MEDIA Agency of the Year: Huge

Walking through Huge’s open loft-like workspace in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, NY, it’s not unusual to see people poring over wireframes — the schematic representation of pages showing the steps, screens and functions that the agency’s designers want people to experience. They’re everywhere — on people’s screens, in hard copies scattered across their desks, and tacked up on almost every available space on the walls surrounding the designers’ bullpens. That’s not surprising, because Huge is a digital design shop, after all, and wireframes have always been one of the main tools used by its team of experience, graphic and technology designers to create the interfaces that will become the experiences the agency and its clients want consumers to have when they interact with them on a digital screen. Usually, that screen is a Web site or an app, but increasingly, as this Agency of the Year profile will explain, it is becoming a wide range of other media — what people on Madison Avenue often call “traditional media.”
What is unusual is a wireframe I was shown in by a new kind of design team that Huge added to its organization over the past year to do exactly that. The team that created the wireframe was a group of media strategists, and the wireframe was a new way of expressing a step-by-step approach to planning and buying media — all media, not just digital screens — by using the same user-centric approach the agency uses to design the screen experiences it wants people to have on them.
“It’s media-buying as design,” explains Huge chief Aaron Shapiro, adding: “It’s our ethos applied to media.”
While media design is not new to Huge — the agency began as a digital media design boutique — its roots were in designing media screen interfaces (Web sites and mobile apps) that brands use to interact with consumers. What is new is applying the logic of user-centric design to media planning and buying as part of the whole continuum of a consumer’s experience with a brand.
The practice represents the next logical evolution for media planning and buying within an industry that has been progressively moving toward a user-centric mindset, but has been reluctant to let go completely. The evolution of media planning in the 1960s improved targeting. The adaptation to communications planning in the 1990s to date has been an attempt to think more strategically about what roles media play within the consumer’s journey and lifestyle. User-centric media design takes it to the next phase by abandoning all presumptions about media’s role in the consumer’s mix, and zero-basing what is the best way to deliver an experience a brand is trying to create for a consumer.
Huge’s media practice may seem like a subtle innovation over where other agencies and clients have been heading in recent years. After all, most agencies and brands have recognized the need to understand their consumer’s mindsets when planning and buying media, and invest considerable sums researching the best media to reach the right consumers with the right messages at the optimum time to achieve their brand goals. But that is also the problem, says Shapiro, because when it comes to media, most advertisers and agencies still have a “brand-centric” view of what they want to do to influence a consumer.
“We build things with the user at the center, not the brand,” he says, adding, “when you look at it from the consumer perspective, you have a different conversation. You design things for specific consumer needs, not based on generic insights.”
Because that is the orientation Huge has always had when designing screen experiences and interfaces, Shapiro says it was a logical extension to extend that into media planning and buying. While the practice is relatively new as a free-standing service offering, Huge has been integrating it into most of its full-service assignments — another fact demonstrating that it has grown well beyond its digital design boutique roots. While that’s not unique — many former digital design and specialty marketing services shops now boast that they are “digitally centered” full-service agencies offering strategy, creative and media services covering all media — Huge has built it around its core user experience and design logic.
Shapiro touts that the agency has its own full-service video production team rivaling any big traditional shop, and it also competes — and wins — on the basis of pure management consulting and strategy services against the likes of Accenture, McKinsey and other biggies. While the agency doesn’t call it management consulting — it refers to the term “business consulting” — it all emanates from a philosophy of the end user’s experience, as filtered through what the brand’s or enterprise’s communications or business objectives are.
That positioning is at the heart of everything Huge does, and you can see it in a new sizzle reel the agency produced to celebrate an important anniversary, and especially the tagline: “15 years of making things people love.”
If that’s what you do for a living — make things people, not your clients per se, love — then that approach would seem like the logical progression for a design shop diversifying into pure-play media services. One of the benefits of that approach is that Huge is completely agnostic to the media services it provides for a client, and thinks only how it can solve this as a part of a design solution that benefits its clients and the consumers it is trying to reach. So, for example, Huge’s approach to programmatic media-buying might mean it recommends a solution that doesn’t involve a direct agency role, even helping a client design an approach to take it in-house — a move that might seem heretical at other media-centric shops.
While Huge more often than not will try to utilize sister Interpublic trading desk Cadreon, it will recommend it if and only if it is the right solution for what the client is looking to achieve.
“We start by asking the question ‘Is there a role for programmatic?’,” says Matt Waghorn, a long-time veteran of big media services shops before joining Huge to in 2013 to create its media services practice. Waghorn, who has the title of director of communications planning, says the agency just as likely will work with independent trading desks, and lists the Trade Desk and Rocket Fuel among its preferred suppliers — although he said Huge did work with Interpublic’s Cadreon and BPN to develop a programmatic solution for its flagship media account, car dealership Sonic Automotive.
Waghorn said the core element driving Huge’s approach to programmatic is whether there is a data-driven element that leverages the programmatic audience exchange marketplace in a way that is better than buying media directly. But once it designs that solution, Huge would just as soon “hand it off to an implementation team to pull it together,” whether it is in-house, inside Interpublic, or via another independent source offering the optimum solution for a client.
“Having done all that hard work, pushing the ‘buy’ button is easy. We can do that,” he says — adding that it more than likely will become a greater component of Huge’s services offering over the next couple of years, but as with everything else it does, it’s a function of whether it is the right solution to achieve the end goal of servicing a brand’s customers with a superior media experience.
While programmatic solutions can do that, he says, it has to be driven by data that requires an automated, on-the-fly approach. Otherwise, why do it, he says. “We will handle everything from [programmatic] vendor selection to data-marting to site design, but having the right data and integrating the data is the key thing. Without that, what are you trying to achieve?”
In other words, Huge looks at programmatic just like any other media option it might factor in designing a solution for its clients. It has only diversified into traditional media such as television production, and now media planning and buying, as an outgrowth of achieving those solutions.
Since launching the media services practice, the agency has built a global consumer channel planning system for Estee Lauder, an advanced CRM data-based segmentation modeling system for Nespresso, an award-winning real-time marketing strategy for Quaker's Cap'n Crunch brand, and a social lead generation platform for BlackRock.

But the most impressive media solution Huge may have developed is for itself — a new age media strategy, planning and buying system dubbed Apollo. The system, which is still in development, so far has been used most extensively for Sonic as part of a soup-to-nuts relaunch of the automotive brand — everything from its core positioning to the digital and physical media that deliver it to the very showrooms and dealer experiences that consumers have when they shop for, buy or service a car.
In many ways, the execution of Sonic’s relaunch looks very much like any other auto brand, partly because traditional media like TV (for generating awareness) and out-of-home (for visibility) still work. But the way the strategy, plan and execution designed were anything but.
The first most noticeable thing about Apollo, is there are no spreadsheets — the core of most conventional agency media plans. In their place are various wireframe-like flowcharting systems based on a user design logic for planning and buying communications and media channels.
“We start by thinking about what the user experience with media is, and then we create a blueprint for what it should be,” Waghorn explains, adding that it was his personal “vendetta” to kill spreadsheets.
“They are horrific,” the veteran of big agencies like WPP’s Maxus says. “They’re like looking at hieroglyphics. All you have is impressions, date and budget. It’s a very old, linear model and way of thinking about media.”
Apollo, by contrast, utilizes more of a design-centric approach to optimizing media in concert with each other to achieve a campaign’s media goals based on how a user will experience them in the real world.
“A media channel is allocated based on its ability to perform, raise awareness, improve brand perception, drive downloads, improve loyalty — some specific user behavior we want to influence,” Waghorn explains. “What Apollo does is break those things apart so we can look at them as part of a whole.”
The approach, says, Huge Managing Director-Planning & Strategy Jonathan Lee, is to get out of the mentality of servicing a client based on “getting the cheapest media buy possible.” Instead, he says, Apollo helps Huge’s planners develop plans based on the most effective media possible from a user’s point of view.
Lee is so convinced of the logic of the approach that he recently told a client “they’re better off going somewhere else” in pursuit of a lowest-common-denominator approach to buying media, mainly because it runs against Huge’s workflow as well as its philosophy. Just as the agency wouldn’t design a crappy user interface on a site or mobile app, he says it wouldn’t design an inferior media plan just to achieve an arbitrary budget goal.
“We started by thinking about brand creation from a user perspective,” he says, adding: “That’s about what you say, and more about what you enable for the consumer. The next step is how do you get that into the marketplace with media.”
Huge’s approach is what the agency calls a “relationship view” of a media plan that does take conventional factors such as budget, and campaign duration into account, but also factors the “consumer journey” and how they are experiencing media along the way.
Instead of linear “time-flighting” that is utilized in conventional media plans, Huge’s planners utilize concepts like “consumer-flighting” or “user-centric-flighting” based on user experiences with the brand through various media.
Given that zero-base approach to media, it makes sense that Huge would kick Apollo’s tires first on Sonic’s relaunch. That’s because the goal of the Sonic campaign was effectively to redefine the auto dealership category, including everything from the showroom to the dealers to the way consumers experienced its advertising and media outside the showroom.
The goal, say the Huge team, was to sell cars the way Apple sells digital devices. Among other things, the effort began with a 180-degree rethinking about the dealer’s relationship with consumers that began with a management consulting assignment.
The results were a 100% “no-haggle” policy, redesigned showrooms and e-commerce site and mobile applications, as well as the Sonic brand’s overall media experience that put the consumer “back in control” — or at the very least made them feel like they were. To back that up, Sonic changed everything about the way it sells cars, including how its salespeople are compensated, moving from commissions to a system based on customer reports.
To execute it, Huge’s experience designers and media team created a “transition touchpoints plan” covering UI, media and even a creative strategy that poked fun of the traditional new and used car dealership experience, leveraging archetypal images like plaid jackets and cheap toupees to clue the consumer in on the fact that they were about to experience something different. That creative story helped drive the media strategy as part of what Lee describes as a “narrative-based media plan.”
To the outside observer, the execution might have looked like a conventional automotive dealer campaign — utilizing TV, radio, outdoor, etc. — but it was the way the plan leveraged different installments of the narrative to render an overall consumer experience that is different.
The campaign’s core tagline — “Every car deserves a happy owner” — was magnified by the fact that the dealers call their sales teams and service reps “happiness representatives.”

Time will tell how happy Sonic is with the results of Huge’s user experience and design approach to media, but if the agency delivers on what it set out to do — make media a better experience for consumers — it is likely that other clients, and agencies, will follow suit. And it’s unlikely they will be plaid ones.
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