When Wieden + Kennedy launched its tech incubator, the Portland Incubator Experiment in 2009, the effort proved a fruitful collaboration between the ad agency and local tech talent; it even spawned a few going tech concerns.
But it didn’t fully integrate all that startup mojo with Wieden’s core business—creative problem solving for brand partners. With a new iteration of PIE that will see nine newly selected startups working in-house, the agency is looking to more directly connect its clients to tech innovation.
Wieden Portland just announced the winners of its PIE startup contest—nine companies ranging from a finance-focused cloud management platform to what’s being dubbed an "Airbnb for pets." The startups will receive $18,000 in capital, a place to work, and access to Wieden’s leadership and the Portland tech scene’s best minds. But, perhaps more significantly, the budding companies will get access to a posse of high level brand players from Target, Coca-Cola, and Google—execs who represent not just marketing communications, but IT, retail, innovation, design, and other disciplines at those companies.
The initiative is designed to back startups that have something to offer brands and to bring the tech development mind-set into agency and brand culture. It’s also a smooth client relationship move from Wieden, positioning the agency as a collaborative partner that can bring tech innovation beyond digital ad campaigns.
The ad industry has tried, with varying degree of success, over the past several years, to draw technology and tech talent into its bosom, to transcend a communications-centered approach and embrace the ethos and skills inherent in the tech startup space.
Wieden, always a top-tier advertising creative player, had invested heavily in the late-2000s to raise its game when it came to digital communications, then went a step further to add the incubation unit two years ago as an arm’s-length mechanism to link the agency with the silicon forest tech community.
PIE was the brainchild of the agency’s global director of interactive strategies, Renny Gleeson, and Rick Turoczy, an entrepreneur and founder of the Silicon Florist blog. Turoczy says the unit was designed to create a "techno-cultural hub" for a diverse group of Portland-area innovators, and to try to bring the startup ethos—for example, the focus on creating platforms, not one-off campaigns— into ad culture.
"We were looking at the process of advertising which seemed to still be observing more of a manufacturing model versus the more iterative software model," says Gleeson of the original impetus for PIE. Since its 2009 launch, the incubator has hosted 20 startups from a range of disciplines and spawned a handful of ventures that went on to obtain funding, including mobile push notification specialist Urban Airship, cloud infrastructure company AppFog (FKA PhP Fog), and alt banking offering Banksimple, which ended up consolidating its offices in Portland due to its experience with the tech scene there through PIE.
The unit did turn into a meeting place for Portland’s tech contingent, but, says Gleeson, it didn’t create a direct link to the brands working with Wieden. "It was an interesting conversation when we finished the first experience," says Gleeson. "There was a very reasonable question, which was, How is this helping Wieden? We’re in the business of building provocative relationships, so how is an iOS infrastructure company helping us do that for the clients we have? There was a need to thread that through." Gleeson says the rethink of the PIE model was informed by attending countless demo days and observing some anachronisms in startup MO and realizing that brands were missing from the conversation.
"As we were trying to take lessons away from going to these demo days, we found that a significant number of those companies had business models that were predicated on advertising revenue supporting them, but we never encountered a brand," says Gleeson. The partners started to see echoes of the ad industry vis-a-vis the web circa 2000. "You start to see all the things that were wrong with the web where we accepted banners and just kind of rolled along, you saw that dangerously close to repeating with these startups. It was ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll put the banner here and then we’ll scale to a billion views and that’s where we’ll make our money.’"
Gleeson and Turoczy reworked the PIE model so that this time around brands were involved from the outset. "The first time around, we wanted to find interesting companies," says Gleeson. "In this case we wanted to find companies that were interested in working with brands, that saw the potential that brands have to scale an idea. We’re trying to create a different kind of platform for collaboration between entrepreneurs, innovators technologists, and some of the worlds biggest brands—because we think when those folks come together there’s some really interesting stuff that can come out."
PIE formalized the application process for startups and, after sending out a call for entries in June, received nearly 300 applications for 8-10 spots in the three-month incubation program. Applications were judged by the PIE team and by participating brand mentors. Gleeson and his team recruited those cross-discipline brand representatives from major clients Target and Coca-Cola, with the goal to have all brand disciplines represented.
"First, we didn’t want this to something they observe from afar, we wanted actual participation and mentorship from the brands," says Gleeson. "But we also wanted to seek out mentors across the organizations who can provide value, whether that’s coming out of the IT group, or tech teams or the CRM group, or PR or marketing—the better distributed those mentors were the more value we could provide to the startups coming through. So our challenges were, can we make this program valuable for brands, and can we make this valuable to the startups as well by helping them package what they have in a way that’s meaningful enough for those brands to buy not just out of one department but across their spectrum."
Coke’s mentors include Ivan Pollard, Vice President, Global Connections, Emmanuel Seuge, Group Director, Worldwide Sports and Entertainment Marketing, Michael Donnelly, Group Director, Global Connections (social media), Doug Busk, Mobile Brand Strategy, Global Connections Team, Darren Marshall, Vice President, Global Shopper Development, Mike Hornigold, Director of Emerging Shopper Technology Wendy Clark, Senior Vice President, Integrated Marketing Communications and Capabilities, Alan Boehme, Chief Enterprise Architect, David Butler, Vice President, Global Design and Guy Wollaert, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer.
Target’s participants include Dan Fine, Director, Digital Experience, Carolyn Sakstrup, Director, Category Marketing, Farhan Siddiqi, Senior Group Manager, Emerging Business, Fiona Mitchell, Senior Manager, Creative, Todd Nemoir, Group Manager, Marketing Operations and David Newman, Senior Group Manager, Target Technology Services.
Later in the process, Google came on board with mentors including representatives from Google Ventures, YouTube, Android, and brand marketing. Turoczy also pulled in mentors from the Portland startup scene.
The PIE team and brand mentors selected the following companies to participate in the incubator: Adyapper, which aggregates opinion around ads, Athletepath, "IMDB for amateur athletes," cloud management offering Cloudability, DailyPath, which offers "daily improvement through simple goals," app-based content distribution company MoPix, design workflow service Revisu, location-specific narrative platform Spotsi, social pet sitting service, Stayhound and smart vending machine solution, VendScreen.
Gleeson says the team wanted to actively avoid a strong advertising flavor in the group. "You look at, say, Cloudability, which deals with cloud migration with a Mint.com financial competent and say, what is the tie there for a brand from our standpoint? Well, I’d love to have Coke be able to have Cloudability help them make a transition to the cloud that impacts their whole IT infrastructure; I’d like to have DailyPath and Spotsi develop content around the Olympics, which Coke is a partner of; I’d like to have Vendscreen talk to them about how to retrofit their tends of thousands of vending machines. If we can solve a bunch of interesting challenges from a surprising angle for Coke, that’s a much better win for us rather than just, Oh, we found a way to make banner advertising more efficient. That’s our aspiration—that innovation should be coming from a lot of different places."
Wieden will take a small equity stake in the startups but PIE is not designed to be an investment fund. "If the companies come out the back end and get funding, the program will have been successful," says Gleeson.
And while this version of PIE is not necessarily about creating Wieden-owned properties, the question of agency IP—of agencies owning their own ideas and generating revenue outside of client contracts—is a massive elephant that stands in agency boardrooms everywhere. In fact, it’s hard to find an agency in the industry today that doesn’t have a self-driven project in the works, that isn’t actively setting up entrepreneurial ventures or at least thinking about it.
Gleeson doesn’t deny that PIE gives Wieden a head start toward the eventual, inevitable day when the agency creates and then owns its own products. "That is a potential," says Gleeson. "There’s no reason why the startups have to be non-Wieden ideas or people."
But Gleeson downplays the IP angle and focuses on what he says is the core of the exercise—collaborating in new ways with clients. "If you really boil it down, we think folks who collaborate best are the ones who win, whether you call them an agency, a technologist, a brand. No one is going to be smart enough to do everything by themselves; things are changing too fast. From our standpoint, laying the groundwork for new ways to collaborate is incredibly important."