OMMA's Agency of the Year 2010: Silver: SapientNitro

Smile Happy

In the less than two years that Sapient has acquired the Nitro Group, the dynamic 20-year-old agency, now known as SapientNitro, has been reaping universal kudos from industry pundits. The praise has helped SapientNitro vault to No. 45 on Fortune Magazine's list of Fastest Growing Companies. As the $500 billion communication market relentlessly morphs under the technological and sociological climate of the times, SapientNitro is particularly well-positioned as an innovative leader.

"The big challenge for agencies today is the need to transform their business from the old mass media model based on campaigns to building long-term relationships and assets for their clients," says Sean Corcoran, a Forrester analyst. "Few other agencies have the kind of versatility and depth in the digital space as SapientNitro."

The agency's range of expertise offers clients a single stop for most levels of multichannel marketing and commerce. Working for top-tier clients including Foot Locker, Volvo, HGTV, Unilever and Jeep, SapientNitro has delivered a dizzying array of solutions that may have exceeded what we consider the scope of an interactive agency until recently.

"Clients want a fully integrated, strategically led and digitally-enabled agency, " said Gaston Legorburu, Sapient executive director and worldwide creative officer. SapientNitro strives to "understanding the full potential of the brand experience space," he says. For clients, it means "accelerated growth and fuel brand advocacy."

As interactive agencies grow, transform and merge with traditional agencies, navigating the landscape presents a challenge for businesses. SapientNitro is distinguished not only for its combined capabilities in digital commerce, social media, marketing technology and integrated advertising, but for a philosophy. They refer to themselves as "idea engineers," emphasizing the need to '"engineer the birth" of creativity and inspiration. For instance, a recent executive summary candidly embraces a "profound shift in human behavior [where] digital is at the center of our lives. If you are thinking about digital advertising, you're missing a new reality." To accomplish this goal requires digital technological expertise that many Madison Avenue agencies have sought to purchase. But it also means having legitimate technological fundamentals.

As The Wall Street Journal reported at the time of Sapient's Nitro acquisition, the transaction "turn[ed] the tables on the recent trend of traditional advertising agencies snapping up digital shop(s)."

For client Unilever, SapientNitro developed a smile-activated ice cream vending machine in a project called "Share Happy" for Wall's, the UK's largest ice cream manufacturer. Essentially, passersby notice the welcoming machine with animation, which encourages them to smile for the camera. When facial recognition software determines you are indeed smiling (after you input your age, gender and personal data), it uploads your photo to Facebook and gives you an ice cream. The effort, a merger of technology and emotion, has been a hit. It's also blurred the line between the real world and the digital one.

"Many agencies can come up with the 'big idea,' but few can bring them to life like SapientNitro can," said Ian Maskell, global brand development director of Unilever.

SapientNitro took three Grand Prix Awards home from Cannes for its work on behalf of the Queensland Department of Tourism. Working with a $1.2 million budget, the "Best Job in the World" endeavor generated a stunning return of $368 million in media coverage, with over eight million Web site visits and three billion in global audience.

Strong roots in Web design, information architecture and content strategy helped SapientNitro partner with Scripps to redesign HGTV's online business. Improvements helped HGTV enhance both user experience and enable advertising in innovative ways. The result was the extension of the network's online presence and building a platform to cross-promote events.

Bill Kanarick, CMO at SapientNitro, points out that the agency has always prided itself on its ability to transform and adapt. "We realize that eventually technology will digitize every business model. We felt concerned that remaining a digital agency would have a shelf-life and we wanted to expand to offer clients both branding and broadcast [capabilities]."

The company has also earned recognition for being a great place to work. Kanarick attributes this to a shared culture that values excellence and curiosity but not a fixed strategy. "To be great, you must be curious. The fact is, every two or three years, we might need to pivot and pivot fast." Or as Sapient's Web site declares: "We were one thing. And then we became something else."

SapientNitro's Idea Engineer blog acts as a rich community discussion on strategy, creativity, business and technology - the four cornerstones of its approach to professional services. The blog is filled with inventive marketing language, such as "campaign ecosystems," "the Internet of things," "It's the experience, stupid!" and "on digital wallets."

Fusing Sapient's technological expertise and global reach with Nitro's creative talent, SapientNitro is poised to assume greater strategic roles for clients old and new.

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