Agency Profile: Freestyle Interactive

In a recent magazine award competition, only one agency received two nominations for creating the Best Online Brand Building campaign for its clients. It wasn’t the big-name shops of Tribal DDB, Modem Media, or AGENCY.COM, each nominated once by Revolution magazine. It was Freestyle Interactive, named as a finalist for its work on Hewlett-Packard (in conjunction with Goodby Silverstein & Partners) and for Janus. If this wasn’t enough to put the agency on some radar screens, Freestyle was also on the shortlist for Agency of the Year and a finalist for three separate clients for Best Use of Rich Media in Advertising.

“I think our work stands out because of our unique approach,” said Karim Sanjabi, Freestyle Interactive co-founder. “Most advertisers take their print ads or billboards and try to make them into web ads. We start by trying to make the most effective web ad for the web.”

The Freestyle Interactive story began in 1995, when founders Karim and Rebecca Sanjabi established Node8, an early web-design and development shop. Node8 specialized in ecommerce solutions and dynamic database sites while experimenting with online marketing concepts. The Sanjabis quickly realized that they could do much more to help clients than simply execute websites, and increasingly turned their attention to interactive marketing. Together with Chief Technical Officer Steve Von Worley, Freestyle Interactive was founded in the spring of 1997 to take full advantage of the exploding online marketing sector.

Recently, Freestyle formed a new internal unit, the Innovation Group, to focus on nascent opportunities in the areas of wireless, handheld, viral, low-bandwidth video, and developing new marketing solutions for emerging devices and platforms. One of the first developments to come out of this group will be related to low-bandwidth video for both web-based and wireless viewing.

Today, Freestyle, headquartered in San Francisco’s SoMa district, is a 30-plus-person, full-service interactive agency offering complete strategic, creative, and media services. Agency revenues, which have nearly tripled over last year, according to Sanjabi, are a reflection of the firm’s diverse and prominent client list, which includes Hewlett-Packard, Janus, Microsoft, Sega of America, CBS MarketWatch, People PC, and ScaleEight.

Freestyle is more than an award-winning creative shop; its four-person media department is starting to make a name for itself as well. Under the guidance of Media Director Cory Treffiletti, Freestyle is leading the charge to have clients adopt two new metrics for buying online advertising: a CPA buy that ties incentives back to the sites, and a CPM buy based on unique audience rather than total impressions. Although this is going against established selling practices, Treffiletti believes his clients will benefit greatly. “In the end, this is more of a sustainable business model than the traditional CPA and CPM buys,” he said. “There is far less waste in these approaches than just buying eyeballs. It’s more like buying TV or print.” Nine out of ten sites he has approached are willing to adopt these new sales practices.

Treffiletti knows a few things about online media. Before joining Freestyle, he led his own media strategy consultancy, called The Arkitektive. He previously held positions as Director of Marketing for IUMA (a division of EMusic), Vice President of Account Services for i-traffic, and Media Planner at DeWitt Media.

What Treffiletti really enjoys is the collaborative working relationships he shares with the creative and engineering teams at the shop. “The creative, tech, and media departments have brainstorming sessions a minimum of once a week per client and an overall resource meeting at the end of each week,” he said. “The meetings make things work seamlessly at the agency and cut down on internal communication errors.” Treffiletti also pointed out that since the engineers work hand in hand with the media planners, new technology, such as rich media, is better integrated in both the media buys and the back-end production.

One of Freestyle’s most noteworthy successes to date is the online marketing strategy and rich-media creative development it did for the Hewlett-Packard “Invent” campaign. The online work was done in support of Goodby Silverstein’s offline effort, and received 2 to 5 percent of the “Invent” budget. The “Invent” campaign was created to instill and celebrate the spirit of invention of which HP has long been a proponent, and to establish in people’s minds the company’s current campaign, “HP=Invent.” Not focused on click-throughs, Freestyle was asked to “push the envelope and startle people” by implementing cutting-edge rich-media banner technology while remaining consistent with the design of the offline component.

Three rich-media banner executions were created—one illustrating how to throw a paper airplane, another using a free-form graphic that morphs as the user changes variables in an algorithm, and a third, running only in Europe, featuring an interactive music sheet that allows users to “compose” and play their own music within the banner. These ads exemplify Freestyle’s motto: “Digital Marketing Worthy of Participation.”

Since this was a true branding campaign, success wasn’t measured by clicks. “I didn’t even want to see the click-through reports,” said Julia Mee, a Worldwide Brand Advertising Manager for Hewlett-Packard. “We judged success based on Freestyle’s ability to be inventive with the online medium. Our intuition that the campaign was working was reinforced by the dozens of unexpected emails our President and CEO, Carly Fiorina, received. People were saying things like ‘These were the most riveting and creative banners I’ve ever seen’ and ‘Flying the airplane kept me on the banner for 10 minutes.’ From these responses, we knew the online advertising was engaging the viewer and making a strong brand statement.”

“I was really impressed with Freestyle’s passion and their ability to push the creative limits,” Mee concluded. “They really seem to enjoy their work. With work like this, we won’t be so surprised next time Freestyle is mentioned with the big names in interactive advertising.”

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