Don’t ask Scott Maney, partner and CCO of Breakaway Innovation Group, to take his bike out for a spin. The “Electra Rat Rod” cruiser, with dice for valve caps and a laid-back ride, stays inside—making for a badass decorating prop in his Boston-based company. The only hitch: It’s hard to know where to display it. Show it off in the entrance? Or tuck it away in a corner?
Breakaway is a hybrid. It’s one part venture capital investment firm, a culture of formality, and one part ad agency, a culture of foosball. And at this writing, things are still new enough here that it’s not entirely clear: Do high-net-worth investors really want to see badass decorating props when they come in for a meeting? Then again, shouldn’t an ad agency celebrate—and traffic in—its own swagger?
The bike has been moved from the front to the back of the house. More than once. But that gets ahead of the story somewhat.
Start instead years prior, at the Evanston, Illinois, agency Jones. There, Maney, as founder/creative director, set aside a room for concepts that busted out of the confines of print advertising. “The walls were covered with ideas for clients,” he says. “Everything from co-branding concepts to sketches for new products—even products Jones could launch and own.”
Theoretically it could, at any rate. In reality, ad agencies live or die by cash flow. While Maney jonesed (his agency’s name was no accident) to devise solutions beyond traditional branding, he could hardly devote resources to some project that might not see a return for years, or ever.
So he kept playing advertising’s fee-for-service game—and earning recognition for work for The Chicago Cubs, Kerrygold and Headwaters, among others. With a staff of about ten, including creative director Dan Madole, Maney moved Jones to a Chicago loft in January 2008. The economy, of course, went into freefall months later, hitting Jones hard.
A few auspicious projects from Kraft proved a lifeline, putting Jones on track for recovery. But the hamster-wheel reality of the bill-by-the-hour model continued to make no sense. For one, a bad idea can take 100 hours, a game changer 2. More to the point, cash-flow dependency limits the impact agencies can have on a business, so clients might always see their creative team as a collection of “wacky” fast talkers.
Which gets to the real heartache for people who care about advertising: their clients’ eroding respect for the craft.
To achieve the vested interest that fee-for-service relationships lack, “skin in the game” models of all stripes have sprung up. Incubators offer partnership. Agencies take an equity stake or revenue share in lieu of cash, while a handful have launched internal venture capital arms. But these efforts, according to many, need specific expertise that agencies don’t always have.
Brilliant creative, in other words, does not a successful exit event make.
Enter Breakaway’s founder and CEO Dennis Baldwin. The former CMO of Reebok launched Boston's Breakaway Ventures in 2006, raising a $25 million fund from which Breakaway makes $1 to $5 million investments in early-stage, consumer-facing companies. With the 2009 sale of Retail Convergence, a portfolio client, Breakaway is today in the position to say it’s returned more cash to investors than they’ve put in.
Around 2008, Maney and Baldwin, who are cousins, picked up the thread of a long-running conversation: For early-stage companies, just getting to a sustainable place can be an uphill hustle. Branding is often an afterthought.
But what if they baked Maney’s branding services into Baldwin’s VC offering? Something interesting might happen. One discipline would inform the other. Client conversations would deepen. So would impact. And, presumably, respect.
They formed Breakaway Innovation Group in October 2010 as a parent entity, under which two subsidiaries—a venture capital arm and a branding arm—operate. “My entire professional life, I’ve felt like creatives have been at the kids’ table,” says Maney, who moved to Boston in January 2011. (Madole didn’t join Maney but freelances for Breakaway.) “This is the first time I’ve felt like we have a seat at the adult table.”
In some ways, it’s an evolution of an earlier success. In 2009, Baldwin introduced Maney, still of Jones at the time, to IdeaPaint, a $5 million Breakaway investment. Jones pitched IdeaPaint against Boston’s Mullen, among others, and won.
IdeaPaint, a coating that turns walls and other surfaces into dry-erase whiteboards, was marketing itself as a bigger writing space at the time. Which was kind of just, well, meh. The power of IdeaPaint, Jones posited during the pitch, was its capacity to change the way people create and collaborate.
A whistle-clean design repackaged IdeaPaint as a kit, rather than two cans of paint. That took IdeaPaint out of the hardware store, where it looked prohibitively expensive next to, say, Benjamin Moore, and into diverse retail environments.
“The other agencies built their pitches around the existing brand,” says Marcus Wilson, Breakaway’s strategy director, who left the VC firm to serve as IdeaPaint’s CMO for almost three years before returning to Breakaway in 2011. “Jones was the only agency that laid out the competitive landscape to get the brand right.”
Maney’s writing here, and everywhere, assumes his audience’s appetite for whip-smart language play. With IdeaPaint, “Can A,” as it was called, needed to be poured into “Can B.” The potential for incorrectly mixing B into A was high. Maney renamed the cans “This” and “That.” Who would incorrectly pour“That” into “This”? Problem solved.
IdeaPaint, now a media darling that’s appeared in the likes of Inc. and Forbes, has grown 100 percent annually since the rebrand, with double-digit e-commerce growth every year.
Jim Amadeo—Mullen’s GCD during the IdeaPaint pitch—recalls being impressed by the Chicago agency, that won the pitch by asking IdeaPaint to do something unnatural for young companies: Pause. Step back. Rethink its position.
Today, Amadeo is creative director at Breakaway, having joined Maney in April 2011 after a year of freelancing at various agencies. “Everywhere I went, people were talking about the same thing. Everyone was trying to fix advertising’s business model. When I talked to Scott, it just made so much sense. It was the chance to influence companies, even at a product-development level, as a partner.”
Not all Breakaway advertising clients are Breakaway investments. Maney and Baldwin realized early that, if their sixteen-person company was to thrive, they’d need to strike a balance between shorter-term branding work and investments, which can take years to succeed—or, often in the risky VC game, fail.
But even for global brands, Breakaway’s cross-disciplinary perspective adds value. When Velcro engaged the agency in 2011 conversations about a global website, the team pulled what’s becoming a signature move, asking Velcro to step back and address branding issues first, including the fact that too many consumers think of Velcro as a thing (glue, tape, gum) and not a brand.
The resulting campaign includes web, packaging, social media, print—and all the touchpoints you’d expect. But Breakaway is also working with Velcro to develop new product concepts and potential licensing opportunities—exactly the kind of thing you’d have seen on the walls of Jones’s idea room.
“Inherently, creatives are dreamers,” says Amadeo. “We’re always coming up with ideas for clients’ businesses, then we go crazy trying to figure out how to do it. The difference here is that we have people who can run ideas through a model to see what it would take—whether it’s crazy or viable.”
For all that, Breakaway sure can make nice ads. For Newton Running, a shoe that replicates the benefits of barefoot running (and a Breakaway investment), Breakaway’s campaign, spanning print, web, guerrilla, retail and more, moves the brand away from marketing features to tell a story runners can relate to: the bliss of running, especially injury-free running.
“Run like you just kicked the can,” reads one ad, evoking the untroubled joy of running as a kid, before your joints give out. Another headline: “Do these shoes make me look fast?” Web traffic doubled during the first month of the campaign’s February 2012 launch.
Another Breakaway investment, a 2.0 vending-machine technology called MooBella, flash freezes ingredients to make ice cream in seconds. The creative team identified a disconnect between the been-there-done-that Vermonty vibe of the name, MooBella, and the Willy Wonkaesque magic of the technology.
Machines skinned in retro, goodie graphics debuted at a May 2012 tradeshow, emblazoned with the new name, “MIXI,” and copy like “!Turbo Dynamix!” The rebrand communicates a bright-eyed, campy sense of The Future as defined by someone from a quainter past. Augustus Gloop would approve.
In a way, Breakaway itself is a kind of Turbo Dynamix. Art school grads and former Goldman Sachs analyst-types are learning a lot about each other. It’s that old ad agency trope—suits v. creatives—on steroids.
But if success comes from the top, Baldwin’s crossover competencies bode well for assimilation. “The thing to understand about Denny is that he’s a marketing guy who was smart enough to figure out venture capital,” says Maney. “He’s not a VC guy pretending to understand branding.”
That could make all the difference.
And the bike?
It’s working itself out. For his part, Baldwin sees the writing on the walls: “Well,” he says with a shrug, “creatives always win.” ca