In recent years, San Francisco, once known for its defiant counterculture, has morphed into the epicenter of the creative and tech universe
San Francisco is known for cultural experimentation, natural beauty and proximity to Silicon Valley, and those factors have all helped define the city as an ad town, too. On the advertising map, the City by the Bay has come to be known as both a digital and a creative epicenter.
That differentiates San Francisco from New York, a media town; from Los Angeles, a TV town and from Chicago, distinguished in part for being near several consumer packaged goods brands. San Francisco, by contrast, is fueled by ideas and by a certain left-of-center ethos.
It's home to storied shops such as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners; akqa; Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners; Venables Bell & Partners; Hal Riney and others, including (but not limited to) offices for Razorfish, MRM Worldwide and Draftfcb. There's also a coterie of interactive and boutique shops, such as Catalyst:sf and Traction, that have won big clients. San Francisco is the birthplace of iconic ad campaigns: Goodby's famous "Got Milk?" campaign, which started in 1993 and still runs today; work in recent years by McCann Worldgroup's Twofifteen McCann for Xbox and the much-lauded marketing of Apple, emanating from the company itself.
Today, San Francisco is often synonymous with the technology giants in the surrounding area - Apple, Google, Facebook, Intel, Netflix and Twitter, and the venture capitalists who have funded them. Both the gestalt of the locale and the makeup of companies small and large have informed the advertising that has originated in San Francisco throughout the years.
"Agencies here seem to adopt a 'when in San Francisco act as the start-ups do' mentality," says Ian Clazie, senior vice president and group creative director at MRM Worldwide, San Francisco. "The entrepreneurial spirit that infuses Silicon Valley seeps into the agencies here, and it shows in the inventiveness brought to the technology-enabled marketing that San Francisco agencies live and breathe. Historically, the type of thinking that most easily takes root here is that which encourages lifestyle-altering digital products and experiences. This is the place where disparate existing technologies get mashed together into things that provide value beyond the sum of their parts."
Mix of Tech and Ideas
The mix of technology, ideas and risk-taking that permeates the region significantly affects the advertising culture. That's why smaller agencies can do well in San Francisco, winning awards and landing clients. Adam Kleinberg's shop Traction was named the top interactive agency by BtoB magazine in 2009 and has done that with a laser focus on marrying psychology with technology, says Kleinberg, the agency's ceo, whose clients have included Adobe, Shutterfly and Intuit.
"Our tagline is 'everything is interactive' - so whether it's tv or print, we are thinking in terms of how do we plan the whole interaction for the consumer," he says. As an example, the social media campaign Traction created for Adobe in 2008 called "Real or Fake" encouraged viewers to guess whether the images presented in the ads were doctored or not. The whole concept of the campaign was interactive in nature. Plus, it worked: 40 percent of players returned to play the game again; another 22 percent checked out the tutorials; six percent clicked "Buy Now" in the first week.
Being near tech giants also means agencies are often competing with the Googles, Apples and start-ups for talent.
"Google, Facebook and Twitter have dramatically changed the advertising landscape, and they are right here in the Bay Area," Clazie says. "Apple has altered the way we think of lifestyle devices, and they're here as well. Being in close proximity, we share talent. People leave these companies to work for agencies and vice versa. Through this turnover we exchange thinking and approaches to what we do."
The creative focus in San Francisco advertising also stems from the reality of the corporate lineage. There aren't many big companies headquartered in San Francisco, so the city was unlikely to ever be a "media town" or a "money town," says Jim Nichols, a senior partner with Catalyst:sf, who has also worked for Y&R and Carat. "[Agencies] needed a reason to be different, and that was creative. That became one of the themes," he adds.
Bay Area agencies tend to be more apt to experiment with new digital venues. "An agency from San Francisco is often going to be [more] likely to suggest trying out an emerging platform for a campaign than an agency from another city, and that relates back to the way San Francisco agencies have made money - through ideas, not through the purchase of media," Nichols says.
Indeed, the city can trace its creative legacy from Hal Riney down through Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Venables Bell & Partners, says Barbara Lippert, curator of pop culture at Goodby Silverstein. But she also points out that agencies aren't deliberately trying to infuse a San Francisco ethos into their work. "No agency or creative team thinks in terms of a geographic ethos or legacy when creating work for a client. No one is carrying a torch for San Francisco. Truth be told, most of the agency hires in San Francisco are transplants from other American cities, or Asia and Europe," she notes.
The Ad History
Much of the work that emerges from San Francisco today is rooted in the city's history as an ad town, dating back to the days of Howard Gossage during the Mad Men era. He believed ads should be a conversation and a forum to engage and interact with consumers. That philosophy formed the foundation for digital advertising that's fed San Francisco's ad men and women over the years.
Fast forward to the 1980s and the emergence of Apple Computer and its marketing relationship with Chiat/Day. That was a defining decade for San Francisco's ad culture. "At that time San Francisco had an unusually high number of great design firms for a city its size, along with a few good advertising agencies including Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein (as it was called at the time), Hal Riney and Chiat/Day," says Fred Goldberg, who previously served as president of Chiat/Day San Francisco before starting his own firm, Goldberg Moser O'Neill, in the 1990s. During those two decades, both at Chiat/Day and at his own shop, Goldberg's team landed many high-profile brands such as Dreyer's Ice Cream, Kia Motors of America, Cisco Systems, Dell Computer and Electronic Arts. Many of the smaller ad agencies in town usually had at least one showcase client too, Goldberg says. The net effect was that San Francisco agencies attracted clients from across the country because of the creative work being done all over town.
He attributes San Francisco's creative fertility to a number of factors. "That the area is arguably among the most beautiful places in the world and an inspiration for creativity goes without saying. And the historical development and concentration of so many great design firms like Landor, Frazier Design, Pentagram and Sidjakov, Berman & Gomez attracted many client companies to the Bay Area from across the country and the world. This same phenomenon happened with ad agencies who also were able to attract clients from all over the country," Goldberg says. "But maybe more than anything, the entire Bay Area has for many years been a place where free thinking and free spirit and entrepreneurial mentality [are] pervasive and have dominated. If you came West as a 'young man' you wanted to come to Northern California to seek your fortune. That's what happened during the Gold Rush and that's what happened when silicon was invented."
That's why the San Francisco area is home to many of the most powerful companies in the world today - companies that are focused on staying ahead of the curve technologically, adapting quickly to change and pushing the envelope of great design.
Indeed, San Francisco has become inextricably linked to Silicon Valley and the world of venture capital. The landscape is dominated by companies like Intel, Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Salesforce, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn. Those firms have also produced stand-out marketing campaigns over the years.
"Cisco's very first national TV campaign back in 1990 was brilliant," Goldberg says. "Google's utilization of its changing logo on its Web site is a unique branding device of considerable veracity and insight. Exposure to these kinds of creative endeavors encourages more and more creativity, which in turn breeds still more. I think this all explains why there is an abundant and unusually large number of creative-oriented firms in San Francisco. It is all the more remarkable because San Francisco is a relatively small place compared to New York, la and Chicago, and yet it has managed to produce an extraordinary amount of great advertising in the past."
With those tech firms driving so much of the overall economy today, the Bay Area feels like the center of the new business universe, Goody's Barbara Lippert says. "[It is] filled with possibility for innovators and entrepreneurs."