Code and Theory has never been easy to define, but the agency had its best year in 2019 in part because the marketing world caught up with the expansive and somewhat amorphous reality of what it does.
Is it a design shop? An experiential marketing shop? A digital creative shop? Yes to all. And while the majority of its work is projects, Code and Theory also has agency-of-record assignments from adidas Originals and, most recently, Xerox (begun in 2019 but officially announced earlier this year).
Agency revenue soared 25 percent last year to $90 million on wins that also included Prudential, Pfizer, Morgan Stanley, Spotify, Mattel, Thomson Reuters and the NCAA. The Stagwell Group-owned shop also won a key account with Johnson & Johnson consumer brands including Tylenol, Listerine and Zyrtec alongside “cousin” agency Doner, a unit of MDC Partners, whose CEO Mark Penn is also chairman of Stagwell.
Code and Theory, founded in 2001, does 61 percent of its work in platform and product design; 23 percent in integrated marketing; 9 percent in data, analytics and research; 5 percent in business and organizational consulting; and 5 percent in experiential marketing. That’s a little bit of everything, in a sense, and last year might have been so good because more marketers began to work the same way, says CEO Dan Gardner.
“Before 2019, we were growing, expanding and adding capabilities,” Gardner says. “They were a little too advanced for the market. I think the traditional CMO wasn’t ready to buy our types of services. They didn’t understand the fundamental shifts they needed to make. And 2019 was the moment when the more modern CMO corps came in and understood the expansion of things that they needed to do in marketing. If you think about what does a modern CMO buy, are they buying only advertising agencies? Is an agency supposed to do more than just create the ads?”
By way of definition, Gardner says, “We simply describe ourselves as a digital-first creative agency.” Ultimately, though, the comprehensive nature of the work isn’t so different from what agencies were originally built to do, as Gardner sees it. “Original advertising agencies were creative people who solved problems,” he says. “We think we’re a modern version of that.”
Code and Theory’s diversity of work is matched by a diversity of clients. Besides media and publishing, the client base includes financial services, health care, government and academia. “We never want to be pigeonholed into one category,” says President Mike Treff.
The Thomson Reuters win added to an extensive media practice. Some of Code and Theory’s most visible media is for CNN, where it created the “magic wall” for the network’s midterm 2018 election coverage that has been redeployed and enhanced for 2020.
Media work in turn applies to other marketers. So with adidas, one strategy has been to get the athletic wear brand to think more like a publisher. That can be seen in part with the campaign behind last year’s relaunch over five months of the Originals Nite Jogger shoe. It included curating stories from creative users and influencers, and an interactive element that revealed what the shoe would look like in the dark. The online experience was coordinated to the user’s location, based on IP addresses. If the user visited in daytime, the shoe would appear one way; at night the site added glow-in-the-dark features. The work helped the product sell out in a record 48 hours.
adidas Originals is a relatively rare AOR account for Code and Theory. But even in project work, the agency looks to do things that “have annuities beyond the campaign” by building capabilities, organization design or infrastructure that will last, says Treff. Overall, about 80 percent of Code and Theory’s work is done on a project basis. “We don’t personally care if it’s project-based or retainer-based,” Treff says. “Even on retainer-based accounts, it’s very common that there are projects layered on top of it.”
Thomson Reuters was also the first client whose business is touched by each of Code and Theory’s six offices. Better integrating offices and capabilities was a priority for the agency this year, as it acquired and integrated Rhythm, an Irvine, California-based customer relationship management specialist shop.
Getting used to working remotely across offices has had advantages as Code and Theory adapts during the coronavirus crisis. Its Atlanta office, Mediacurrent, a Drupal content-development shop, always had a distributed workforce, Gardner says. “We’ve been able to quickly take learnings from 80 people who were always distributed. As soon as we saw this happening, we started slowly onboarding our teams into distributed work where clients were shared across offices. It wasn’t like one day we said, ‘Everyone go home.’ But operationally we’re getting used to it like everyone else.”