Seed takes root by delivering influencers

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Here's one way to start an ad agency in 2005:

First, leverage your staff's background at hip-hop publications and large database of celebrity, athlete and fashion influencers to latch on to some hot urban brands. From there, you pick up a variety of assignments, from product placement to media relations, for marketers that need the audience you specialize in-namely, metropolitan trendsetters. All the while, you're developing software that could add a new dimension to a wildly popular interactive channel. And then, as the coup de grace, you launch a magazine. You might even make some TV spots along the way, but, these days, it's far from necessary.

This is how Manhattan boutique Seed Communications, in its mere eight months of existence, has grown to manage about 45 accounts. That's about three times the number of staffers it employs. And while many are small assignments for small brands, others aren't.

Seed is doing product-placement and urban-influencer work for Reebok, it's talking to Vonage about an online viral project, and it's worked on media relations for video-game maker Ubisoft. This week, Seed-a collection of agency types and the aforementioned hip-hop magazine editors-spreads itself into editorial content with the launch of Inked, a quarterly magazine designed to give the tattooed something significantly more upscale than the old-school biker-oriented publications now on racks.

There's one common thread among Seed's work. "We are an agency that people typically don't know what to do with," said Creative Director Michael Ventura, one of the agency's five founders. "We are tasked with problems."

That's a common refrain from the many small, entrepreneurial agencies that have popped up in recent years to target big brands weary of old media and creative solutions-usually TV ad campaigns. The success of independent shops like Anomaly and Strawberry Frog in cracking major budgets at corporations such as Coca-Cola, Old Navy and Heineken is evidence of the slackening grip of big agencies on major spenders.

For instance, only about 30% of Anomaly's revenue comes from advertising, a figure that co-founding partner Carl Johnson wouldn't mind seeing decrease to 25%. As such, it doesn't even consider itself an ad agency and it's concerned with ownership of ideas and products created for clients and sharing in their financial benefits. Advertising is not "the focus of our product, our business model, our skill set or our culture," he said. "Ad agencies don't typically have a designer sit next to an engineer, a licensing expert, a new-product development innovator or a media strategist." And that's coming from someone whose agency is a finalist in the current BMW ad account pitch.

Hitting 5,000

Seed, on a smaller scale, has a similar outlook. Inked, its biggest project to date, fits neatly into a creative portfolio that, while diverse, is aimed at reaching tastemakers, and operates under the theory that "hitting 5,000 of the right people is better than hitting 5 million of the wrong ones," Mr. Ventura said. Inked, which debuts with 37 ad pages and has a distribution of 100,000, was commissioned by a real-estate developer who rents space to tattoo parlors. The developer found the parlor owners were frustrated by the lack of a classy read, despite the mainstreaming of tattoo culture. Seed owns about one-third of the venture.

In addition to its influencer work, Seed recently helped incubate a new product called Mile High, a sex kit for travelers now being sold in boutiques and trendy hotels like Manhattan's Hotel Gansevoort. The shop is on retainer to Mile High and earns a commission when the products, which include lubricants and condoms, are placed at retail. Seed is also beta-testing with an eye to licensing Sociocast, a social-networking software with an artificial-intelligence engine designed to direct users to others with common interests without a search.

Seed, a bit younger and a lot less reared on the big-agency scene, isn't nearly as high-concept as Anomaly. There's not much highfalutin talk about media neutrality, new-business models and so forth. Instead, Mr. Ventura campily-and, presumably, jokingly-likens Seed's formation less than a year ago to a cultural touch point any Gen Xer would know: the popular 1980s cartoon "Voltron," where five mechanical lions come together to form a giant do-gooding robot for a climactic battle.

Of course, as Mr. Ventura knows, no agency-not even a Voltron-like one-can avoid cranking out ads for clients. "There is the commodity side of the business that's the bread and butter," he said. "We'd like to leverage things like Mile High and Sociocast, but they're not the shortest to market and not the easiest to market. We'd like to find a middle ground."

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