On a street lined with faded brick factories in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania, you walk inside the old Fort Pitt brewery building. An antique elevator takes you up to the third floor and opens onto the office of engineering and experiential marketing firm Deeplocal.
The sprawling space, except for the occasional soldering station and pile of circuit boards, looks much like a modern marketing agency, with rows of tables and monitors, exposed brick and ductwork, and fishbowl conference rooms set off by glass walls.
Take a heavy-duty freight elevator two floors down, however, and you step out into a massive, factorylike room. Here, forklifts push around loads of plywood and drywall while fabricators adjust huge machines molding blocks of wood, metal and plastic. In both spaces, you find young people intensely at work in jeans, work boots and hoodies. They may look like they make craft spirits or pour cappuccinos, but half of them are engineers.
From this odd space, Deeplocal sends forth what might be the future of advertising: everything from smart socks and interactive treehouses to swing sets and amusement park–style rides. The surroundings and people seem as working class as nearby Pittsburgh, but the clients are some of the world’s most sophisticated brands, including Google, Netflix and Spotify.
“If you can train engineers to think like creatives,” says founder and chief executive officer Nathan Martin, “they can come up with amazing ideas and make them into reality. Our creative team is led by two engineers, and they are highly sought-after because they deeply understand the limits of what’s possible.”
The hard-core backstory
When talking about Deeplocal, people typically focus on the walking contradiction that is the towering, flannel-clad Martin. In the not-so-distant past, he served as lead singer for the hardcore band Creation Is Crucifixion and was an artist/provocateur at the Carbon Defense League, which styled itself as a “tactical media collective.” Among other things, he was known for coming up with F The Vote, a facetious campaign that purported to trade sex for votes against George W. Bush. In his previous life, Martin has been excoriated by Bill O’Reilly and been in legal trouble with the Ohio elections board.
For many, his abrupt switch to Pittsburgh Technology Council’s 2017 CEO of the Year is hard to fathom. How do you go from arch anarchist to suave capitalist in a few short years? What’s missed in that storyline is that while the output changed, the core remains the same. “I wanted to be in a band, but I wasn’t a talented musician,” he says. “But the other guys were. So I put a band together around them.”
You can take his modesty with a grain of salt, but the formula for Deeplocal is roughly the same as what Martin followed as musician and artist: put talented people together; come up with provocative, media-savvy ideas; build something wildly unexpected; and reap the whirlwind that results.
“We know that we do not make art. We make things that have aesthetic value,” says Martin. “In this world of advertising, we have to simplify. In art, you’re looking to create something where there’s no answer ... in marketing, you always have the answer. It’s Google, or Netflix, or whatever.”
The accidental CEO
Deeplocal began life as a mapping program Martin developed when he was an art and technology researcher at nearby Carnegie Mellon University. When Motorola became interested in the program, the university convinced its reluctant anarchist to take the call and found a company. The early days of Deeplocal involved a lot of conventional web and mapping work, but in 2009, Martin heard from a friend from his band days, who was now at Wieden+Kennedy. Creation Is Crucifixion always had a tech geek side to it and had once demonstrated a spray can robot. Could Martin do something like that for Nike? Martin called an old friend, Greg Baltus, who was the original engineer behind the robot (today, he is Deeplocal’s chief technology officer).
Together, they created the Nike Chalkbot, which debuted at the Tour de France. Arguably the first use of robotics in advertising, it consisted of a trailer mounted with a speedometer and an array of 48 spray nozzles that acted as a dot matrix printer. People around the world could submit inspiring messages to it, and the bot would spray-paint them in chalk along the Tour’s route.
The bot was such a hit that while it was running, someone told Martin, “You’re going to win at Cannes.” Martin had no idea what that meant, but it turned out to be prophetic. Chalkbot went on to win a Grand Prix.
For a while after that, Deeplocal worked as a creative/production company, strategizing ideas and building out concepts with agency partners. However, it soon found that agencies’ nontechnical staff could rarely pitch engineering ideas correctly. So in 2012, Martin and co. cut out the agency middlemen and started partnering with internal innovation groups at leading brands. As such, Deeplocal functions quite differently from agencies, working collaboratively with its clients, often with other vendors thrown in the mix. To date, the firm has grown to about 75 people, along the way building a reputation for being no-nonsense and down-to-earth, in spite of the crazy hype its projects generate.
“Being in Sharpsburg and out of ad world,” says Chad Calcagno, director of client services, “we keep our heads down in the work, and it shelters us from that pressure.”
Its clients agree. “What’s great about Deeplocal is how humble they are,” says Tara Back, vice president of Events and Experiences at Google. “They come in and ideate and become part of the process.”
Deeplocal’s work is driven by its unique perspective on marketing: no matter how technologically complex a project is, the experience must be dead simple. “With art, you want people to contemplate difficult things,” says Baltus. “Marketing is different because you’re trying to communicate a specific message. Something very clear.”
Early on, in fact, Martin made it a point to explain each project to his father. If dad didn’t get it, Deeplocal didn’t build it. As a result, much of its work, while heavy on invention, is playful and whimsical. Deeplocal’s raft of engineers has dispensed gumballs, made donuts, mixed nonalcoholic drinks, baked cookies and taken an endless number of selfies.
To understand how it all works, we can start with Netflix Socks. The goal of the project was to show how the brand innovates around an intimate understanding of its customers. Deeplocal built on a central insight: people fall asleep while binge-watching shows and then have trouble remembering where they’d left off. The socks solved the problem, using a movement detector that could sense when you fell asleep, and stopping Netflix at that moment.
Like many Deeplocal projects, this one didn’t reach a lot of people directly. The firm only built a few pairs of the socks (the prototypes were knitted by a 60-year-old grandmother) and published instructions for the avid DIYer. The real payoff came as the story blew up across news outlets and social media, creating more than a billion earned impressions (there was no paid media).
More recently, Deeplocal has set its eyes on bigger and more permanent installations. Google’s AnyPixel Wall, for example, was designed to bring focus and interest to the lobby in the company’s New York office. Consisting of 5,880 arcade game buttons, it is an interactive “screen” that runs on Chrome.
The experience is insanely touchable. Users walk up, start pressing buttons and watch as the installation reacts. Behind the fun, though, was serious engineering. The buttons needed to be pressable, kickable and even take the occasional spilled soda. To ensure the wall could run indefinitely, Deeplocal built a button-pushing machine that tested them to a million presses.
For a final project, we can look at Google’s amusement park–style ride at CES 2019. The experience, essentially a Disney ride minus Mickey Mouse, came complete with animatronic characters and a storyline about a busy dad trying to prepare for a surprise party for his kids’ grandma, who herself appeared in the ride’s line as a puppet fitted out with cameras. That way, a remote puppeteer could see people and have the grandmother talk to them as they stood in line (this proved almost as popular as the ride).
Like all Deeplocal projects, this one pounded home a simple message: at each scene in the ride, passengers listened to a song about how the dad used Google Assistant throughout his day—to get where he was going, remember to pick up a cake and, of course, take a group selfie at a party. If you experience it in 360-degree video on YouTube, you’ll find it to be a surprisingly fun experience—in real life, it must have been over the top.
Of course, back in Sharpsburg, it’s unlikely there were too many high fives or bottles of champagne drunk over the project (though there is plenty of canned beer in the kitchen). Within a week, Deeplocal had almost certainly moved on to some new challenge and provocation, leaving the last happily behind. As for what’s next in a larger sense, outside of continued slow growth, it’s hard even for the firm’s founder to say.
“We never had a business plan of what to do,” says Martin. “If I think back on every moment, I never would have guessed we’d have gotten to where we got to. But we believe in creativity and problem-solving, and that we’ll always have the grit and ability to gure out a way to make it happen. That’s inherent and core to what we do.” ca