Agency Profile: Digitas

In a year that shook most interactive agencies with seismic force, Digitas resisted—and transcended—the tsunami.

Twenty years ago, budding entrepreneur Michael Bronner dropped out of Boston University to open a coupon marketing company. Bronner Slosberg & Partners soon picked up big clients such as American Express and FedEx. Within a few years, the small shop, by then well-schooled in customer acquisition and retention, evolved into a full-service direct-marketing firm. Then, along came the digital revolution. Four name changes after its humble start, Bronner’s company was transformed, in 1999, into interactive agency Digitas. And it hasn’t stopped winning clients or industry recognition since.

Revenue for 2000 totaled $288.2 million, a 54 percent jump over the previous year. The outlook for 2001, when many interactive agencies have been forced to make cutbacks, is downright rosy. Digitas projects 20-25% growth. In addition to its Boston headquarters, Digitas has locations in New York, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Miami, London, and Hong Kong—and plans to open at least three new offices this year.

What enables Digitas to buck the economic trends, hold onto clients long-term, and face uncertain times with optimism?

“We help our clients win,” says Carl Fremont, senior vice president, director of channel and partnership solutions (a title that loosely translates to über-media director). “We don’t fit into any traditional space,” the Impiric/Wunderman Cato Johnson veteran continues. “We’re not an ad agency; we’re not an interactive company. We’re a marketing and technology company. And, what’s unique is the approach we take to our clients’ business.”

Digitas has carved out its niche helping traditional clients transform their bricks-and-mortar companies into bricks-and-clicks enterprises. The model for this e-business transformation calls for integrating web strategy, creative, technology, marketing, and performance measurement.

“By maintaining deep relationships with clients and becoming involved in all aspects of the transformation, we help unlock their business potential on the Internet, build their brands, change perceptions, and encourage their business to grow through new and emerging channels,” says Fremont.

In addition to long-time loyalists American Express and FedEx, Digitas’ other blue-chip clients include Allstate, AT&T, Charles Schwab & Co., Delta Air Lines, FleetBoston, Gateway, General Motors, J.C. Penney, Johnson & Johnson, L.L. Bean, Morgan Stanley, Saab, Seagram, and Starwood Hotels.

According to Fremont, Digitas constructs three “pillars” to support clients’ e-business ventures. The first pillar helps companies conceive a digital strategy. The second determines how to make that strategy a reality and reorganize an infrastructure to accommodate it. The third concerns planning and bringing that strategy to the market.

As Digitas’ media guru, Fremont is mostly concerned with the third pillar. Of the company’s 1,900 staff members, some 100 work in media. Senior strategists develop expertise in a particular vertical, industry, or medium and are supported by colleagues dedicated to media planning and negotiation, event/sponsorship creation and management, channel logistics (ad serving), and partnerships.

“Direct mail, broadcast, interactive: We’re channel-agnostic,” claims Fremont. When Digitas works with clients’ general agencies for non-interactive creative, “we focus on how it all works together and can be optimized singularly and together, making sure each has been optimized for the best ROI.” On the Internet, “we want to make sure the medium is performing best alone and with other channels. We use tools to help identify what works from both a media and message side, and we change plans and schedules on a continual basis to ensure best results.”

In the campaign to launch the American Express Blue Card and associate it with entertainment, Digitas worked closely with other AmEx agencies Ogilvy and Momentum. Since its 1999 inception to date, the campaign’s direct marketing and interactive components have been managed by Digitas. Not only did the agency develop a newsletter and targeted emails to generate Blue Card awareness and promote usage, it also created a website for the new product. The client garnered lots of attention (and acquired many new cardmembers) through Digitas-conceived sponsorships of live, downloadable Blue Concert Webcasts, which have featured performers such as David Bowie. To keep the momentum going, Digitas has run rich media banners, streaming video, and traditional banners across,,, and other sites targeted to young, tech-savvy entertainment enthusiasts.

“Partnerships, not projects” is one of Digitas’ mantras. Another recent campaign, to launch GM’s Pontiac Aztek marque online, involved site development, direct marketing, strategic interactive marketing, sales promotion, and operations support. “Multiple channels that work synergistically together—offline drawing to online, online driving to retail—is most effective,” Fremont believes.

To put young and adventurous web users behind the wheel of this new vehicle, Digitas deployed the kind of creative that doesn’t exist in other media. Contextual banners, rich media, and microsites on and drove users to a game-like site (also created by the agency) that simulated the experience of being inside an Aztek. There, a contest induced visitors to participate in a test-drive at Aztek dealers.

Focused as much on the future as on its direct-response foundation, the talk at Digitas today is about the “ubiquitous web”—wireless phones and PDAs, interactive TV, Internet radio. “We’re committed to helping clients and consumers connect through these new and emerging technologies,” says Fremont.

Susan Breslow Sardone can be reached at

Building its knowledge base in new media and continuing to deliver measurable results have made the Digitas story one of survival of the fittest. And it doesn’t even eat its young: Last year founder Michael Bronner established the eponymous e-Business Center and Hatchery in The School of Management at Boston University, a venture that nurtures business students’ innovative ideas while encouraging them to remain in school.

Highest accolades were bestowed by Adweek (which ranked it Best Overall Interactive Agency 2000 and Best Non-Traditional Agency 1999) and AdAge (which rated it highest among interactive agencies). Hosannas from clients (Saab told the trade press, “Digitas understands the interactive space better than any other agency”) also have been great for morale.

Grounded as it is in direct marketing, the company most appreciates quantifiable results. There have been many: Digitas can point to a client retention rate in excess of 90 percent, and 2000 new-business wins included Gillette, Xerox, Ann Taylor, Domino’s Pizza, PepsiCo, and the NBA.

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