Creative: Starcom USA

StarcomDirty mouths and dirty shorts. Chevy and Twitter. Allstate socializing bikers. This buttoned-down Midwesterner continues to surprise and delight.

Starcom USA has historically been the media agency other American media agencies want to be. There’s that famous Midwestern buttoned-downess. That constant success in reviews. The deep and talented bench that makes management succession seem almost effortless. The industry leadership. The ongoing awards and honors. Its campaigns are always state-of-the-industry, its metrics always a step ahead.

But none of those elements are the shop’s secret sauce. The real difference maker is that Starcom USA has, if you will, a creative impulse.

The Publicis unit brings a unique drive to the media space, a restless urge to innovate, to explore, to experiment. Every shop has had to rethink itself, but even before digital changed everything, Starcom was constantly tinkering with its processes and structures, looking for new ways to define its mission and its team and to deliver for its clients.

It’s a trait that is tailor-made for a digital world in which innovation is a survival mechanism, options are endless, and boundaries don’t exist.

“We’re competing in a new arena, where the most successful ideas are those that marry both the art and the science,” says Starcom USA CEO Lisa Donohue, the Chicago Advertising Federation’s 2011 Woman of the Year. “We have rapidly moved from a world where we planned and bought static things to a world where we design interactive and dynamic experiences for our clients’ consumers … In this new world, traditional agency silos are collapsing and no one owns ‘creativity.’ ”  
This is a world in which, once again, Starcom is setting a benchmark for its peers to follow — it was the most awarded media agency last year, and dominated the Effies, where it was named Most Effective Agency in North America. And it ranked sixth on the global list of Most Effective Agencies.

Because of its leadership in seeding digital in its DNA, its ability to execute in the digital ecosphere, and for bringing its characteristic inventiveness to this brave new world, Starcom is MEDIA’s Creative Media Agency of the Year for 2011.

The agency’s digital numbers for the year tell part of the tale. In 2011, Starcom USA earned 38 percent of its revenue from digital, 17 percent more than the year before and a significantly higher percentage than most media agencies garner from digital business. It increased its social and mobile revenue by 64 percent over 2010 and drove revenue growth from data and analytics upward 59 percent.

By bringing SMG Search talent under the Starcom banner, the agency upped its search revenue by 17 percent. And branded content unit LiquidThread also refocused its mission on digital and, in the process, increased its digital and social business by 34 percent.

But with Starcom, it’s never just about quantity; the agency made some quality creative moves in 2011 as well, creating novel ways to serve its clients and serve up what Starcom calls “human experiences” across a diverse range of product categories. For Orbits, Starcom linked the chewing gum’s “Dirty Mouths” ad campaign with “Dirty Shorts,” five-minute videos that featured hilarious situations from Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and their friends. In one, Bateman cross-dressed as an exotic dancer who captivates his audience every time he flashes his bright Orbit smile. In “Prom Date,” Bateman plays a father in an awkward situation with his daughter and her date — played by Arnett — that isn’t so bad when everyone chews Orbit gum.

Starcom promised the client 500,000 online views — the two videos together racked up 2.7 million views. More to the point, 80 percent of user sentiment regarding the Orbit brand was positive.

For Allstate, Starcom partnered with Rider magazine to create an online social community for bikers. With almost 100 different routes created, the hub saw over 85,000 page views and 100,000 impressions on an exceptionally small budget. Allstate is seeing qualified leads generated at an astounding 80 percent conversion rate and Rider magazine continued to support the effort by creating a companion Twitter account.

And of course there was a Super Bowl play. As people went online to look for just-aired ads, Starcom not only had search terms locked up for client Chevrolet, but it was also stealing competitors’ terms as their ads ran during the game. The shop snapped up hashtags connected to other automakers and gained Twitter traction to turn the conversation back to Chevy. Everything drove consumers to Chevy’s YouTube and Facebook sites and to

And as always, Starcom innovated organizationally and welcomed top talent in 2011. The Martin Agency’s Mark Pavia joined as executive vice president and digital managing director; Jonathan Hoffman was named the first chief experience officer in the media agency business; and Chad Maxwell, a trained anthropologist from Razorfish, came on board as senior vice president and research intelligence director.

“We can’t just say the world is different,” says Donohue about her shop’s relentless march into the future. “We need to act differently and produce a different product.” 

And that may be the most creatively satisfying thing of all about Starcom USA: They actually do walk the walk.

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