Naked Tries to Build a New Model Agency

'An Agency Where the Output Depends on the Client's Problem'

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[London] "We had nothing to lose but our livelihoods, our houses and everything," says John Harlow, reflecting on the decision he and his partners made to found London hot shop Naked back in August 2000.

Prior to Naked, Mr. Harlow, then just 31, was talked about in U.K. media circles as one-to-watch, having landed the role of running Rocket, a spinoff of Omnicom Group's media agency New PHD. Naked's other founding partners were in similarly plum roles.

In the weeks after Naked opened, the young triumvirate appeared to have traded in regular paychecks, blossoming careers and trendy offices for a single-phone-line startup and a dingy cabin in an old boat on the Thames. Says Mr. Harlow: "We quite literally grew out of the London sewer system."

But their vision for a new type of agency helped the partners take the plunge. "We could see the communications world was changing and that it was about so much more than traditional advertising," says Mr. Harlow, who has an evangelist's enthusiasm for his subject and a leader's knack for articulating his philosophy.

"We had all come across clients who wanted to talk sampling, databases, point of sale or new channels. They didn't feel they could do that with other agencies, because they knew those agencies had a product that they needed to sell," he says. "We wanted to create an agency where our output would depend on the nature of the client's problem, not on us having a particular product."

Consequently, Naked has been pigeonholed as a media-neutral media agency. "We keep winning media agency of the year awards," says Mr. Harlow. "That's great, but our solutions aren't always about media."

Clients obviously get this. Naked has worked with Reebok International on events, point-of-purchase promotions, online data capture and above-the-line media. Sony PlayStation is working with Naked to engage audiences through fresh sampling strategies. Big names keep calling-rumor has it Diageo is the latest looking to add Naked to its roster.

In a tough market, Naked has grown from a three- to a 33-person shop, proved integration and media neutrality are more than conceptual, and devised a successful new agency model.

And for Mr. Harlow's next trick? "We could look at the U.S. We could start a shop that competes with Naked. Or I might go run a fish and chip shop in Worthing."

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