Toast of the Town: Silver

Digitas

Winning Shop Plays It Close to the Vest

Over the course of a conversation with Digitas' top executives, they tossed around many familiar industry catchphrases. They talked about the promise of online media and rhapsodized about the firm's holistic approach. Asked about what differentiates the shop from the competition, agency president Laura Lang responds, "Our insight and our innovation."

The lack of provocative discourse could mean one of two things: Either Digitas executives are mandated to discuss the agency's business in only the blandest of terms or, like a savvy gambler, the company doesn't want to show its hand.

The coy posture explains a lot: At press time, Digitas was so hot it was snapped up by Publicis Groupe for a cool $1.3 billion. In 2006, it was named interactive agency of record for Whirlpool, adding to its client roster which includes General Motors Corp., Holiday Inn, and Turner Entertainment's GameTap gaming site. While Digitas doesn't disclose its interactive media billings, it boasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 staffers working on interactive projects and counts American Express, Cingular, and Gillette among its top clients using interactive media in 2006.

"Everything we did was married to an insight," says Carl Fremont, Digitas' director of worldwide media services and executive vice president of digital marketing.

Of the interactive programs that Digitas is willing to discuss, two stand out.

The first was created on behalf of Cingular, which had been looking to connect its music offerings with the tech-happy ways of younger customers.

Like any number of brands, Cingular and Digitas turned to YouTube - but with a twist. Rather than flood the site with yet more music-centered brand videos and hope that viewers would stumble upon them, Digitas crafted the "YouTube Underground Presented by Cingular Wireless" program, a digital battle-of-the-bands competition for unsigned acts. It marked the first time that YouTube had engaged in a music promotion.

The contest, which was featured prominently on the YouTube home page, prompted 2,264 would-be Van Halens to upload performance clips and videos. Users narrowed down the field to a handful of finalists, from which a music executive selected the winners in four categories: best song, best music video, best creative work, and best live performance.

According to Greg Verdino, Digitas' head of emerging channels, clients have warmed to programs like YouTube Underground because they offer branded content that merges seamlessly with the online experience.

"People have been asserting much more control over how they filter out content, in lots of cases traditional advertising messages, so we've been thinking like a content provider," Verdino says. "We've been trying to take core brand benefits and attributes to deeply imbed them into our online programs."

Digitas' work on behalf of Turner Entertainment's GameTap showed similarly savvy thinking, though of an entirely different sort.

The site, which launched in late 2005, right around the time that Microsoft's Xbox 360 (and its upgraded Xbox live online gaming service) debuted, lacked much in the way of awareness.

Starting in 2006, Turner charged Digitas with driving interest among would-be subscribers and solidifying relationships with those already on board.

To that end, Digitas embarked on a data push, building out more detailed profiles by merging existing player information with intelligence from Acxiom's database.

Over the course of the year, it identified those attributes of GameTap that best resonated with core gamers and tweaked the online marketing strategy accordingly, focusing on bolstering subscriber engagement within the first 90 days of membership.

Since the start of 2006, average daily site traffic and average weekly registrations have both doubled; retention rates are up 20 percent and subscriber satisfaction is up 30 percent.

"One of the things about Digitas is that we can borrow on our expertise in direct marketing for a program like this," Fremont notes. "When you pair that with what we can do with interactive, it's a pretty powerful combination."

Credit Digitas with organizing its digital wing so that such alignments are possible. In 2006, the agency launched an emerging media arm and hired Verdino, previously with Internet broadcaster ROO, to lead it.

It also sought to stay ahead of the curve in developing "automated, next-generation interactive media dashboards" (their words) by forming a digital media analytics arm. "Especially online, for each situation there are numerous ways to evaluate what you're doing. We want to make sure we're using the best one in every case," Lang says.

However, the firm's most forward-thinking innovation may have been on the production side.

Digitas debuted large-scale digital production facilities in its New York and Boston offices; the firm's creative technology powerhouse division, rolled out in every U.S. office during 2006, boasts 35 or so Web designer/developer sorts.

"Production in the digital world is such an important part of how ideas come to life," Lang says. "That we can create these experiences ourselves is a big part of our differentiation."