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What do an octopus and an engine have in common? Both can reach many places—all at once.

Experiential marketing agency Manifold takes the octopus and the engine—which has a many-piped component called a manifold—as its mascot. A giant print of an octopus with its tentacles wrapped around an engine hangs in the conference room of Manifold’s main office in San Francisco. The print is a reminder that powerful experiences are always the product of many creative minds. The image also alludes to the variety of creative services that Manifold offers to get clients’ businesses firing on all cylinders.

From left to right: agency producer Missy Austria,
associate creative director Kate Ward-Walton,
designer Kailani Novotny, designer Kyle Lee,
designer Elli Matejka, creative director Brian
Mullin and senior designer Emi Yasaka.

It’s fitting that there are manifold meanings of Manifold’s name. Not only does the agency provide a full complement of creative services—from brand strategy to mobile installation to public relations (PR)—but also, the agency was established by four cofounders from diverse professional backgrounds.

For nearly a decade, Sean Florio, Kelly Long, Brian Mullin and Mike Weaver worked together on Yahoo’s Buzz marketing team, which focused on experiential marketing. The Buzz marketing team performed extremely well, and eventually, the four colleagues concluded that they could—and should—go into business themselves. So on March 15, 2010, all four resigned from Yahoo. The next day, they opened Manifold.

Despite making a decision to leave the safety of their salaried positions at the height of the Great Recession, Manifold’s cofounders weren’t cowed. In their time at Yahoo, the team had helped produce attention-grabbing surprises like a pop-up concert in Times Square and a Formula One race down the Las Vegas Strip. They had created experiences that wove together event production, digital advertising, social media marketing and media outreach. At the time, these efforts were typically siloed in different departments, but it’s in the gaps that Florio, Long, Mullin and Weaver saw their chance.

“We had a fair level of confidence in our ability to go do it,” says Mullin. “We just had a lot of excitement and felt there were a ton of opportunities. So, we just went for it.”

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It wasn’t empty bravado that led Manifold’s cofounders to believe they could make it on their own. The quartet has deep knowledge in areas across the board. With a background in internet marketing and magazine production, Mullin oversees Manifold’s creative and technology teams. Florio, trained in PR and communications, leads client services. Long, who worked in corporate communications and PR, directs account procurement. Weaver, who started in artist management in the music industry, directs all elements of Manifold’s production processes and operations.

Keeping with the theme of multiplicity, the agency has always had three offices—one in San Francisco, one in Los Angeles and one in Portland. The staff can balloon to 100 when vendors, contractors and expert artisans are tapped to help produce an event, but currently, the agency has 21 full-time employees. Everyone at Manifold is “of many kinds, with different parts, elements and features”—just as in the dictionary definition of the word. The copy on the About page of the agency’s website conveys this variety: “Marketers slash ski instructors, supper club hosts, endurance runners, quail hunters … ”

Manifold’s hybrid approach was on full display in a 2012 event for Zynga. The task was to promote Zombie Swipeout, Zynga’s newest mobile game, for which players swipe at the screen to destroy zombies and protect Joey, the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse. Ahead of release day, actors dressed as zombies lurched through the streets of New York City and San Francisco, handing out “blood pops” (hibiscus-and-mint-flavored popsicles). Their undead paths passed by the offices of media outlets, including CBS Interactive and MTV, the latter welcoming the zombies to answer phones and stagger through a few executive meetings. The campaign generated more than 12.5 million impressions on Twitter and garnered silver in the Best PR Stunt category at the 2013 Ex Awards, the Academy Awards of the experiential marketing industry. In August 2012, the agency was recognized by Advertising Age as a Small Agency of the Year.

“We truly do believe that good ideas come from everywhere,” Florio says. Manifold’s inclusive approach to ideation means that it holds all-hands-on-deck brainstorming sessions, for which team members across all departments from all three offices can video in. Someone from a “noncreative” department will toss out a quirky idea. And sure enough, that ends up becoming the backbone of the campaign.

For the 2017 iteration of GitHub’s annual developer conference, GitHub Universe, Manifold had been discussing ideas for an art piece for the conference, which counted a company called Black Duck Software among its sponsors. What if Black Duck’s art piece is a giant rubber duck made out of rubber ducks, joked Long, the cofounder who oversees accounts. The team laughed… and then made a giant rubber duck made out of rubber ducks.

We truly do believe that good ideas come from everywhere.” —Sean Florio

“We lean very heavily into big, simple concepts,” Mullin says. These, he adds, are the successful ones.

Such concepts are especially important when it’s on Manifold to create a sensory experience for a brand that exists solely on the screen, which is the ask that Manifold receives from many of its clients, including Google, LinkedIn and Slack. With LinkedIn, Manifold also had a big, simple insight from which to draw: users fare better on the site if they include a headshot in their profiles.

In 2015, Manifold took LinkedIn from the screen to the streets with a mobile photo studio that offered professional headshots and a five-minute consultation with a LinkedIn staffer on how to optimize a profile. The studio went on a two-month-long, sixteen-city tour. “It had the most insane lines I’ve ever seen,” says Kate Ward-Walton, associate creative director at Manifold. “We had professional people in business suits standing in 95-degree heat on the sidewalk in New York for two hours to get onto this bus and have a photo taken.” Seven thousand people ended up passing through the mobile studio.

Realizing a big, simple concept often requires complex planning and enormous effort. But that’s OK with Manifold; everyone there is committed to exquisitely executing every element of every idea.

For the Bumble Hive, a month-long pop-up that appeared in June 2017 in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City, Manifold devised a space to bring the social networking app Bumble to life. The task? Transform a stark white showroom that had formerly guarded Vera Wang finery into a welcoming beehive abuzz with warmth, community, activity and programming aimed at empowering women. Ward-Walton describes Manifold’s execution of the Hive as “layer on layer on layer on layer.”

“When you walk into a Bumble-branded space, you should feel like you’re walking into a warm, glowing hive,” Ward-Walton says. “So it was gold on yellow on mirrors on backlit. Everything was glowing. Everything was warm. Flowers were a huge part of making sure people felt a certain way when they entered the space. The flowers made this space feel lush and soft.”

Mullin recalls that Manifold went to Herculean efforts to make this event happen. Because every element of the Hive was backlit, Manifold built false walls six inches away from the real walls to conceal the extensive wiring required to illuminate the space. It was arduous, but as Mullin says, “you can’t break the illusion if you want to do something that great.”

We lean very heavily into big, simple concepts.” —Brian Mullin

Chelsea Cain Maclin, Bumble’s director of marketing, praised Manifold on a job exceptionally well done, saying that “management and design of the space was really flawless; the renders in yellow looked even better in real life.” Maclin adds that the Hives aren’t over—Manifold is still collaborating with Bumble on more Hives, coming soon to locales beyond Manhattan. “I have and will continue to recommend Manifold again and again,” Maclin says.

Uber marketing manager Heidi Vance agrees. After working closely with Manifold to produce a mobile double-decker dining pop-up to celebrate the launch of the Uber Visa card in November 2017, she says, “The thing that I consistently appreciate when working with Manifold is their attention to detail. They sweat the small stuff; every little detail is considered when delivering an experience, from embroidery on napkins to light fixtures to mapping out each moment of the consumer experience.” And it’s not just clients for whom Manifold goes all out.

Every year, to hit the creative reset button, the agency makes what it calls a “silver bullet.” Past silver bullets include an arcade game installed in the San Francisco office, called Ms. Manifold; a birdhouse that automatically tweeted photos of birds when they came to feed; and Manipets, a calendar featuring the pets of Manifold—thirteen well-loved dogs.

In 2016, when employees voiced their desire to donate their time as an agency, Manifold took on a different kind of silver bullet by partnering with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to fulfill the wish of Wren, a young girl living with a neuromuscular disorder in Portland, Oregon. Wren had wished for a swim spa where she could move as freely as a mermaid. Manifold did her one better.

On August 6th, Wren was surprised with that dreamed-about swim spa—plus a full-blown block party. A ska band performed, as did a synchronized swimming troupe. The guests—more than 100 friends and neighbors—were given purple capes emblazoned with a giant W. Mermaids were in attendance, and Portland’s mayor declared it Mermaid Day.

“With [Manifold],” says Vance, “nothing is impossible.” ca

Alessandra Wollner is a writer, radio producer and community organizer based in Oakland, California.


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