Beyond the City Limits

The founders of Vigilante, a fast-growing ad agency, aim to understand the realities of urban life — the people who live there and the ideas that originate there.

The last thing you see as you leave Vigilante’s offices in Soho, a bustling, fashionable neighborhood in lower Manhattan, is a sign that reads, “Last vigilante standing: Hit the lights. Bolt the doors (both). Watch your back.”


Hit the lights? Makes sense. Bolt the doors? Sure. But Watch your back? It’s a call to vigilance that complements other “inspirationals” on the walls of this busy workplace: “Always empty the clip.” “Strategy is the craft of the warrior.” “Vigilance in combat means keeping one’s eyes wide open.” This is not the headquarters of an urban SWAT team or a secret government operation. It’s the headquarters of Vigilante, a young ad agency that’s part of Leo Burnett.

Why Vigilante? “We wanted a totally aggressive name that would make people a little nervous and that would express our vision of doing business,” explains Danny Robinson, 40, cofounder and chief creative officer. “Plus, you’ve got to admit,” says Marc Stephenson Strachan, 40, cofounder and chief marketing-and-operations officer, ” ‘Vigilante’ sounds much better than ‘Robinson & Strachan.’ ” The name also fits the agency’s mind-set. “Vigilantes get the job done first and ask questions later,” says Strachan. “We know that we’re doing something wrong if our clients’ palms aren’t sweating, if they’re not a little hot under the collar, if we’re not occasionally shocking them.”

Among the high-profile clients that Robinson and Strachan have shocked are Johnnie Walker Black Label, Major League Baseball, Nintendo of America, and Sprint. How has this small firm attracted such big names? By cracking the code of urban culture — by understanding the people who live it, make it, move it, and change it. To arrive at that understanding, Vigilante deploys an “Urban Think Tank,” a consulting group that uses a collection of services — with names like “Street Spies,” “UNITE” (urban intelligence through empathy), and “Urban Passport” — that both explain the urban market and immerse clients in it.


One crucial point about urban markets: Robinson and Strachan don’t consider “urban” to be a euphemism for “minority.” Cities, they say, are “magnetic epicenters” — hot zones from which influence flows to the social mainstream. By understanding urban markets, you can understand, capture, and create other markets. “Urban centers are not niche markets,” says Strachan. “They’re home to a critical mass of consumers who live, think, and act differently and who affect a larger whole — and force you to recalibrate your approach to them.”

Fast Company recently visited Robinson and Strachan, who provided a short course on some new realities of urban marketing. In the main article, Strachan describes the ideas and techniques behind the agency’s work. In two sidebars, Robinson and Strachan explain the theory and practice of some recent client engagements.

Urban Does Not Mean Minority

To 9 out of 10 people, “urban consumer” means “black or Hispanic.” One of the things that we help people understand is that “urban” does not mean “minority.” What annoyed — and excited — Danny and me when we first started our agency is that most marketers tend to think of urban consumers as being young blacks and Hispanics. We’d look at the streets of New York and ask, “What about all of the gay people? The older people? The Asians, the Russian immigrants, the white folks, the religious zealots, the women dressed head to toe in Prada?” During a heat wave last summer, ABC used what it called an “urban heat index” to broadcast the temperature. Was that index just for African-Americans and Hispanics?


The way you begin to understand the power of cities — as their own market and as a force that shapes other markets — is to understand the three Ps of city life: population, prevalence, and pervasiveness. Regarding population, big cities are becoming home to a bigger and bigger share of the world’s people. By 2015, the number of so-called megacities (urban centers with populations of more than 10 million) will grow to 26, compared with 14 in 1995.

As for prevalence, roughly half of the world’s people already live in urban areas, and that figure is expected to increase to 60% by 2030. In fact, every week, more than 1 million people worldwide move into urban centers. The growing prevalence of megacities means that they are extremely important to marketers in all kinds of industries. Over time, there just won’t be as many traditional suburban consumers as there used to be. People are streaming into urban centers in droves — so we’d better start thinking about how people in cities live and act. It used to be that when people retired, they would flee to the suburbs. Now retirees are returning to the city. Suburban empty nesters are looking for the energy and stimulation of city life.

The third P — pervasiveness — is the most important of all. The power of urban consumers extends far beyond city limits. Urban consumers are always looking for the next big thing. They’re the folks who set trends and force people outside the city to look at the world a little differently. One of my colleagues was in Charles De Gaulle Airport, in Paris, where he said he saw a six-foot-two-inch guy from Korea wearing Perry Ellis sneakers, Polo jeans, a FUBU sweatshirt — and carrying a Discman. When my colleague asked him what he was listening to, this guy (who couldn’t speak a word of English) pulled out a CD. It was Biggie Smalls! That’s what I mean by the pervasiveness of urban culture today.


Magnetic Epicenters: The Magic Is in the Mixing

The power of urban spaces is that they are compact geographic environments — magnetic epicenters — that attract people from various cultures who have different attitudes and mind-sets. When people migrate to these epicenters, they fuse with everyone else, adding their own cultures, their own nuances and attitudes. Urban life is in a constant state of flux. It’s forever reinventing itself. There is magic in this mix.

And that magic gets exported. Think about New York City. You’ve got 3 million commuters coming here every day. They come from Bronxville and Scarsdale, in New York; from Hartford, Connecticut; from Hoboken, New Jersey; even from Philadelphia. And people from Boston and Washington, DC travel to this city almost daily. What do they all do? They pick up on what’s happening in the marketplace here. They’re here 8, 10, 12 hours a day. They’re influenced by what they see at Grand Central Station and by what they eat at restaurants. Then they go home with those attitudes and influences, which then wind up on their kitchen tables. Salsa is the number-one condiment in America today — number one! Ten years ago, salsa was something that you’d find only in Mexican restaurants.

As an urban center, New York City affects the world. Los Angeles affects the West. Miami affects Florida. Chicago affects the Midwest. People outside those areas are constantly looking to those epicenters for cues about what to do and even how to behave. So, from a marketing standpoint, urban centers are not niche markets. They’re home to a critical mass of consumers who live, think, and act differently and who affect a larger whole — and force you to recalibrate your approach to them.


Points of Fusion: How (and Where) to Market

Companies that are serious about reaching urban markets understand that they face some basic questions: Who are we trying to reach? How do we engage that audience? And where do we deliver our messages?

Take our work with Major League Baseball. Sure, baseball is our national pastime, and there’s room to market the sport on a national basis. But the way you make a national campaign effective is by finding opportunities to localize it. That’s what our “fan mail” campaign did. The idea was the same all around the country: Baseball players become fans of baseball fans. In one national spot, a guy gets a package from Tony Gwynn, of the San Diego Padres, containing the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In an accompanying note, Tony explains that he and some of his fellow players noticed that the fan couldn’t remember all of the words to the song. We also customized 22 spots for specific teams. For the LA Dodgers, for example, second baseman Eric Young (who has since been traded to the Chicago Cubs) faxed a note of congratulations to a fan for making a remarkable catch from the stands.

That’s one piece of the puzzle: how you communicate. Another big issue is “Who are you trying to reach, exactly?” Major League Baseball has realized that it has many different audiences, all of which come together at a ballpark to form a sort of minicity. In Los Angeles, 50% of the audience might be Mexican. In Texas, many of the fans are Mexican and Vietnamese. In New York, the mix of fans includes a little bit of everybody! African-Americans, Indians, Israelis, Pakistanis — they all go to baseball games. So you can no longer sell only beer and hot dogs. You’ve also got to sell nachos, salsa, grits, and sushi. Of course, families go to games too. And they don’t want to sit in the bleachers with all of those “bleacher creatures” who are throwing beer at one another. Families want a controlled environment. And when businesspeople go to games, they want luxury. So you’ve got a little urban world right in the ballpark.


Marketers must ask another big question: Where do you reach people most effectively? We’ve discovered that we must look for “points of fusion” — places that have a constant flow of people who can process your message and then export it to others. Each urban center has its critical intersections. In New York, one of those places is Grand Central Station. Other places are the lobby of the World Trade Center and the corner of Broadway and Houston. Smaller points of fusion include bathrooms in hot restaurants and clubs, as well as inner-city gas stations (because there are so few of them in the city).

Finding those fusion points is a simple task. But using them effectively requires a lot of work. If you want to interact with customers — either to ask questions or to send messages — you have to go where they are, to places where they are most comfortable and therefore most receptive. Customers won’t come to you anymore. You have to go to the points of fusion that they frequent.

Why are companies willing to advertise in bathrooms today? Ten years ago, that would have been a dirty thought. If you had suggested to a client that you were going to put framed 8-by-24-inch posters in bathroom stalls, you’d either have been laughed at, fired, or both. But today, that’s a good way to reach urban consumers — people who are clubbing, or eating out three or four nights a week. Noxzema has done a bang-up job with that approach by developing a whole new strategy based on one question: How do you reach urban women, who buy more makeup and lipstick than suburban women do? Noxzema got in their faces — literally — by placing ads in the bathrooms of clubs and restaurants.


Before You Talk, Learn How to Listen

More and more companies understand the importance of talking directly to people in urban markets. But the problem is that urban dwellers, while very influential, tend to be very opinionated as well. They are very sensitive to issues around them, but they are also extremely critical about things. They are bombarded by marketing messages — which makes their sensory perception very high.

So how do you talk to such people? First, by listening. It’s hard to know what to say to someone when you don’t understand what that person cares about. One way that we connect to consumers is through our “Street Spies” — a network of people in urban centers whose main job is to listen. They are shadows, information gatherers, flies on walls. Their job is to differentiate reality from perception, information heard last week from information heard this week. They are our eyes and ears at critical points of fusion in major cities.

You certainly can’t listen by relying on focus groups. Intercepting people in their natural environment and talking to people one-on-one is much more powerful than gathering a panel of consumers in a conference room. Once, I held a focus group for an insecticide company. We did lots of prescreening to make sure that the participants (all women) had dealt with infestations in their homes. But once we started asking questions, none of those women would say that they had ever had pests, rodents, or roaches in their homes. Not one! The women didn’t want the others to think that their homes weren’t clean. Then, when we spoke to the women individually, they all reported the worst pest problems in the world — which, by the way, were always their neighbors’ fault. That’s pretty typical.


Recently, Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch whiskey hired us to figure out how to increase sales to young people in cities. We didn’t do traditional focus groups or hire hip-hop stars to make endorsements. Instead, we organized events and sent our Street Spies to listen. The result was a new mixed drink, called a Johnnie Blaze, that is lifting sales of Johnnie Walker in New York and Chicago — the two cities that we focused on.

Don’t Just Listen to Customers — Live With Them

Great marketers don’t just listen to customers; they also understand them — personally and emotionally, as well as rationally. That can be a challenge for people who have had few encounters with people outside of their suburban demographic. What’s the best way for our clients to understand what’s really going on in cities? Not by letting us simply tell them about that environment but by immersing themselves in it. That’s why we designed our “Urban Think Tank” — to immerse our clients in the realities of urban life.

I’ll give you a great example: We’re working with a company that makes laundry detergent. So we had a bunch of folks from that company spend several days in Laundromats. They did laundry. They hung out with and talked to other people who were doing laundry. Then they went into people’s homes and did laundry there. Now, laundry may be a small chore, but it’s also kind of sacred, because it’s so personal. Our clients learned so much about how people do laundry and how they choose detergents. One thing that they found was that a lot of young people, and some members of ethnic communities (particularly older African-Americans), don’t wash their blue jeans. They have their jeans dry-cleaned instead. Our client was blown away by this revelation. Here was a big piece of the urban market that doesn’t launder jeans the way that most people do.


Our clients’ challenge is to figure out how to immerse themselves in the lives of urban consumers, so that they can understand the world from the urban point of view. That’s also our challenge as an agency. If we’re going to stay ahead of the curve, we’ve got to be right there every step of the way. I think that you’ll be seeing Vigilante outposts across Leo Burnett’s network. Could there be a Vigilante team at Leo Burnett London? Absolutely. At Leo Burnett Tokyo? Sure.

We don’t need separate offices, but we do need teams that focus on urban movements in South Hampton, England, or the Piccadilly Circus area of London, or Berlin, or Paris. As the expansion of urban areas continues, we’re going to have to change and evolve. And the only way to do that is to immerse ourselves in city life — to live it, breathe it, roll around in it. That’s a big challenge for us as an agency.

Anna Muoio (, a Fast Company senior writer, has no plans to move to the suburbs. Learn more about Vigilante on the Leo Burnett Web site (


Sidebar: Remixing Johnnie Walker

How do you blaze new trails with an old brand? First you listen — closely and informally — to find out why people don’t buy as much of the product as you’d like them to. Then you devise a new product that reflects what people have told you. Finally, you tout the virtues of that product by using the same technique that helped reveal the old product’s shortcomings. “A lot of our work is about letting consumers discover something on their own,” explains Danny Robinson, cofounder and chief creative officer of Vigilante. “Ultimately, if consumers think that a product is worthy, they’ll champion it for you. And their word has clout. Your word on a bunch of napkins or posters doesn’t.”

That’s what Vigilante did when one of its clients, Schieffelin and Somerset, a large distiller that makes Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch whiskey, faced a strategic problem: Young people weren’t bellying up to the bar for the Johnnie Walker brand. Instead of holding focus groups, conducting in-depth interviews, or distributing surveys, Vigilante organized an event that was cosponsored by Johnnie Walker and Hugo Boss. Vigilante then deployed its “Street Spies” to work the crowd and do what they do best — listen.

The first discovery: Johnnie Walker was too harsh for young people’s taste. “Women found the scotch too strong,” explains Marc Stephenson Strachan, Vigilante’s other cofounder. “Men felt that if they drank more than one, they’d be out for the night. People wanted a mixable drink — specifically, one that was red and sweet. Of course, connoisseurs of scotch consider it blasphemous to mix scotch with anything but water. But right on the spot, we worked with a few bartenders to create a new drink.”


That impromptu experimentation resulted in the Johnnie Blaze — a concoction of scotch and pineapple juice, with a touch of grenadine for color. In an early test at one bar, seven cases of scotch were consumed in two hours. (The standard is two cases.) Vigilante knew that it was onto something. But rather than propose a splashy launch, it kept the drink underground, nudging the buzz. “We never promoted the Johnnie Blaze in any traditional manner,” Strachan says. “We talked it up in clubs. We sent bottles of scotch, with the drink’s recipe attached, to influential people in the entertainment and fashion industries. Consumers aren’t stupid. We couldn’t put ads in newspapers and expect people to walk into clubs and say, ‘Hit me with a Blaze.’ We had to reach them at points of fusion and ask them to help us build the drink’s popularity.”

Sidebar: Prescription for Empathy

Vigilante beat out five other agencies to win the business of AmeriGroup corp., an HMO that provides care mostly to inner-city residents. Vigilante didn’t win because of a clever campaign to help AmeriGroup communicate with customers. It won because it helped AmeriGroup understand its customers. Specifically, it helped the client understand that its market was defined not by race but by attitudes that grow out of poverty.

Vigilante relied on a methodology that it calls “UNITE” (urban intelligence through empathy). To find out how AmeriGroup’s customers think about medical care, agency staffers visited the neighborhoods and homes of various ethnic groups — African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, Polish-Americans — in Chicago and in New York City. What the staffers heard was sobering: For many folks, medical care was so far down the list of priorities — so far below more-pressing goals, such as making ends meet and staying safe — that they gave little thought to health care.


Then, at a meeting with AmeriGroup, Vigilante staffers placed first-aid kits around the room, noting that the contents (aspirin, a few Band-Aids, dried chicken soup, a garlic clove wrapped in cheesecloth, Robitussin, tea bags, and Tiger Balm) represented the “health-care plan” that many of the company’s patients relied on. It was a small example of an important principle: If you want a company to understand its customers, don’t tell its executives about your research findings — show them the real world. Says Danny Robinson: “The way you help marketers understand their customers — especially marketers who don’t spend a lot of time in the markets that they’re focusing on — is by showing them what happens there.”

That’s why, after discussing the first-aid kits, Vigilante showed AmeriGroup’s marketing team several taped interviews from its neighborhood visits. “Some of the homes that we visited didn’t even have electricity for our cameraman to use,” explains Robinson. “We asked one woman, ‘When you think about your kids’ future, what do you think about?’ She just looked at us. Her silence conveyed more about how hard her life was and what her priorities were than any graphs or statistics could possibly show. Most of the time, it’s not enough to sit in a room and intellectualize about markets. Empathy lets you go beyond the question ‘Why should I be doing this?’ to the only question that really matters: ‘How do I actually do it?’ “