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Jason Zada and Daniel Stein may be leading the most disruptive new movement in advertising. Not because their upstart San Francisco firm EVB has stolen dozens of clients away from big agencies. It hasn’t. But for a reason even more unsettling: In a rapidly evolving digital landscape, they have turned a small, unthreatening interactive shop into a formidable, full-service agency.

“We don’t like to consider ourselves a traditional agency, but we started realizing that advertising at its core is about the big idea,” says creative director Zada. “And if you have a big idea that’s media agnostic, you shouldn’t limit yourself.”

Their story speaks volumes about how digital media is roiling the world of advertising and marketing. When Stein and Zada founded EVB in 2000 (then known as Evolution Bureau), their ambitions were modest. Zada had previously worked for a large Web consultancy, and Stein was an advertising industry veteran who saw his former employers as partners, not competitors. Their primary goal was to find a way to pay their bills and cut a profit—at the time, a novel concept in the Web space.

“At the time budgets had shrunk,” says CEO Stein. “Determined to build our portfolio leveraging big brands, we found our most exciting work piggybacking on a lot of clients at agencies.”

EVB soon carved out a reputation for creating edgy Flash work with strong video integration. Some of its sites, like its simultaneous racing experience for Goodyear’s Eagle F1, had considerable wow factor, while its Elf Yourself e-card for Off EVB was still working within a traditional advertising model. An agency would dream up a concept and then hire the firm to execute it. Though this process remains popular, it does require the digital partner to bring a lot to the table. A TV commercial can be completely written and storyboarded at an agency. To build an online campaign, evb frequently had to add its own concepts and storytelling—not to mention technical know-how.

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“And we said, ‘Why can’t we do that ourselves?’ Doing a 30-second spot is a piece of cake compared to doing a big Web campaign,” explains Zada.

As time went on, digital media also started moving beyond the Web. Mobile devices, gaming platforms and social networking sites were making young people more elusive than ever. EVB itself had a staff filled with bloggers, gadget heads and above all gamers (on the day they were interviewed, everyone at the firm was salivating over the release of Halo 3). To reach these new consumers, they had to track and target them where they lived.

“Any idea can work in print or TV,” says Zada, “but you have to look at where your consumer is. If you’re going after eighteen-year-old guys who like soccer, you have to find out where they are during the day.”

In other words, if your customers message each other using mobile phones, a ringtone campaign makes sense. If they are gamers chatting on Xbox Live, you need to produce videos or other content for that platform. And if they can be found at a particular event, you should hit them with a street team.

Before long, EVB was balancing its agency clients with independent work for companies like Wrigley and LeapFrog. On its own, it created outdoor billboards in Times Square, YouTube videos and wild postings. Then, last year Stein and Zada decided to take a decisive step. They accepted a buyout from Omnicom and stopped working for other agencies.

Today, the biggest difference between evb and a traditional advertising agency is that it handles nearly all creative production in-house. In addition to strategy and writing teams, it can shoot its own videos and build everything from Web sites to complex online applications.

Typically, the firm begins its projects by bringing a cross section of its staff—everyone from coders to copywriters—into a room. Together they dream up a “big idea,” which they build-out into a core content offering. This core content cascades down onto the various platforms where the target audience can be found.

Any idea can work in print or TV, but you have to look at where your consumer is. If you’re going after eighteen-year-old guys who like soccer, you have to find out where they are during the day.” —Jason Zada

A good example of the approach is the firm’s recent campaign for 2K Sports’ All-Pro Football 2K8. It was a game that faced a tough challenge. 2K’s competitor, ea Sports, has an exclusive license with the NFL. So rather than featuring current players, All-Pro Football 2K8 had to use legendary players and rules from the past.

To promote the game, EVB devised a campaign called “Football Resurrected.” It was based on the idea that NFL football today is restricted by a set of rules that have made it less fun. And while it’s debatable whether football would be improved by more fights, late hits and end-zone dances, in the gaming world, violence sells.

Next, EVB produced its core content offering: a series of six, two-minute videos featuring legendary rap artists doing beat-poet-style monologues about the game. Though unconventional in size, these videos could stand on their own or be easily broken up and extended to other media.

“The videos ran on YouTube, the Playstation 3 Network, the Xbox Live Marketplace and the 2K Web site,” says Zada. “Out of them came a 30-second spot, a concert tour, print ads and wild postings.”

The methodology is not always so elaborate. EVB’s recent campaign for hair products brand Alberto VO5 is a twist on something more traditional. While researching the topic, the agency’s employees noticed that people were tagging pictures on Flickr with the term “sex hair.” They decided the campaign should focus on what people get for having great hair: mates who will mess it up during amorous activities.

“The big idea is Victory Hair,” says Zada. “If I put the product in my hair, I look sexy, I look great and I end up getting victory. You only have great hair because you want to go mess it up.”

Determined to build our portfolio leveraging big brands, we found our most exciting work piggybacking on a lot of clients at agencies.” —Daniel Stein

For its core content offering, EVB created a minute-long spot that shows a woman putting VO5 in her hair just prior to going through a carwash with her boyfriend. As the car emerges, the two have switched seats, and her hair has gone from perfect to deliciously disordered. The campaign also featured an online flirting championship microsite, a virtual makeover styling salon, a MySpace page, viral videos and a two-page spread.

As with the 2K campaign, EVB used the videos in a variety of places. They ran full length on YouTube and on the product’s Web site. Edited down, it served as a 30-second TV spot.

Of course, EVB’s critics are not without ammunition. The vast majority of its work targets younger consumers who are more receptive to multi-channel marketing. Whether the firm’s process would work for more mature clients and consumers is debatable. In addition, plenty of ad agencies are having success with their traditional production model.

Still, by keeping their coders and designers in-house and creating unique content offerings, EVB has perhaps latched onto something. Zada, for one, expects that the firm’s brand of digital marketing will become standard in the future.

“At end of the day, we are doing what all traditional agencies should be doing,” he says. “The problem is that you can’t take all those different departments and merge them together and spontaneously think everyone will think holistically.”

In other words, EVB believes it is out in front and the rest of the world is playing catch up. In advertising, that’s not a bad place to be. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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