The Seven Deadlies

An agency bonding fest with a mission: consumer connection

Susan Kuchinskas reports

Mark Kingdon, CEO of Organic, thinks he's figured out how to build his staff's empathy - and how to tap into that empathy to build the bottom line.

Kingdon says Organic differentiates itself by delivering "exceptional experiences" to consumers. The method involves creating personas - fictional characters who embody all the nuances of an advertiser's target.

To hone these characters, Organic also differs from some shops. "We don't have a single 'rock star' creative who goes away and comes back with the idea," Kingdon says. Instead, his secret weapon is Camp Organic, a two-day boot camp in Las Vegas - also ground zero for consumer desire.

On a sweltering evening in midsummer, 40 staffers gather in a small ballroom at Caesar's Palace to kick off the fifth annual Camp Organic. Kingdon and Troy Young (who was head of the agency's user experience practice at the time and is now chief marketing officer at VideoEgg, an online video publishing platform) explain the drill. Teams of four are assigned one of the "seven deadly sins" and a demographic target. Each team has 36 hours to rush around Vegas and find people who fit the profile. Once they understand their target, team members must figure out how the sin drives consumer behavior and use that insight to develop a marketing plan for Glow, a fictional beverage.

Not all of the teams will return with a fully baked presentation. The winners, Team Envy, wow judges Kingdon, Young, and executive director of marketing Amanda Van Nuys by recasting Glow as a pink inhaler that's "part drink, part drug, part lip gloss."

Organic spends in the mid-five figures to transport, house, and feed the campers. Says Max Zabramny, a senior interface designer and member of Team Anger: "To me, Camp Organic demonstrates how committed upper management is to the exceptional experience process."

At the same time, the mix of new hires and old hands from five offices appear to forge new personal connections. Says Van Nuys, "People come from all sides of the company who may not have had a chance to work together. At dinner, someone said, 'I'm back in love.' It reenergizes everyone."

Says Chris Portella, associate media director, "Behind the target's aspirations and frustrations, as a media person, I'm trying to crack the nut of what is their media consumption. I'm interested in taking the persona development process and creating not just a media strategy, but a communications strategy."

In this case, what goes on in Vegas definitely does not stay there. For example, the findings of Camp Organic influenced the 2005 interactive campaign for DaimlerChrysler's Jeep Spring Sales Event in Canada, where Organic used casually shot videos of real people talking about why they loved their Jeeps.

It seems that everyone loves a sinner - even advertisers.

Looking for Empathy on the Mean Streets

Back to the sin hunt: Given less than 24 hours to understand what makes their sinners tick, Organic teams must figure out how to connect consumers with Glow, a "breakthrough energy drink" that boosts vitality while lowering cholesterol.

>Sunday, 7 p.m.: The teams have scarfed down dinner and are supposed to be in the "how" stage, planning their approach to the project. Will they go to all the places on the list? Where else should they go? Some teams immediately disappear, while Anger, Greed, and Gluttony huddle in the ballroom.

Team Anger has honed in on two personas: the bad father, who expresses his rage, and the good father, who simmers. Maybe he's seeking absolution?

Meanwhile, Team Greed tries to arrive at a definition. Is it all about acquisition? Marie Spencer, an Organic account manager, already has a spreadsheet going.

>8 p.m.: The Sloth Squad is focused on how to make it happen. "Right now we think we know her, but we don't really know her," says associate creative director Millie Sensat. But they have a handle on their young mother's indolence - secret indulgences like going to McDonald's.

>Monday, 9 a.m.: The Gluttony Crew has identified its target, Lloyd, who works at a Colorado car dealership. They're creating a trail of receipts. And they've made a key realization: The product can abet the sin or provide absolution.

>9:30 a.m.: Team Envy looks for teenage girls at the Paris Hotel pool. Realization: The target is still asleep.

>11:30 a.m.: The Pride Posse buttonholes a salesman at an exotic car dealership. "When you drive up in a Lamborghini, you're an instant VIP," he says.

>1 p.m.: Team Anger is living its sin after a frustrating round of misadventures, visiting defunct clubs and cabbing all the way out to the Liberace Museum, which was closed. Now they're shooting it up - literally - at The Gunshop, firing off AK-47s just like their target (demographic) might.

>3 p.m.: The Gluttony Crew is aghast at the scene in the Hard Rock Café pool. Studs with ripped bodies covered in tattoos boogie with voluptuous babes in micro-bikinis. "It's like something from MTV," engagement manager Martin Cis, marvels. But there's no way to talk to these guys.

>4 p.m.: In an eerie coincidence, Team Anger witnesses a minor car crash, and one of the drivers syncs with their target: He's a thirtysomething male with kids.

>6 p.m.: Overheard by the Pride Posse: "Mine is bigger than yours, and it cost $26,000." Conclusion: These customers know the things they are supposed to have.

>8 p.m.: Team Greed is holed up in a suite littered with scraps of paper and dirty room-service dishes. They've decided that for their voracious target, Glow's health benefits don't matter. "Wait a minute," Spencer says. "The benefit is a huge differentiator to the client. We can't tell them it doesn't matter."

>9:30 p.m.: The Sloth Squad makes one more attempt to connect with a high-achieving mom at Margaritaville. The place is packed and they find it hard to edge their way into any groups. As two members trudge back to the hotel, Tom Tully, group director of engineering, and Tomas Roldan, senior information architect, chat up a sharp, sassy woman who becomes the centerpiece of their presentation.

>11 p.m.: The Lust Bunch relaxes in a hotel room, having connected early and often with their party-hearty female targets. They rehearse an introductory skit. "We don't want it too rehearsed, though," cautions media supervisor Kim Spiegelberg. The team was daunted at first at having no creatives on board, but they have a secret weapon: operations manager Diane Pellegrino, who can talk to anyone.

>Tuesday, 9 a.m.: The teams straggle back into the ballroom, juggling laptops, collages and props. It's showtime. Let the sinning begin.

The Sinners' Club

At Camp Organic, each team was assigned a sin and asked to create a persona for the sin using specific demographic characteristics.

>Envy: Female, late teens, upper middle-class; lives in the suburban Midwest; wired and social; works a service job.

>Anger: Male, late 30s to early 40s; lives in New Jersey; married, with children; college-educated professional earning more than $100K.

>Gluttony: Divorced male, no children; lives in Colorado; blue-collar roots; middle income.

>Lust: 60-plus female; retired; active and healthy; lives in Los Angeles; financially independent.

>Greed: Single male, early 20s; mid- to high income; lives in Atlanta; physically and socially active.

>Sloth: Female, mom with three kids; upper middle-class; lives in desirable Texas suburb; demanding career; balancing demands from husband, kids, and job.

>Pride: Single male, early 30s, lives in Miami; affluent banker and active dater.

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