Agency Profile: Blenderbox

by , Jul 12, 2011, 1:37 PM
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Verb Cafe

So, let me tell you about this up-and-coming digital shop in Brooklyn. Yeah, I know, it sounds like a cliché, and you're probably thinking, "Right, I've heard this story before," but I promise you, though it may start off the same way, it doesn't end the way you think.

First of all, I should tell you that my journey began not by taking the Manhattan Bridge to dumbo, but via the Kosciuszko Bridge to the less celebrated Brooklyn agency environs of Williamsburg. There, inside an unassuming brick building in a largely residential neighborhood, I was greeted by Jason Jeffries and Sarah McLoughlin, the founders of Blenderbox.

Despite its hipster name, Blenderbox is as much a part of the core Wiliamsburg community as are the working-class homes and little shops that dot the neighborhood. In fact, Blenderbox is a product of Williamsburg. Jeffries and McLoughlin, who also happen to be husband and wife, met in a neighborhood apartment complex. She was a designer, and he was a digital ad vet who had just left Razorfish and moved to Williamsburg to open a coffee shop, the Verb Café, for neighborhood hipsters. 

Jeffries and McLoughlin clicked immediately and, a year later, at the height of the dot-com bubble, launched incorporated Blenderbox in 2000. The name came to them while they were building a contraption to make the cafe's smoothie machine soundproof - a blender box, if you will.

Initially, the agency got by the way any start-up does, with referrals from friends, mainly old agency contacts from Jeffries' former colleagues at Razorfish and McLoughlin's at Firstborn Multimedia. In time, the projects grew into sustainable accounts, and in 2003 Jeffries and McLoughlin got married and began to expand. New developments included the launch of the Bedford Cheese Shop, a local retailer near Blenderbox's offices that has an excellent selection of imported and domestic cheeses, breads and specialty items.

Over the next several years, Blenderbox grew slowly but steadily, largely on a word-of-mouth basis thanks to satisfied clients. Because many of its initial accounts were corporate, b2b, and especially not-for-profit, philanthropic and cultural, Blenderbox's work escaped the kind of consumer-facing efforts that normally generate buzz on Madison Avenue and in the trade press. But the work proved both creative and sustainable and enabled the shop to craft its own style for interactive media design that combines both utility and aesthetics.

Initial projects included work for a hedge fund, v, and publisher Time Out New York, as well as some e-learning and online training and seminar outfits. "One opportunity would refer us to other opportunities," recalls Jeffries. "Eventually, that led us to our biggest project, the law.com site for American Lawyer Media. It was the first time we had a large enough engagement that we could start to hire some people. It got our real growth going."

But it wasn't the kind of explosive growth Jeffries had experienced working at Razorfish during the heady run-up to the dot-com bubble. And that might have been a good thing, because it enabled Blenderbox to nurture an organic identity and talent. Initially, the company worked out of a loft space, until it had enough cash flow to open its own offices in 2005 with a team of a half-dozen staffers, mostly technology and graphic designers.

Referral work continued to mount, especially when Blenderbox started creating sites for cultural and arts-oriented organizations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, Scholastic, National Geographic, the Kennedy Center, the Clinton Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, Helmsley Charitable Trust and the Verizon Foundation's Thinkfinity.

Still, Blenderbox was falling below the industry's radar, failing to get recognition in the trade press and in industry awards programs. By the time I first met with them about a year ago, they had still not won a major award, and Jeffries and McLoughlin said they dearly hoped to win a Webby, which they were sure would finally put them on the map. A year later, they won a Webby and one of this magazine's namesake omma awards, along with a few others. Actually, I was first introduced to Blenderbox by the team at Pictela, a spunky super-rich media platform that was also under the radar and had just had its site launched by Blenderbox. In the last year, Pictela has been acquired by aol and made the centerpiece of its "Project Devil" Web page and advertising redesign effort (see related story, page 31).

Blenderbox continues to win business with its "clean and balanced" approach to design that works, but it's still being left out of the industry buzz. When another trade magazine did a close-up of up-and-coming shops in Brooklyn, including Williamsburg, it once again left Blenderbox out of the story. While mainstream Madison Avenue media may still be unfamiliar, the Brooklyn community definitely knows about Blenderbox. The agency recently won an economic development project for the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and, at press time, it was in a promising pitch for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Another one of its accounts is the Brooklyn Brewery, despite the fact that the agency actually competes with the microbrewery brand, producing its own homebrew on its premises. Blenderbox even grows its own hops on the roof deck, but Jeffries says they haven't managed to produce a successful enough harvest to make a batch.

One other mark Blenderbox has made on the Brooklyn agency scene was the formation of an industry ping-pong league, which has become the borough's alternative to Madison Avenue's notorious softball league competitions.

It started when rival Brooklyn agency execs would stop by Blenderbox's offices for a brew and a round on the agency's office ping-pong table. Then it blossomed into an official league, which was organized with Undercurrent, which had a major hand in its creation. "It's the first year, and there's already a waiting list for other agencies to join," Jeffries says with just a smidgen of Brooklyn pride.

This story has been updated to reflect corrections. MediaPost, which regrets the errors, has revised the article to note the following: Benderbox is one word and the correct spelling is Sarah McLoughlin. Jason Jeffries worked at Razorfish, while Sarah McLoughlin worked at Firstborn Multimedia. The agency has won one Webby, rather than multiples. Finally, it organized a Ping Pong league with the help of Undercurrent. 

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