Change Agency

David Sable and his colleagues at YR 2.1 want to create a new, bug-free version of an old-style advertising firm.

How does a 77-year-old advertising agency, which helped write many of the established rules of marketing, adjust to an environment in which many of those rules are being rewritten? How does a firm that has grown rich by serving some of the world's biggest companies — AT&T, Citigroup, Ford — learn to work with Internet startups? In short, how does a fabulously successful, old-line ad agency reinvent itself for the Digital Age?

Those are the kinds of questions that occupy the staffers at Y&R 2.1, a fledgling agency-within-an-agency at Young & Rubicam. The 30-person shop was established last December with the goal of creating a bug-free version of a traditional agency. And, indeed, it is quickly establishing itself as a smaller, nimbler version of Y&R. "The thinking is that, as we come up with good ideas, those ideas will migrate to Y&R," says David Sable, 46, president and CEO (or, in the new lingo, "pilot") of Y&R 2.1.

Sable's most striking innovation thus far: abolishing the classic account-management structure. Created in the days when media planning took place months in advance, that model revolves around an account team that acts as a conduit between a client and other ad-agency employees. But in a world that demands fast decision making, that structure has become burdensome. The solution: Assign each client a "navigator" — an agency staffer who makes sure that work gets done right but who doesn't serve as an intermediary or filter.

When CapitalThinking, a new online commercial-mortgage bank, decided one Saturday that it needed to run an ad in that Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, it called its Y&R 2.1 creative director directly. By Monday, the director (along with other account-team members) had an ad ready for production — a lightning-fast turnaround by traditional standards. "The navigator acts as a point of accountability, not as an interface," says Sable. "That way, we can work at Internet speed."

But not everything about Y&R 2.1 represents a break with the past. By design, its top leadership team consists entirely of Y&R veterans, all of whom are age 30 or older. Sable believes that having some gray hair at the top gives his shop extra credibility with clients. Most startup agencies "have a lot of moxie, smarts, and will," he says. "But they don't have a lot of experience, and they're losing a ton of business as a result. You need experience to do strategy."

Y&R 2.1 also sticks to some traditional advertising precepts. Sable discourages Internet clients from doing too much of their marketing online, and he is deeply skeptical of banner advertising. He hasn't figured out exactly what will work on the Web, but he offers this mantra: "brandwidth over bandwidth." Says Sable: "The Internet is just one channel. You have to make people understand why a product is relevant and how it can add value to their lives."

Pamela Kruger (pkruger@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. Contact David Sable by email (david_sable@yr.com).

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