Small Agency 2010

Small Agency of the Year, 1-10 Employees: Sub Rosa

After Swelling in Size and Nearly Selling Itself, Michael Ventura's Shop Is Now a Slim Team With a Big Toolbox

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NEW YORK ( -- Michael Ventura doesn't like the term "digital agency" -- at least not when it applies to the one he's in charge of.

"We're fairly media agnostic," said Mr. Ventura, CEO and chief creative officer of the New York-based agency Sub Rosa, which was named best agency in the 1-10 employee category at Ad Age's Small Agency Awards in New Orleans on July 15. He said the agency -- which brought in $2 million in revenue in 2009 -- focuses on helping brands build narratives and make connections, regardless of the method.

With less than a dozen employees, Sub Rosa has snagged work from Levi's and Absolute.
With less than a dozen employees, Sub Rosa has snagged work from Levi's and Absolute.
"We can do digital, experiential ... any medium that's important to the client," he said.

Mr. Ventura founded Sub Rosa, then called Seed, in late 2004 as an exclusively digital agency. At the time that meant building microsites for smaller clients, Mr. Ventura said. Among the agency's first large clients was Mtn Dew; Seed hatched the noted Green Label Art campaign, which would help expand the beverage brand beyond its extreme-sports roots.

The shop began offering video and experiential services to more big-brand clients, including Estée Lauder, Diesel and Absolut, and by 2008 had grown to a staff of 30 led by four partners. But something was wrong. "The structure didn't suit the work," Mr. Ventura said. "It was top-heavy."

In late 2008 Seed was also in preliminary acquisition talks, but the price wasn't right. Mr. Ventura eventually bought out his other partners, renamed the shop Sub Rosa and scaled back to fewer than a dozen staff members, which he said is more conducive to the agency's efforts to focus on interaction. (He said this restructuring wasn't reflective of the poor economy, and maintains that it has always been profitable.)

"[Our size] keeps us nimble," Mr. Ventura said. "You're an art director, but you probably know about emergent technology, and maybe you were a screen printer in a former life. That's essential. You need to wear multiple hats, think on your toes and have a body of experience that speaks to a rounded-out ideation process."

Sub Rosa is launching Levi's Workshops, a community-based experiential extension of the brand's "Go Forth" campaign in early July in San Francisco with well-known Bay Area innovators like local chef and author Alice Waters and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark.

Sub Rosa also partnered with General Electric on a series of product installations for one of the energy giant's recent conferences, where it announced the expansion of its "Ecomagination" initiatives. These included a demonstration of a GE wind turbine through the production of an actual 15-foot-long cloud, onto which wind-power statistics were projected.

"People are excited about our technologies, but the question was, how do we reach them?" said Linda Boff, global director of marketing communications at GE. "We asked Sub Rosa to bring these products to life in a compelling way that wasn't just the products themselves displayed. Their work was outstanding."

Ms. Boff said GE chose to partner with Sub Rosa after hearing Mr. Ventura describe the agency's work on the Levi's account. "That a small agency was able to pull [that] off as nimbly as they were, and that it came together so quickly and that it's traveling from market to market [is impressive]. That was a calling card."

Mr. Ventura, who describes Sub Rosa and its team members as "Swiss army knives," said one key to a small agency's success is knowing which marketing tools to use to achieve the desired result.

"Because of our size, we are inherently generalists with a specialty," he said. "And we move faster than anyone else on the block."

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