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Apr 25 2015

SapientNitro helps digital advertising take on a greater marketing role


SapientNitro rides the trends — and the agency believes streaming video is the next big one.



By David Phelps •


When Adrian Slobin opened the Minneapolis office of the Boston-based ad agency SapientNitro, he was one of three staffers servicing the account of one client. But that one client was Target, and Slobin’s assignment was to bring the retailing giant into the digital age.


Slobin and SapientNitro caught the digital marketing wave at just the right time.


Today, SapientNitro is 70 people strong in its Butler Square offices, is on a 10-person hiring spree and counts some of Minnesota’s premier companies as clients, including 3M, Medtronic and United­Healthcare.


“We’ve grown through reputation,” Slobin said in a recent interview. “We’ve never had a business development engine. We don’t knock on doors. We have a smallish presence [in Minneapolis], but we have a brand business globally.”


SapientNitro was formed in 1990 as Sapient, a Latin word for wise. The 2009 acquisition of the Shanghai agency Nitro added the second half of the name. It is now an agency of 7,000 people in 31 cities in North and South America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. Sapient also has branches in the financial and government services areas.


After Target came on board, it made sense to make Minneapolis the Midwestern SapientNitro beachhead.


“There are more than 20 Fortune 500 companies headquartered here. We like our blend of local presence and global scale — we’re able to compete effectively with the large agencies who don’t have a local presence or fully understand the local market, and smaller ones who might not have our scale,” Slobin said.


Target is still a client, and the agency recently won awards for Target’s gift registry and a holiday wish list for kids that the retailer rolled out last year. Harley Davidson was recently added as a client, and Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the Minnetonka-based travel management giant, does work with SapientNitro.


With the advent of smartphones, tablets of various sizes and social media, digital marketing has exploded and changed business models. Society now lives in an “always on” world.


“We now carry a supercomputer in our pocket,” Slobin said of the iPhone. “There’s been a massive disruption of business. Consumers have changed everything and what they expect from a brand. You can’t behave as you did in 2009 or you’ll go out of business.”


While digital marketing used to be about building websites, today it is more about data analytics that dig deep into the habits and wants of consumers.


Asked about mistakes he’s made in the digital evolution, Slobin admits to not grasping soon enough the power of data and analytics.


“The amount of information being collected and being used to drive outcomes with consumers is extraordinary,” Slobin said. “You now have communication, experience, data and technology converging to a single point. You cannot be an effective brand if those four are not connected.


“Our clients feel it,” he said. “They wake up every day wondering where their next threat is coming from. Blockbuster didn’t see Netflix coming. Taxi companies didn’t see Uber coming. Retailers didn’t see Amazon coming.”


The agency is now dealing with the next big thing: video streaming.


“Everyone has been a publisher on Facebook with text. Now video live streaming is turning people into directors and producers. That freaks out everyone from sports teams to concert promoters. People are becoming their own real-time filmmakers and that is hugely disruptive to any video media,” Slobin said. “Look at [video streaming apps] Meerkat and Periscope. They weren’t even part of the conversation a few weeks ago.”


In another year or so, virtual reality will likely be a dominant force in marketing campaigns. Virtual reality devices like the headset-mounted Oculus Rift will be more sophisticated and mainstream.


“Its going beyond gaming and film to things like retail,” Slobin said. “It’ll be an immersive retail experience. You wear a headset and gloves and you are in a virtual shopping room where you can see and touch products.”


The other next big development will be the “Internet of things” and the connected home, he said. “People are becoming much more liberated from the workplace.”


At the Minneapolis office of SapientNitro, workers commingle and intermingle in a space largely void of walls. An art director is just as likely to be sitting next to a data analyst as another creative type.


“The work we do is intensely collaborative. We’ve avoided the creation of departments and disciplinary silos,” Slobin said. “We actually want to be sitting on top of each other.”


David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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