For SS&K, Small Size Means Big Business

Smart, Nimble One-Stop Shop is Winning the Likes of Delta and Bud Light

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Delta air lines' forthcoming brand relaunch won't come from the vast offices of some Madison Avenue titan or West Coast hot shop. Instead, Delta's new public face-from TV spots to brand identity to the customer experience on its planes and in airports-is now being cooked up in a suite of offices in lower Manhattan not far from Wall Street.

SS&K's place in a zip code better known for brokering financial and political power than winning Pencils and Lions makes sense when you consider the agency's pedigree. It was formed in 1992 by a bunch of PR guys with experience in things like South American elections and all manner of crisis communication. At its foundation was the premise that big companies, tired of the wide-turning radii and single-gear engines of big ad agencies, would take a chance on a nimble, multidisciplinary shop that moves quickly and uses a variety of different communications methods.

Some 14 years later, it turns out they're right.

In recent months, SS&K has added Delta and a sizable chunk of interactive business for Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light brand, (though the agency declined to comment on its relationship with A-B), as well as assignments from Starwood Hotels & Resorts and MSNBC. And it's showing signs of fulfilling the promise Advertising Age columnist Randall Rothenberg saw in 2002 when he called it "the future of the ad agency."

It grew about 37% in 2005 to $19 million in revenue, and Creative Artists Agency, which owns a minority stake in SS&K, recently appointed co-founder Lenny Stern head of its corporate marketing department.

"They're renaissance men in a world of specialists and that makes communication easier," said CAA Partner Bryan Lourde who met the SS&K founders in the mid-1990s and eventual hired them to help with corporate communications work as the talent agency emerged from the Michael Ovitz era. "They had this insitinctual understanding of the challenges we were facing and they were the best, smartest people we could find."

What's changed over the years is that more big consumer brands are seeing what Time Warner Cable, Qwest, and the Lance Armstrong and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations did: Good solutions can come from small places.

"With the ever-decreasing efficiency of media, that has never been more important," said Tim Mapes, Delta's managing director-marketing. "Clients are starting to wake up to that. We'll continue to see agencies of SS&K's caliber win assignments that will make you scratch your head."

In today's industry, experiments with traditional agency models abound. Perhaps the highest-profile initiative is Interpublic Group of Cos.' recent decision to create a full-service, multinational beast by merging direct marketer Draft and creative agency FCB into a unit with one P&L and one management team.

The SS&K notion of a one-stop shop differs in great degree. For one, SS&K is lean operation, weighing in at about 90 staffers (though it's looking for 15 more.) And it was founded on the very notion of channel-agnosticism, meaning that cross-disciplinary cooperation was bred into the company in its origin.

SS&K's is an entirely different proposition from any of the demolition acts going on in big ad agencies-jobs that, in the best of situations, come with great upheaval in terms of people, styles and ideas and, in the worst, don't.

"We saw that clients were getting frustrated and we knew from politics that smart people from different disciplines can work together in an environment where the best ideas win," said Mr. Stern, a partner. "So we were born that way. From day one, we had no different P&L's and one process."

That, of course, doesn't mean it was all smooth sailing. Take, for instance, the case of Marty Cooke, who joined SS&K in 2000. He was brought in as partner-chief creative officer to beef up the creative offering, but things didn't exactly start with a bang. "After about a year here, I thought I had committed career suicide," Mr. Cooke said. "I thought, 'Nobody wants this."'

Turning Tide

He attributes the change in the agency's fortunes to two things: First, it got good.

It took time for early success on the PR side of things-for instance, SS&K helped Time Warner Cable push an on-time service guarantee that became an industry standard-to bleed over into consumer-marketing coups. To Mr. Cooke's mind, that happened for Qwest when the agency created ConQwest, an urban-scavenger-hunt game played with cellphones and designed to grab the attention of teens.

Along the way, Microsoft turned to the agency to help it kill off Clippy, the much-loathed "helper" that was eliminated from the software giant's Office suite in 2001. SS&K drummed up buzz with a website employing CAA comedy writers and an animated viral in which Bill Gates dismisses Clippy. The CAA connection also came in the agency's bid to help popularize TiVo that involved seeding it with late-night TV personalities and in scripted content such as "Sex in the City."

And then, as Mr. Cooke points out, there's the Crispin effect, that prevailing wind blowing from Miami that pushes major marketers in the direction of smart billboards, infectious virals and, if the idiot box is necessary, TV spots whose influence spills onto the news pages and water cooler. The phenomenon has helped small shops like Butler Shine Stern & Partners, Anomaly and Taxi-defined against the huge multinational networks-gain traction on the rosters of big marketers.

Delta is one of those. Now the shop is tasked with helping resuscitate the Delta brand, which has been stymied by a host of operational difficulties, not least of which is bankruptcy. Delta is integrating aspects of the discount Song brand, including seat-back entertainment and other customer-service-driven amenities. SS&K will be charged with marketing communications and the internal "cultural transformation," as Mr. Mapes put it.

SS&K picked up the account in April, when Delta shifted the business from WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather. The decision was based on the shop's channel-agnostic processes and, also, the fact that it has a "24/7, always-on" approach fitting of its PR roots, according to Mr. Mapes.

"It's as much to me a mind-set as it is an organizational-design issue, although they have both," he said. "You don't see the seams you will in other firms that say they're fully integrated but clearly not."

Just how tightly woven is that fabric? Consider this: Asked how much revenue comes from PR vs. advertising, partner Mark Kaminsky replied, "If we could tell you that, it would contradict everything we've been saying."


* Delta Air Lines

* Anheuser-Busch

* Time Warner Cable

* Qwest

* Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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