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This article was published on March 17, 2012

10 small agencies that define “Digital Spring” in San Francisco

10 small agencies that define “Digital Spring” in San Francisco
Dana Dane
Story by

Dana Dane

Dana is a freelance writer and web design student, with a background in marketing. She is based in San Francisco, CA. She spends most of her Dana is a freelance writer and web design student, with a background in marketing. She is based in San Francisco, CA. She spends most of her time obsessing over pixels and code and has an affinity for dessert and great food in general.

Punxsutawney Phil may have forecasted six more weeks of winter, but for digital agencies in San Francisco, there’s reason to believe that this year will be better than the last. Not that last year was bad; for digital agencies, 2011 brought opportunities to create stunning web and mobile applications, redefine interactivity on websites, and fundamentally change the way that consumers engage with brands.

In an economic landscape where simply surviving is considered a success to some, digital agencies are finding themselves thriving. No city embodies the idea of “digital spring” more than San Francisco. From the wifi-powered coffee shops in the Haight to the trendy bars in the FiDi, it would be hard to swing a cat without hitting someone from an interactive agency (please, don’t try that at home).

In fact, it’s easy to get lost in the massive sea of agencies that inhabit San Francisco, but there are some digital shops that are hard to ignore. Like that tall, dark and handsome stranger across the bar, there is just something about them. Most importantly, they’re leading the charge in the digital revolution; they’re not afraid to take risks or use new technology, and they’re having a blast doing it. So the next time you’re playing that brand new iPhone game or wondering how on earth someone made a website do that (insert fancy web trick here), pick up your glass and cheers these ten agencies that are leading the way for the rest.

10. The Agency with No BS

Rockin’ it Since: 2001
Last Seen With: LucasArts, Red Bull, Adobe, Specialized Bicycles, Dreamworks
Typical Level of Client Engagement: Declined to state

MO: KNI is an agency free of fancy-sounding marketing buzzwords (which is great, because I was tired of looking them up in the dictionary. I kid, I kid). Their main mission is to make awesome interactive experiences, and they are living up to their word. Their no-nonsense attitude can be seen in their slick applications, websites, and product demos.

Notable Project: In conjunction with Adobe, Kurt Noble put together a Facebook app that lets even the most amateur creatives manipulate their photos (think goofy glasses, big eyes, fake hair, top hats; the essentials) with ease. The app has an obvious social hook and displays Adobe’s photo manipulation power all in one fell swoop.

9. The Agency with The Sexy Pilgrim

Rockin’ it Since: 2000
Last Seen With: HBO, Corona, Captain Morgan, Lego, Muscle Milk
Typical Level of Client Engagement: Declined to state

MO: The brave souls at Pereira O’Dell have taken it upon themselves to reboot the advertising industry. They believe that the traditional advertising techniques should be integrated into the digital revolution, instead of treating them as two separate entities.  This simple perspective helps them weave together interactive stories through multiple types of media in order to showcase their clients’ brands.

Notable Project: This agency isn’t new to the game; that’s probably how they came up with the idea for their Sexy Pilgrim campaign for Muscle Milk, which went viral last year before Thanksgiving. The video for this campaign is equal parts disturbing and hilarious, featuring a dancing pilgrim spreading his Muscle Milk message. Yes, Muscle Milk can make anyone sexy. Even pilgrims (hear that, Pocahontas?)!

8. The Agency that’s not Afraid to Show their Underwear

Rockin’ it Since: 2008
Last Seen With: Clos du Bois, Adobe, Shutterfly, Virgin Mobile, SalesForce
Typical Level of Client Engagement: $500,000 – $2 million

MO: Peruse their site and you’ll discover the Institute of Practical Underpants (IPU). As a challenge to themselves, Traction set out to design a way to represent their company without mentioning their name or services. Enter the talking underpants, complete with branding, underpants giveaways and a microsite. On a slightly more serious note, IPU demonstrates Traction’s philosophy that everything is interactive, and the more consumer touch points within a campaign, the better. This is an agency that (with the help of their underwear, and other technology of course) is closing the gap between traditional advertising and the digital revolution.

Notable Projects: Adobe’s ‘Real or Fake’ challenged users to guess the authenticity of a series of images (the fake images have been created using Adobe products). The integrated campaign allowed users to engage with the Adobe brand in an exciting new way.

7. The Agency with the Parrot


Rockin’ it Since: 2004
Last Seen With: AOL, Bare Escentuals, EA Sports, CineMax, Bank of the West
Typical Level of Client Engagement: $50,000 – $4 million

MO: Heat is the non-agency agency; they aim to break down the walls between the different departments needed to create a project that allows their clients to build a more genuine relationship with their consumers. At Heat, the client gets down and dirty with the agency during production; close relationships with their clients allow them to understand the consumers on a deeper level so that they can accurately tell the brand’s story. The agency also believes in a no-fad diet; instead of chasing after what’s hot and trendy, Heat’s goal is to build digital experiences that benefit both the brand and the consumer.

Notable Project: Heat created an integrated experience to promote EA’s Madden NFL 12 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 12 titles.  The campaign included rich client asset integration, social engagement, and the Google Maps API.

6. The Agency with the Largest Male to Female Ratio

Rockin’ it Since: 2007
Last Seen With: Yahoo! Mail, Storify, UgMo, Pan American Games, TokBox
Typical Level of Client Engagement: $100,000

MO: Freshout is a local development powerhouse, with a seemingly endless supply of developers. Product development is king, and the guys at Freshout have the process down to a science. During development, they are as mindful of the consumer as they are of their clients, carefully juggling new technologies and beautiful UI with realistic production timelines (their goal is to develop products that can be released within four months).  Their reputation for this process often precedes them, and as a result they work primarily with clients who have spent months developing products without a release.

Notable Project: They’ve applied this expertise to their first in-house project called Breezi, an app they’ve built completely from scratch, which will make it easy for creatives to edit designs within a website in real time.  This app is pretty much what I imagine would happen if designers around the world pressed that big, red “easy” button.

5. The Agency with the Most Interesting Past

Rockin it Since: 2002
Last Seen With: Coppola Winery, Target, Google, Facebook, Old Spice

MO: The company’s origins start in the 1940s, though a bout of scarlet fever caused them to shut down (seriously). They were reborn in 2002 and have been rockin’ it ever since. The Cuban Council focuses on producing a high quality product with a rich layer of personality (did I mention their name was inspired by rum and cigars?), all while exceeding their clients’ business and creative goals; talk about a juggling act!

Notable Project: A recent website redesign for the Francis Ford Coppola Winery required the agency to spend some quality time on the Francis’s private estate (poor them). They immersed themselves in the culture and product of the winery to gain a better understanding of the wines that are produced there. Their hard work resulted in a “whimsical yet functional site design”, which showcased the Coppola family history, culture, and of course wine. Satisfied clients, wine-fueled brainstorm sessions; you can’t really ask for more than that.

4. The Agency with “The Tip”

Rockin it Since: 1990
Last Seen With: Birkenstock, Hard Rock, Ritz-Carlton, Sega, StubHub
Typical Level of Client Engagement: Declined to state

MO: D/C is a multitasking agency that juggles digital, print, outdoor, packaging and more; bottom line – they go where their clients go. This chameleon of an agency is full of “creative eclectics” – performance artists, game theorists and musicians who add a unique sense of innovation and charm to each project. These fine folks also know how to have a good time, as evidenced by pictures from their holiday party (I’m talkin’ about racy boudoir photos and a guy dressed in a bunny suit). Hell, i’d do the same if I had a historic private lounge called “The Tip” at my disposal.

Notable Project: D/C had the chance to fundamentally change the restaurant dining experience through their work with Hard Rock. The agency designed and produced interactive tabletop interfaces for Hard Rock Cafe, which utilized Microsoft Surface. These apps let guests manipulate and peruse through memorabilia and merchandise as well as vote for which video will play next in the restaurant.

3. The Agency that’s Fired Up

Rockin’ it Since: 2003
Typical Level of Client Engagement: $100,000 – 400,000
Last Seen With: Hitachi, Kaiser Permanente, Macy’s, Pandora, Volkswagon

MO: Propane is an agency that sees brands as an interactive “ecosystem” of experiences and aims to change the way people connect with those brands. They take pride in the fact that they’re not afraid of commitment (no one night stands with these guys – they’re looking for a relationship) and a variety of clients. Perhaps it’s their digital strategy or front-end design that has made them successful; or perhaps their dogs bring them good luck (2% of their office inhabitants are canines; I wonder if they get to help with brainstorming?).

Notable Project: The agency just finished a complete redesign of their own website, a formidable task for a group of people who get paid to focus on other people’s brands.  Propane’s revamp simultaneously showcases the agency’s pioneering technology as well as their successful brand activation.

2. The Agency that Went Mainstream

Rockin’ it Since: 2000
Last Seen With: Sony, Playstation, RedBull, Nike, MTV

MO: They may have merged with Nurun last year, but the agency still knows how to hustle like a small shop. Odopod is always trying to find new ways to use digital products to change the interactive experience. They even hold an annual event called Hack Days where their entire office is shut down for two days solely to brainstorm and build prototypes.

Notable Project: Odopod works on a variety of projects, from top-secret Google projects (I’d tell you, but I’d have to kill you) to interactive in-store kiosks for Tesla Retail stores.  The agency put together interactive touch screen kiosks into Tesla retail stores to allow consumers to immerse themselves into the world of Tesla’s electric cars, complete with 3D models and video features.

1. The Agency with the Craziest Ideas

Rockin’ it Since: 2000
Last Seen With: Yahoo!, Art.com, SanDisk, Samsung, EA
Typical Level of Client Engagement: $50,000 – $250,000

MO: One thing the COG1 office is never short of is innovative, off-the-wall ideas. They pride themselves in their ability to come up with projects that defy convention and expectation to create a truly original brand experience. Cog1 is not afraid of unfamiliar territory in the digital landscape, if it means creating a better user experience for their client’s consumers. Can they do that, you ask? They may not be sure, but they’re game to find out.

Notable Project: COG1 created an iOS application called artMatch for Art.com, which changed the way users can explore and buy art on their mobile devices. The iOS app included a Super Zoom feature, which lets shoppers comb through the details of a piece of art (we’re talking brush strokes here). artMatch is of course the star feature of the app, allowing users to upload photos into the app; the feature will identify the piece of work if possible, and bring them to a page where they can explore and purchase the artwork.

Digital agencies have created their own microcosm within the advertising industry; a world where every day is spent inventing new and exciting technologies and working with first-class clients. Be sure to keep an eye on these up-and-coming interactive agencies that will surely continue to push the digital envelope in 2012 and redefine the phrase “work hard, play hard”.

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