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Generally speaking, politics and brand advertising don’t mix. Most companies trying to build a brand tend to steer clear of political issues and tactics, for fear of alienating potential customers. And most politicians, when an election is on the line, are apt to turn to Washington political marketing specialists instead of the ad agencies best known for selling products.

But the rising New York agency SS+K is out to prove that a firm with political consulting and public affairs roots can cross over into the realm of brand advertising. SS+K’s leaders think that politics is actually a good training ground for success in today’s fiercely competitive and rapidly-evolving product marketing environment.

“Our roots in politics have given us a certain mentality that involves moving quickly, knowing how to integrate all kinds of tactics and collaborate with partners, and figuring out how to get the job done by any means necessary,” says SS+K founding partner Lenny Stern.

Formed in 1993 by Stern and partners Rob Shepardson and Mark Kaminsky, all of whom met at the pioneering political consultancy Sawyer Miller Group, the new firm initially was much stronger in public affairs and public relations than in advertising. “When it came to politics and policy, we’ve always tried to bring creativity into those areas, where it's often lacking,” says Shepardson. But the bigger challenge for SS+K was to bring creative advertising into the mix, so that the agency could achieve full marketing integration (SS+K was promoting the “I-word” well before it became a worn-out buzzword in the ad business).

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Before SS+K could conquer advertising, the firm needed to find the right person to spearhead that part of the business. In its early days, the firm had linked up with a well-known ad creative director named David McCall, a co-founder of McCaffrey & McCall. But McCall was in the latter stages of a storied career by the time he joined SS+K. (In 1999, McCall was on an overseas volunteer mission to help Kosovo refugees when he tragically died in an accident).

By 2000, SS+K still hadn’t found the creative director who could lead it into the future. “It was not an easy search,” says Stern, “because we needed someone who understood traditional ad creativity, but who was also thirsting to apply it in new and different ways. Bringing in Marty Cooke was a seminal moment for the agency.”

Cooke had earned his creative chops and a passel of awards during his years at top creative agencies such as Scali, McCabe, Sloves and Chiat/Day. He was also a big believer in Jay Chiat's vision of reinventing advertising and creating “the agency of the future.”

After a stint at the agency Merkley Newman Harty, Cooke set out to start his own integrated agency combining design, advertising and PR. But his business partner pulled out of the startup venture at the last minute. “Then I met with Lenny Stern and he said, ‘We're already working on exactly what you want to do,’” Cooke recalls. With that, Cooke came aboard.

Cooke acknowledges that soon after he did so, he had doubts about whether he’d made the right move. “I felt like I’d gone off the grid,” he says. Cooke was used to doing a lot of high-profile commercials and print ads, but that wasn’t the goal at SS+K. “This was not the place to come and build your TV reel,” Cooke says.

It was, however, a good place to experiment with new forms of marketing, beyond the standard commercial or print ad. It took a while for Cooke and his new partners to bring that experimental thinking to fruition. The turning point happened about three to fours years into Cooke's tenure, when some of SS+K’s non-traditional brand marketing campaigns began to click.

We learned a lot about ‘orchestrated spontaneity’ from the Obama campaign.” —Marty Cooke

One big breakthrough came on behalf of the telecommunications client Qwest, which was trying to reach a younger target audience. Instead of an ad campaign, SS+K devised a complex urban game called Conqwest, to be played with cell phones in select cities around the country. Working with a gaming professor, SS+K structured a live, street-level treasure hunt that took advantage of a new technology, image recognition. The agency embedded special coded images or “sema-codes” in outdoor ads around town; when kids photographed the images using their cell phones, they received clues that helped them move ahead in the contest. The game became a news event in each city where it took place, and the extensive media coverage led to heightened awareness of Qwest, particularly among the target audience.

The agency has taken similar unconventional approaches in its work for clients Time Warner Cable, MSNBC and Credo mobile phones—using everything from texted messages projected onto the sides of buildings to interactive in-theater audience participation games. Gradually, SS+K began to prove that its diversified, integrated model really did make sense. When the agency won the account of Delta airlines, just as it was emerging from bankruptcy in 2006, SS+K got involved with everything from ads to brand identity to improving the experience of Delta passengers. This included changing the atmosphere at Delta terminals as well as producing humorous short films, shown on the airline's in-flight screens, acknowledging the trials and tribulations of modern air travel. The results were impressive: The campaign was credited with helping Delta achieve a 300 percent jump in quarterly income.

If SS+K’s work tended to run counter to conventional ad campaigns, that may, again, reflect the influence of the agency’s political background. Stern says that political work taught SS+K how to “zig” when an opponent “zags”—an approach that SS+K has now codified and trademarked, under the moniker of “asymmetric marketing.” The agency was first introduced to this concept, according to Stern, while working on a project with the Pentagon and learning about “symmetrical warfare”—which involves responding in like manner to every action by an enemy: “Meaning,” Stern explains, “if they have a bomb, we need a bomb, and if they have a ship, we need a ship.” The agency realized that most marketers engage in this same type of symmetrical combat, and that SS+K could gain an edge by trying to do what the competition isn’t doing—i.e., you counter the other guy’s commercial not with your own commercial but with something totally different and unexpected like a street game or wall projection. That’s asymmetric marketing.

If brand marketers warmed to this strategy, so did clients in the public affairs space. Some high-profile foundations, including the ones run by Bill and Melinda Gates and by cyclist Lance Armstrong, came knocking on SS+K’s door. In the case of Armstrong, he was trying to build awareness for his cancer survivors group and SS+K’s efforts contributed to what can only be described as a cultural phenomenon. It all revolved around a single media vehicle—not a commercial or a billboard, but a yellow wristband. Armstrong had already been talking with his sponsor Nike about creating some type of cancer survivors' wristband, but it was SS+K who helped “brand the band.” The agency came upon a word, buried deep in Armstrong’s Web site, that played nicely off his name: “LIVESTRONG.” With SS+K’s prompting, that word went onto the wristbands, which, it was jointly decided, should be yellow. The bands subsequently took off, and did so “without a lick of advertising,” Cooke notes. As of today, more than 70 million of them have been sold.

Our roots in politics have given us a certain mentality that involves moving quickly, knowing how to integrate all kinds of tactics and collaborate with partners, and figuring out how to get the job done by any means necessary.” —Lenny Stern

Helping to make sure those yellow bands found their way onto the wrists of famous and influential people, SS+K relied on help from the famed Hollywood talent firm Creative Artists Agency (CAA)—which owns a minority stake in SS+K and often partners with it on projects. Stern says CAA’s impact goes beyond just hooking up the agency with stars; the two firms often brainstorm together on how to weave Hollywood storytelling approaches and techniques into brand marketing campaigns. Those in-flight films made for Delta? CAA played a big part in conceiving and producing them, and the Hollywood agency did likewise with indie-style Web films made for client eBay.

For New York-based SS+K, that Hollywood connection has proved valuable. But a piece of the agency’s heart still resides in Washington, and so it was particularly gratifying when SS+K had the opportunity to work on the Obama presidential campaign. Tasked with mobilizing young voters in 22 battleground states, SS+K utilized design (the firm’s designers created a striking iconic symbol it calls the “Ocon”) as well as a guerrilla-style poster campaign that solicited images from street artists.

The campaign helped solidify Obama's big youth advantage. The agency also benefited just by being associated with a winner, and by soaking up some good lessons that could be applied to other marketing challenges. “We learned a lot about ‘orchestrated spontaneity’ from the Obama campaign,” Cooke says. “The way they used social media, everything felt like it was just happening-but that campaign was incredibly disciplined and planned.”

The same could be said of SS+K’s current success—it may seem like a new and sudden development, but it’s the result of fifteen-plus years of planning, strategizing and working to get the balance right. Today, with the staff having expanded to more than a hundred, the agency is still tweaking the model: The addition of the newest partner, SS+K president Brad Kay—former head of Draftfcb’s digital practice—is an attempt “to double down on our digital capabilities,” says Shepardson.

It’s all part of SS+K’s endeavor to have every possible weapon available as it engages in “asymmetric marketing” warfare. By imbuing its brand campaigns with the kind of tactical flexibility, creativity and aggressiveness associated with election contests, SS+K is appealing to clients who recognize that the stakes have been raised in today’s marketing environment. “In politics, you win or you go home,” says Shepardson. “And we’re finding that these days, the corporate world is really responding to that sense of urgency and focus.” ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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