet: "All traditional agencies try to do, at their worst, is perpetuate a model that is eroding in potency," says Wilkins. "If your primary income is derived from ad production or the purchase of media space, and planning is only of secondary importance financially, then when push comes to shove it's not going to get the attention and resources it deserves. By being unshackled from any formal agency structure-not having any creative or media buying mouths to feed-we have no inherent biases or predispositions and no limits to our thinking. We can come up with the right answer, not an answer that supports an existing business model." They also charge differently for those answers: There are "no hidden markups or production costs on invoices," just a straight charge for staff time, plus an enviable 25 percent markup.

That nakedly aggressive approach combined with the force of personality of the founders, their comfort collaborating with agencies and their partnership with London's hottest shop, Mother-one of Mother's partners invested in Naked, and, after fleeing the boat, the guys took an office next door to the ad shop-propelled Naked to rapid growth. Within two years, the shop had grown to around 30 staff and was punching above its weight in snagging European planning and brand strategy assignments for the likes of Playstation, Honda and the Central Office of Information, the big-spending marketing center for all government marketing programs.

It helped, of course, that the work lived up to the hype, achieving the balancing act of pleasing sales and marketing directors as well as awards juries. Among Naked's early successes: The "Warholiser" and "Sofa Games" campaigns. The "Warholiser," for London art gallery the Tate Modern, encouraged visitors to upload images of themselves to the gallery's website to be, well, Warholised. An early viral campaign success story (using no PR and no ads), it attracted 200,000 users in two months, opened the Warhol exhibition as the second biggest ever at the gallery, and won a Cannes Media Lion. "Sofa Games," for Reebok, was a series of one-day events in major arenas, in which young fans, lured by free alcohol and live big-screen sport took part in five-a-side soccer matches that used sofas for goalposts. The campaign, which was sparked by a Lowe ad showing a man fighting his sofa, and was supported with clever in-store promotions, fueled Reebok to overtake No. 2 two player adidas in the U.K. sneaker race. (For a while it even seemed Reebok might challenge the hegemony of the mighty Nike.)

Naked didn't apply its fresh thinking only to its clients, either. When the agency grew beyond 50 people, a size that the founders knew might inhibit its irreverent culture and free-form brainstorming approach, it found inventive ways to grow. Apart from opening the European hub in Amsterdam and targeting Asia from Australia, it also launched what a more traditional agency might call a conflict shop: Naked Ambition. More cleverly still, it created "Naked Inside"-a riff on the Intel business model-helping hotshop Clemmow Hornby Inge establish a communications planning function, by selling the agency the Naked name and methodology. It also co-created a digital consultancy with Fallon.

Now the guys say they are coming to America. They won't name a date-"we're at the negotiation stage with key partners in the market"-but they've done their research, having spent much of the last three years exploring the U.S. market and they believe now is the right time.

"Two and a half years ago, it wasn't right," says Wilkins. "There were a lot of CMOs on the platform talking about getting away from the traditional model, saying they were fed up with the slavish adherence to TV, but there wasn't much action. What we've detected in the last six to nine months is people actually putting different strategies into place, and P&G has made a commitment to communications planning. On a parochial level, you're also seeing lots of interesting creative boutiques that are not only appearing but taking big chunks of business because they have the biggest idea rather than the biggest staff."

Both those shifts play into Naked's hands. If you force the three partners to define the agency, they will tell you it's an upstream communications strategy business, and, because they know much of their work will involve collaborating with agencies, they are unlikely to mess with that positioning too much. But there's nothing to say Naked can't compete in creative or idea-seeking pitches.

In fact, when Coke recently convened a meeting in Paris of all its agencies, Naked received the same brief as the other agencies like Ogilvy, Berlin Cameron, Publicis and Wieden & Kennedy. "That happens increasingly often," says Wilkins. "Clients don't see us as an ad agency, but they do want us to come up with our own approach in parallel, rather than as a follow on or bolt on. In Coke's words, we're just as likely to come up with the big ideas. It's not always that the big idea lies with the advertising solution."

Still, America, with its cautious, conservative marketing culture, will be a big step for the Naked guys, who admit that they aren't great at being corporate. But their timing for a pioneering channel-planning operation looks good; they have a long roster of global clients who will likely give them U.S. work from the get-go (Nokia and Coke seem like potentials); they somehow always manage to find smart staff, what they call "Naked people," or "brilliant misfits," and they are seriously committed to the idea, promising offices not only in New York but also in other key markets.

Just as long as the launch party doesn't involve Puppetry of the Penis, they should be all right.

Naked Truth: "We think that innovation, strategy and insight are our core ingredients. We also go that extra mile to make extraoirdinary things happen, overseeing and supporting the production and delivery of solutions. "

Naked Truth: "We focus on solving clients' problems by analyzing and understanding the relationship the brand has with consumers and improving the way it builds its connections. We look at all potential channels, traditional and nontraditional, from retail to advertising. We do this with no inherent biases or predispositions toward any solution, and we work with creative agencies to ensure that the core creative thought/message travels through all the correct channels to sell more stuff. "

Naked Truth: "We hire from a broad range of backgrounds. Our process is indeed highly unstructured. It's like a blender. We work in teams where everyone works circularly around a problem and great thinking plops out."

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