Ad Agency JWT is tapping into the startup culture of SXSW, eschewing the traditional, splashy agency party or stunt (remember homeless hotspots?) for something more in line with the SXSW culture, and agency mission. JWT, a large, global company, wants to come away from SXSW with a better understanding of startup culture; to not just have a presence at the event, but have an integral role in the ecosystem. A party wouldn’t accomplish this goal, so to get closer to the new startups and tech that will be shown at SXSW 2013, JWT will rebrand itself as a pop-up ‘agency’ called Walter. Walter will only be in operation for the 5 days of SXSW Interactive, but during that short period of time, the pop-up shop will create full marketing strategies for two emerging startups.
Created by Perry Fair, Chief Creative Officer of JWT Atlanta, and championed by David Eastman, CEO of JWT North America, Walter’s timeline will be very different from a traditional agency. Walter is currently accepting pitches from startups on calluswalter.com; startups can apply to work with Walter with a 140-word elevator pitch from now until March 8th, at which point Walter will narrow down the options to a pool of 25 promising candidates. From these 25, Walter will pick one or two finalists to work with on March 8th, immediately beginning the furious work that will culminate just 5 days later on March 12th with complete, tailored marketing solutions for the startups. Limiting Walter’s presence to 5 days will give the team members the same sense of urgency and drive that startups face (and the same late nights!), challenging them to create the same quality output JWT clients receive on a much more compressed timeline. When speaking with Fair yesterday, he seemed excited about the lean approach, calling it ‘gritty’ and a chance to get back to the agency’s core DNA- JWT was the first full-service ad agency, so although hardly a startup now, has entrepreneurial roots in its blood. (Walter’s logo is actually JWT’s first logo from 150 years ago!)
Eastman sees Walter as a win-win opportunity; the pop-up agency will help JWT bridge the disconnect between agencies and startups at SXSW, enabling them to get closer to new tech and gain more insight about how to best apply it to innovative solutions for their clients. Working closely with the startups will also give the JWT team insight into the creative, strategic thinking of startups that is so different from traditional agency thinking. The startups will benefit from having access to A-level, Madison Avenue talent and could potentially earn brand partnerships from the collaboration- access and exposure they wouldn’t necessarily have until much later in the game.
Although Walter will disband after just 5 days, Fair stresses that JWT’s commitment to innovation will – and has been- a focus at the agency. JWT has a longstanding relationship with the startup accelerator TechStars, who beyond helping curate entries for Walter, has helped JWT navigate how to use new tech to better serve their clients. After SXSW ends, TechStars will continue to give JWT insight into startup culture and potential partnerships. JWT will also maintain the relationship with the winning startups- although to what capacity isn’t clear yet.
While JWT won’t be the only agency at SXSW vying for attention from startups offering ‘the next big thing,’ their innovative approach places them squarely within the ecosystem. By working with and for the startups, JWT creates a reciprocal value exchange. The creation of Walter gets the agency involved with startups on an entirely new level- and while the experiment is hardly altruistic, with JWT poised to benefit as much as the startups, it does seem a more genuine and sincere approach than that of their peers.