Razor-sharp ad ideas

This story starts at a point in time that most observers predicted it would end. The year was 2002. The Internet party was long over. and other high-flying digital darlings were defunct. It was the dark days for the few survivors of the dot-com bubble, and Razorfish was barely hanging on.

The brash online ad agency that had come to symbolize the arrogance and frivolity of the era had slashed its staff from 1,800 employees to just 230. The company was sold for $8.2 million — a minuscule fraction of its $4.2-billion market value just two years before. One journalist asked the new owner whether he was nuts for buying the shop.


Razorfish kept its grip, however, convincing one corporation then another that the Internet was not a passing business fad. The once separate worlds of marketing, media and technology had started to collide rapidly, offering fundamentally new ways for businesses to operate and connect with consumers.

Razorfish gradually rebuilt its business on this premise and emerged on top once again, this time as a real business.

Now owned by advertising group Publicis, Razorfish stands as one of the largest digital ad agencies in the world. It has more than 3,000 employees and counts Ford, Kellogg, Unilever, Nike and Microsoft among its clients.

Bob Lord and Ray Velez have been on the front lines of this battle, starting at Razorfish in the late 1990s and now working respectively as chief executive and chief technology officer of the agency. Together, they have written a new book, "Converge: Transforming Business at the Intersection of Marketing and Technology," published by Wiley.

Their chronicle of this transformation stands out from other marketing books by offering valuable insights into the vast changes that are upending a broad range of industries. The authors bring these esoteric concepts to life via detailed case studies from a range of industries, including a hamburger-builder app for McDonald's in Germany and the data-driven reelection campaign for President Obama.

Take, for instance, the example of a virtual Tesco grocery store in a South Korean subway station. Shoppers perused aisles stocked with pictures of food. They used their smartphones to scan items they wanted to buy and schedule a home delivery. Was this an ad campaign, an e-commerce play or a technical feat? The authors argue for all of the above and show how companies must reorganize in order to take advantage of the new possibilities.

The book also outlines innovations that lie ahead, such as Internet-connected homes or Google's new tech-savvy glasses. Finally, Lord and Velez provide an action plan to help businesses organize themselves.

For the most part, the examples described in the book are the exception to the way businesses operate today, not the rule.

The advertising industry may be grappling with a new wave of storytelling, the rise of big data and changing media consumption habits, but most companies are stuck with organizational charts from the "Mad Men" era.

The authors argue that corporations must restructure so that marketing and technology departments work together in ways they never have before.

At some points in the book, jargon-filled sentences might distract readers not accustomed to marketing speak. (A detailed glossary helps to decipher an alphabet soup of terms such as APIs and RTB.) Meanwhile, trying to capture an industry in the midst of such revolutionary changes is challenging. The pace of change is accelerating so quickly that already some case studies are on the verge of seeming stale.

Of course, given the authors' jobs, one would expect them to argue for the radical changes they set out in the book. Nonetheless, they provide a fresh lens for evaluating an industry in rapid transformation.

Emily Steel is the U.S. media and marketing correspondent for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.