Interference CEO's persona is far less explosive than his company's stunts

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You might expect the company behind arguably the greatest guerrilla-marketing disaster would be run by a gung-ho marketing cowboy all about pushing the envelope and instigating controversy.

But Interference CEO Sam Ewen is levelheaded, cautious and speaks more like a marketing professor than daredevil experimentalist. "At the end of the day, we need to have spreadsheets and impressions and photos documenting the event," says the 37-year-old so hiply understated that even the New York black he wears leans slightly more toward grey than dark and deep. "Clients like GE and Citibank aren't looking for middle-of-the-night guys in ski masks when budgets are hitting six and seven figures. It's a discipline like any other."

Quite a contrast from as recently as November, when he boasted to one publication: "Luckily I have avoided arrest, mainly by dropping fictitious names of police officers from other precincts in town."

That of course, was before the turbulence that stopped just short of full-on panic in Boston earlier this month when citizens mistook the guerrilla agency's magnetic signs promoting Cartoon Network's "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" for terrorist devices. Mr. Ewen's subsequent reticence can be fairly easily explained by the resulting hubbub that ended in Interference having to share in the $2 million fine Turner Broadcasting Systems will pay to Boston safety agencies and Massachusetts Homeland Security.

The flap also thrust the independent agency that's been heretofore little-known-with the exception of a notorious campaign it ran for Sony Ericsson employing fake tourists in 2002-into the unaccustomed spotlight it generally proffers its clients.

It's been quite a journey for Mr. Ewen, who came to the guerrilla-marketing world from the music industry by way of Omnicom's Eisner Interactive, a company focused on bringing offline promotion to the dot-coms of the 1990s. Like just about everyone else in the mid-'90s, he worked online for while but quit after four or five years because it had grown too formulaic. "In 1996 you could put a banner on a [web] page and you could get 20% of the people clicking on it. Two years later, you were lucky if you got 0.2% clicking on it. The newness had worn off, and people started filtering out."

Offline, he decided, was where the real action was. After all, guerrilla marketing is more about getting consumers "seeing things that they aren't used to seeing, creating something that lives in the context of what they do but that is out of context with what they are used to."

utilitarian space

Seemingly out of context is Interference's unmarked loft office in New York City's NoHo, where the overall sense is more utilitarian than sleek and manipulative. Macs sit atop no-fuss Ikea desks. There's a hodge-podge of plastic chairs, tagboard filing cabinets and boxes galore. One room has a thrown-together collection that includes a wood conference table, two leather armchairs and velour settee. Maybe after 17 years of "in-your-face marketing," as Mr. Ewen put it, not everything needs to scream for attention.

This demeanor makes it easier to understand how Interference, which declined to state its billings, has landed such straight-laced clients as Clorox, CNN and the Weather Channel while satisfying the types of brands more likely to try guerrilla tactics: MTV, Fila, Vogue and the Discovery Channel. The mismatched furniture of the office gives the sense that the company grows and shrinks, like so many other agencies do, to meet the clients' needs. "Our backbone is 10-15 people," he said, "but our arms and legs are all over the place, depending on the project."

The subtlety of Interference's presence is evident in some of its past projects. For the launch of clothing brand Le Tigre, Interference used stencils to scrub the logo into dirty sidewalks and buildings. For the 20-something target audience, the campaign brought environmental awareness to street art.

"They are very smart about using many different marketing channels," said a spokesman for one marketer client who wished to remain unnamed. Mr. Ewen has "taken the reins on finding innovative ways to reach customers. [Interference] definitely brought that to the table."

That is not to say that, in exploring the boundaries of ambush marketing, Interference hasn't crossed the line.

The agency first attracted notice in 2002, its second year, when it supported Fathom Communications in a stunt dubbed "Fake Tourist" for Sony Ericsson's new camera phone. Sixty actors walked around New York and Seattle getting others to take photos of them with their camera phones. The actors, however, in no way indicated they were working for Sony unless directly asked.

Truth-in-advertising conservatives took umbrage and a debate erupted in the media about forthrightness in nontraditional marketing. Even "60 Minutes" discussed its ramifications. Mr. Ewen, however, defended Interference's actions: "[The actors] were told not to sell, just to demonstrate the product. We were never supposed to pitch anybody. If the product created that desire because of what the product did and people pulled the information from us, then that's where we wanted to be."

But while the Sony stunt garnered a lot of attention, the Cartoon Network promotion went way over the top-and many in the industry believe part of the flack the shop took was deserved. The consensus: It was a pretty good-even great-idea but a stupid, unsophisticated execution.

One marketing-communication executive said that if you knew the cartoon, the stunt was brilliant, the LED signs were innovative and Cartoon Network could have come off looking edgy. However, several others agreed that Interference erred in failing to anticipate the spillover effect from people who'd never heard of the program. "Even if they claim they had talked to the transit authority first ... it was a mistake not to go to the top and at least talk to the mayor," said one advertising-agency head.

While the event has made Mr. Ewen more cautious than he was before, he said it has not affected the amount of new-business calls he receives, though "the biggest uptick is in the people who have the weird product you never knew existed," he said. As for the more traditional marketers who have used Interference in the past, many either declined to comment on the agency last week or did so under the cloak of anonymity.

Interference's legacy may end up being a cautionary tale for the industry.

"Marketers will never stop looking for innovative ways to reach and engage with their target market," said Sean Burke, chief marketing officer of GE Healthcare's Diagnostic Imaging, a proponent of guerrilla marketing who will give the keynote at the Experiential Marketing Summit later this year. "But I think everyone will have another second's pause to look at the tactics and techniques they are using to ensure that they will always stay on message."

"Less and less dollars are going to TV, and that money has got to go somewhere," said one ad-industry executive. "Programs we thought had zero strategic overlay, like guerrilla or experiential marketing, are going to have to become more meaningful to both marketers and consumers."

And in order for that to happen, the era of "let's do it and not tell anybody" has got to pass. So if there's a lesson to be learned from "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," it's this: Transparency will necessarily take the bad boys out of guerrilla marketing and replace them with responsible, accountable event marketers who speak more like marketing professors than daredevil experimentalists.
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