Team Detroit

Brad Audet means it when he calls the long hallway that connects media planner types to account handlers an "idea artery."

In the sprawling Team Detroit building, frosted glass windows line conference rooms covered in brainstorm scrawl from a recent meeting. Glossy paint transforms a white wall into a whiteboard for figuring out new website architectures and digital platforms, and everywhere are quotes meant to spur creativity, innovation, and drive forward an industry that, in Detroit anyway, has taken more than a few lumps.

Secretaries a la Mad Men perched outside sacrosanct executive offices are non-existent. Instead, the open-space design uses such novelties as corrugated metal trailers for breakout rooms, aimed at what Audet, the executive vice president and managing director of the agency calls, "maximizing collaboration."

Obligatory foosball and pool tables break the earnestness, as do posters for a rising indie band that's giving an exclusive performance to Team Detroit workers (something that happens regularly, Audet says), and a multipurpose room for employee perks. Thursday is mani-pedi day. The day before that was massage day.

Down to the last corrugated Ikea-esque cubicle divider, the collected accoutrements are, in part, what you'd expect at any large ad agency that houses a mash-up of creative types, digital wunderkinds, and account handlers (Audet peppers his speech with jargon like "at the end of the day," and "finding synergies,") and yet, Team Detroit makes you want to believe that something bigger is happening.

General Motors in April announced that after 91 years, Campbell-Ewald --  the agency that made "Like a Rock" synonymous with images of weathered workers leaning on Chevy trucks -- would no longer handle the account. Chrysler last year cut loose BBDO, its agency of record for more than four decades.

The losses were not only a punch in the gut to an industry that, for years, relied largely on managing automaker brands as its bread and butter, but also to the region. Campbell Ewald is well diversified, but the losses seemed to be further evidence for the national voyeur set that despite whatever talent or know-how Detroit boasted at home, it was a region in decline -- this time, in creative decline.

It's not that the company is altruistic, and it doesn't aim to save Detroit, let alone the world. But where Team Detroit thinks it might be making an indelible mark on its industry is by showing how a business model forged around the nation's first automaker can make the region an enviable hotspot as an industry idea generator once again.

Team Detroit isn't small, or new to Detroit. Its parent company, London-based WPP plc (NASDAQ: WPPGY), is one of the largest communication conglomerates in the world. The company last year had revenue of about £8.9 billion (or about $13.6 billion).

It might not have existed had its biggest customer, Ford Motor Co., not needed a way to cut business redundancies and boost creativity in tighter days. (Ford in late April announced a $2.1 billion profit for its first quarter of 2010).

"We circled the wagons and started working together to solve the client's problems," says Toby Barlow, co-president and executive creative director. "We were forged in battle and became a much more cohesive unit than you would expect."

When five becomes one

The result of the circled wagons was the nearly four-year-old mash-up of five venerable media agencies (JWT, Y&R, Wunderman, Ogilvy and MindShare). Team Detroit declines to share its revenue and WPP doesn't break it out in its annual numbers. But with about 1,100 employees and 300,000 square feet of conscientiously hip space residing next to its biggest customer, Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, suffice to say, it's rather big.

Nonetheless, says Michael Bentley, executive vice president and chief strategy officer (and a London transplant by way of Liverpool),  "We all feel that there is a bigger role for this agency to play to help this region find its feet again," he says.
Its bigger role, Bentley explains, might be growing in Detroit what could become one of the most powerful business models in the ad world.

Merging the back-ends of disparate companies gets rid of redundancies and has a business function, and putting competing agencies under one roof is not terribly compelling. But "what you go on to do with the combined organization" is what is compelling, Bentley says.

Team Detroit operates on a single bottom line, which means its agencies don't compete for business, avoiding the "bitchiness" Barlow says can happen in other so-called "integrated" agencies.

"The clearest benefit is that we're solution agnostic," Barlow explains. "We've been given a series of problems by our clients and can look at the whole realm of solutions and stitch together something completely perfect for the problem."

"Other agencies that specialize in certain media, to use the old adage: when all you have is a hammer the whole world looks like a nail," he adds. "We interrogate the problem more rigorously."

Along with the model, national campaigns for Ford, Bosch, and Warrior Sports are attracting attention, Audet said.

"We needed strong strategic thinking and a solid campaign idea to support our spark plug business, which is exactly what Team Detroit delivered," says Pam Krebs, director of advertising and sales promotion, automotive aftermarket at Bosch, in a news release following the unveiling of its "Light 'Em Up" campaign.

That campaign, including everything from a microsite to an iPhone app and video spots, positions spark plugs (yes, spark plugs) as the sexy accessory every car guy wanting a tire squealing, g-pulling ride needs right now.

A key part of Team Detroit's model, Bentley explains, is that it's open to pulling talent from nearly any corner of the globe.

"Agencies for a long time have said, 'no, we're the best and the way we do things is the best,' We know that we have a phenomenal depth of talent," he says. "But there might be two guys named Eric and Sven who live in a cave in Sweden or something. We have a process in place such that if we want to tap into those people, we can."

Framed that way, Team Detroit's Dearborn offices become more of a talent portal for solving client problems creatively.

And locally, there's still plenty of talent to pull from.

As technology has infused advertising functions (think social media campaigns and digital platforms), says Richard Beltramini, a marketing professor at Wayne State University, the pool of talent has grown to include specialized boutiques, one-person shops, and others that can be found throughout the area.

"We hear about the large advertising agencies being affected far more than we hear about the many vibrant niches which continue to support the Detroit advertising community," he says.

Ben Guthrie agrees. The senior vice president and account director for Bloomfield Hills-based regional ad firm SFA says there's a rich pool of talent in the region that "for whatever reason tends to get ignored."

Team Detroit is getting noticed

During the past few years, Team Detroit has racked up industry awards for everything from social to digital to traditional media campaigns, primarily for Ford launches, such as that of the Fiesta.

Ford still comprises more than 80 percent of Team Detroit's business, Barlow says, although the agency is aggressive about seeking new clients.

Non-automaker clients on Team Detroit's roster include Scott's Miracle Gro, Bell Helicopter, Bosch, Shell, Johnson Controls, Oakwood Healthcare Systems, Warrior Sports and Etch-a-Sketch maker Ohio Arts. Six new accounts were added last year. Iconic work- and urban-wear maker Carhartt in April became one of the agency's newest.

"We needed to find a partner for this campaign who not only had the creative chops necessary to break through, we also needed them to have a sound strategic point of view to properly measure the success of our campaign," says Mark Valade, CEO of Carhartt in a release announcing the campaign.

An integrated media campaign is expected to be unveiled in September. It's validation for Beltramini's assertion that Detroit's advertising industry is far from "dead." And validation that Team Detroit's idea "portal" just might put the region firmly back on the industry's map.

"The real question should be, 'How does [Team Detroit's] vertical integration model impact both the agencies' cultures and those of their clients?'" Beltramini asks. "So far, it appears Team Detroit is making this work, and if they can sustain a proactive, client-centric service culture, their long-term relationships with their clients promise to be long and productive ... contributing to Detroit's advertising agency."

For Bentley, that might look like victory.

"We're all sort of in love with [Detroit] in a funny way," he says. "It's been through the darkest days, but it lives in hope."

Michelle Martinez doesn't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. And doesn't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. She is, however, a freelance writer and and editor who has reported on Metro Detroit businesses and issues for five years. She is also a regular contributor to Metromode. Her previous story was Ignite Ferndale.

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Unless noted, all Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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Portrait of Michael Bentley, executive vice president and chief strategy officer - photo Marvin Shaouni

Portrait of Toby Barlow, co-president and executive creative director - photo Marvin Shaouni

Team Detroit office & employees - courtesy Team Detroit
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