It's slightly surreal to hear the rock star of the ad world, Crispin Porter + Bogusky CCO Alex Bogusky, talk lovingly and at length about the lowly sponge. Sponges are, after all, boring, utilitarian, drab. But if anyone can change the way we think about them, why not someone in advertising? It's just one example of how Bogusky and others within the agency world are increasingly busying themselves by leveraging their consumer insights and creative imaginations to create and develop products as well as market them.
The Twist sponge brand debuted on the market in 2007, with a line of all-natural, biodegradable sponges that don't have chemicals or dyes. CP+B contributed ideas for new sponges, including marketing, packaging and a clean, fun design aesthetic across the brand. Already in Target, they're a hit, and the brand is talking to the agency about next year's product. It's also leading to much bigger things. "It looks like this is going to lead to a sort of accelerator where we would work with some venture capital folks and do the same thing that we did with Twist," explains Bogusky. "From their side, [they'll] put in the business dynamics and from our side, [we'll] finish off the branding, and refine the product and packaging."
Bogusky maintains that the agency's work with Twist is the natural evolution of the philosophy that everything is advertising. "Most of us within advertising have grown up with parity products, taking two products that are essentially the same and using marketing to make it appear as if one is a little different than the other," says Bogusky. "I began to theorize that all this learning we've got within marketing, the research and all the understanding of the consumer, shouldn't go after the product, they should be in front of products."
The agency has quietly been building a nascent product innovation department (currently just five people strong) to turn that around. Burger King's coffee line, Joe (featuring different levels of caffeine to fit the chain's "Have It Your Way" tagline) and its Chicken Fries were both CP+B innovations. The agency's purchase of research company Radar has added a company that mines consumer behavior and brand innovation to its offering. "It's got to the point where we'll specifically get briefed on product and packaging," says Bogusky.
While distinctions between product and advertising might seem blurred in the physical world, things get really nebulous in the digital field. "What people considered to be advertising was clear until 10 years ago, but with the rise of personal technology that has drastically changed," says AKQA, San Francisco ECD Rei Inamoto. "When it comes to digital technology, because there is a blur and overlap between the product and the experience, where the messaging ends and the product begins is very grey."
Thus, AKQA now calls itself a strategic entertainment and technology company. "We're not in the business of creating advertising for clients," argues Inamoto, echoing Bogusky and others. "We're in the business of creating ideas that solve clients' problems." Four years ago AKQA was asked by Microsoft to create the then-new Xbox console's interface, working closely with the console's designers Astral Studios, to provide a holistic, integrated product. Increasingly they are consulting with big clients including Microsoft, DirecTV and Sky on blue-sky thinking for the next generation of TV, and the agency has a growing department of experience and interaction designers. "If you want to argue that it's marketing, sure, but defining the product experience as broadly as possible, that can also mean helping the client create the next generation of product."
The most radical proponent of this line of thinking is New York shop Anomaly. It's systematically deconstructed every facet of the half century-old agency model, from problem-solving, to agency hierarchy and remuneration, to the areas where agencies should work. Clients include Virgin America, Coca-Cola and Converse. For Virgin America, its work included creating co-branded bags with Burton and in-flight safety films, revamping ticketing, branding of aircraft and much more.
"If you look back historically large agencies used to produce highly entrepreneurial deals for their clients and invent properties and products," says head of innovation Johnny Vulkan. "All these things are coming around again. These aren't new ideas, they're just things that perhaps fell out of vogue as agencies and clients grew bigger. A conservatism sets in that only gets shaken up when economic shifts happen or technology changes radically. For the last 30 years we might have been able to say it's [about] TV, radio, or posters. Now the answer can be anything."
As well as developing holistic business solutions for brands, Anomaly works with venture capitalists and brand incubators to create products. Take its latest: EOS, a shaving product specifically for women, researched, designed and marketed based on market and consumer insight. That's led to common-sense values: it's a moisturizing cream rather than a drying gel. It's made of all-natural ingredients rather than chemicals. It comes in a soft, ergonomic, tactile and biodegradable bottle rather than a hard, pressurized metal can.
It's an area that Bogusky sees as the next phase in the evolution of agencies, from designing the marketing of a product to designing the product itself. "We're designing sponges," he says. "For me, to lay out all the products at the end of the conceptual stage and say, 'Wow, design can do this to a sponge'... It's pretty limitless. If you can do this to a sponge, you can do pretty much anything."