THE BOILING POINT OF WOW
Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet by James P. Othmer
In his latest book Adland: Searching for the Meaning of Life on a Branded Planet (Doubleday, September 15, 2009), James Othmer writes of Fahrenheit 212 in a chapter entitled The Merchants of What’s Next.
In a book described as funny, profound, deeply thoughtful and utterly unique, James chronicles his visit to Fahrenheit 212:
“Once I’m on the inside of Fahrenheit 212… I began to grasp why companies like Samsung, Warner Music, Hershey’s, NBC, and Gucci had been tapping the eclectic band of entrepreneurial mercenaries of F-212 to generate disruptive ideas and invent products and services that can impact their brands with the force of defibrillator paddles.”
“At F-212 everything is an idea. Or at least one waiting to happen.”
Publishers Weekly praises “the humor and genuine excitement that shine through,” and Daniel H. Pink, author of A Whole Mind, writes, “Adland is destined to become a classic of its kind – a must-read.”
The Boiling Point of Wow
From James P. Othmer’s Adland
From the outside, the epicenter of what’s next doesn’t look particularly futuristic or innovative. Especially on a humid Tuesday morning in Lower Manhattan when the skies were far from visionary blue and the Broadway traffic crept past its nondescript, street-level entrance at an unenlightened, sub-medieval pace.
It doesn’t help that the epicenter of what’s next, the home of Fahrenheit 212 – part ad agency, part consulting firm, part product design laboratory – is above a discount sneaker shop in a hundred-year-old office building.
But once I’m on the inside of Fahrenheit 212, a company barely two years removed from gaining its independence from the global ad giant Saatchi & Saatchi, a strange phenomenon occurred. I forgot about the foul weather, the god-awful traffic, and the world’s slowest elevator, and I began to grasp why companies like Samsung, Warner Music, Hershey’s, NBC, and Gucci had been tapping the eclectic band of entrepreneurial mercenaries of F-212 to generate disruptive ideas and invent products and services that can impact their brands with the force of defibrillator paddles.
And the reason wasn’t F-212’s all-white decor, state-of-the-art AV toys, or Amy Winehouse’s unconvincing take on rehab seemingly looped on the sound system. It’s because – and this became apparent even before I met the designer, who had a proclivity for tattooing samples of his favorite projects onto his body – there’s something Wonka-ish about the place.
As a result, the more time I spent there, the more I found myself getting excited about some of the weirdest shit, from the grandiose to the seemingly quotidian. The bottled water in my hand? Geoff Vuleta, the CEO, wasted no time in describing some of the killer innovations they have in the works for a client in that category. The cup of coffee I just declined? Get ready for an impassioned narrative about the worldwide coffee market, the preferences of the Japanese and female demographics, and how F-212 is sitting on a line of products that will forever change our relationship with a cup of joe.
Even the piece I’m thinking of writing about them, they had some thoughts about this, too. From basic art direction and sidebar suggestions to a radical new take on nothing less than the entire eye-to-paper reading experience. Some might call this type of visionary pathos bold, or obnoxious, but what it really is, is inspired. And bold. And obnoxious. Because when it comes to ideas, the eighteen-person staff at F-212 can’t help themselves.
At F-212 everything is an idea. Or at least one waiting to happen.
Vuleta’s tales are peppered with prefab pearls of bizdom like “identification of transformational vectors” or the observation, pronounced with less than convincing spontaneity, that 212 degrees Fahrenheit (water’s boiling point, for those not in science class that day) is also “the point at which one degree of change can make a profound difference.” But as he walked me through one top secret project after another (an unfortunate thing about capitalism is that everything’s confidential until it’s in your shopping cart), I saw that there is substance behind the stratspeak, and they have identified some pretty damned impressive vectors.
This is why Craig Kallman, CEO of Atlantic Records, had no reservations about enlisting F-212 to help solve Atlantic’s – and by association the entire music industry’s – seemingly insurmountable strategic problems, most notably how an industry that for generations made its money on records, tapes, and CDs can thrive in a download world. ‘They had such an obvious grasp of strategy, the proven ability to execute an idea and at the same time be wildly creative and innovative,” Kallman told me. “We’re fighting wars on so many fronts it made sense to step outside and get the perspective of someone who can force us to look at things differently and see what’s possible, So we basically said, ‘Here’s how we do things, Get under our hood. look inside, and go get creative.’”
Vuleta wasn’t particularly keen on discussing F-212’s ad agency roots or biting at my numerous suggestions that a lot of what they are doing for clients now is what agencies used to do for clients in the 19505 and 1960s, Back then, clients and agencies were marketing partners in every sense. It wasn’t uncommon then for agencies to suggest the introduction of a line extension for a product, or a new revenue opportunity, or an entirely new category to play in. But somewhere along the way, that all changed, and the average client-agency relationship became shorter, more tenuous, and, as a result, more distrustful.
Today agencies primarily focus on advertising the hand (products) they are dealt, while extensions and innovations are left to the overburdened brand stewards. This is where Vuleta and company saw an opportunity.
“Some consulting companies do strategy well,” Vuleta explained. “Some don’t do strategy but do consumer experience well. We do both.”
F-212 is typically brought in to radically rethink a brand or category and create a completely new set of what its president, Mark Payne, calls “big, fast, and doable” consumer experiences. And while the concept of innovation outsourcing is not entirely new, just about every aspect of the high-velocity, unconventional way F-212 goes about it is.
For instance, they don’t pitch clients. They wait for clients to come to them, which is pretty brave in an industry where dog and pony shows are the norm. Then there’s the five-month turnaround schedule (billable hours be damned) from initial contact to final presentation. And finally, they employ a virtually unheard-of (and some might say insane) compensation model in which up to two-thirds of the total is based on the realization of success.
In other words, for F-212 to make serious money, its ideas have to be market ready and damned successful once they get there.
Like any company trying to differentiate itself from the pack, F-212 is big on process, if only because having a trademarked, proprietary methodology is mandatory these days for entree into the C-suites of the world. But its greatest asset is dearly the assortment of big and nimble minds it brings to a brainstorming session. Here’s how “big, fast, and doable” works. When a client enlists them, all eighteen employees, each with his or her own unique superhero powers, get on board with the project: creative directors (including one who worked in robotics for NASA and designed rides for Disney), financial experts, designers, business directors (including one with a psychology and philosophy master’s from Oxford), a strategic analyst with degrees in sociology and international affairs, and an office manager who was an off-Broadway actor.
There are also plenty of people with ad agency experience at F-212, but as is the case at many of the anti-agencies, it is the unconventional career trajectories that are emphasized the most and, perhaps, the most important.
After an initial new-business chat around. the employees spend about five months spinning ideas, trying to turn the status quo on its head. When they settle on a core of about five big ideas, they don’t stop with a nifty Power Point presentation. They actually make the new products they dream up, presenting them to the client in ready-to-sell form. Often what’s presented is the last thing a client expects but precisely what it needs.
For example, Diageo hired Fahrenheit 212 to jump-start its moribund Smirnoff Ice brand. The firm’s response, in essence, was to recommend abandoning the brand it was hired to fix. Instead, F-212 wheeled out a selection of all-new, fully designed, and ready-to-drink Smirnoff flavors, including raw tea and a product that simply combined spring water and alcohol. Versions of both are already in market, a fact that makes F-212’s compensation model seem slightly less insane.
Besides being immersed in solving the future of music and beverages, F-212 is usually engaged in no fewer than five other live projects, ranging from the development of disruptive applications for flat-screen video monitors to rethinking the taste profile of chocolate.
When asked if his people ever had reservations about having to master and quickly develop a portfolio of ideas in such a broad range of categories, Vuleta replied that speed was actually on their side. “We work at such velocity that we never really have time to doubt or question ourselves, or get scared. Sometimes fear, as well as knowing too much, can make things worse.
“Sometimes we’ll show a client ideas on Tuesday, expose it to consumers on Wednesday, and by Thursday we’ll have a strong sense of where the heat is.”
In addition to the tattoo guy (still no word if the client, Gucci, bought the work) and the NASA guy and the rest of the in-house staff, F-212 is hyperlinked to an equally eclectic stable of outside experts. Like the prolific George in Bulgaria, a 3-D-rendering artist who furiously churns out beautifully realized, broadcast-quality presentation designs for a price that does not portend good things for the future of American 3·D-rendering shops. And Dr. AbduI-Munem Mohammed Daoud Al-Shakarchi, an Iraqi expat scientist with no fewer than five degrees, including a PhD in microbial chemistry, who has some revolutionary thoughts about, of all things, deodorant.
Here’s how that went down: a phone call from AI-Shakarchi’s agent, who claimed that his client had invented what he called the world’s first truly all-natural deodorant. Vuleta took a meeting, then took home a sample of the unscented prototype, which used base carrier oils instead of aluminum for astringent, antibacterial purposes. Vuleta was digging the fact that it was all natural, but after three or four days of using the product, he became acutely aware of the sensation he felt after applying it. Which got him thinking about the relationship between sweat and emotion. Which led to the sort of eureka moment that he generally does not believe in: a tipping point in the history of sweat.
“In the middle of the night I rang up a friend who was a scientist at Procter & Gamble and asked if she thought that, because we sweat for an emotional reason, it would be possible to marry essential, mood-enhancing oils to our base natural product to interact with the sweat, and she said yes.” This led to an aromatherapy study, to the development of a patent for the world’s first all-natural, mood-enhancing pro-perspirant – meaning it treats sweat as an active ingredient – that can give you energy, make you horny, or help you relax.
Sure, it’s not exactly a miracle cure, or the discovery of a new species. It’s just freakin’ deodorant. But it’s unlike any that’s ever been used, a significant improvement on a mundane, un-improvable product. And they dreamed it up in what, a few months?
Which made me wonder what F-212 might do with something larger, like the music industry. Or with all the “off-line” toys Vuleta showed me that, because of confidentiality agreements, I’m not allowed to talk about. And then I can’t help but wonder what they might be able to do with challenges where the bottom line reflects less on profit and more on humanity. For instance, would it hurt to ask F-212 to spend a few days lifting the hood on something like the oil industry? Or Darfur? Or to do a big, fast, and doable brainstorm about the Sunnis and the Shiites, surges and diplomacy? Who knows, maybe they already are.
When I asked Vuleta if they also did an advertising program for the Diageo and deodorant projects, he waved me off. Advertising isn’t the point. It’s the power (read: monetary value) of the idea that he’s interested in.
For instance, Starbucks. Vuleta has a whole spiel about how Starbucks has lost its core focus, overproduced in-store adjacencies (non-coffee items), and under-delivered on its promise as a mystical coffee mecca. He wrote a three-page manifesto on the subject. In fact, F-212 has also done some unique and still-proprietary product development in the coffee category, replete with some pieces of print art and videos that, to the naked eye, look just like ads.