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Agency Profile: Sponge

Posted on January 31, 2011 and read 6,112 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: SpongeBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2

Over the years, one of the most favorite features on ihaveanidea has been our growing collection of agency profiles — glimpses behind the walls of ad shops big and small, written from our usual casual perspective. And one of our favorite ways of going about gathering these profiles has been the old-fashioned road trip. After all, why go to a city to visit one or two agencies when you can take some serious time and visit a whole bunch?

It’s been quite some time since ihaveanidea has had the chance to pack our bags and headed off on one of these junkets, but in 2010 we had the great pleasure of visiting the city of Chicago to check in on the ad scene. We hadn’t been to the Windy City on a multi-agency trip in about five years, and in that time, a lot has changed in the ad industry, both generally speaking and in Chicago in particular. A year or two ago, you would’ve thought the town was on its last legs; layoffs left and right, a tragic incident at one of Chicago’s most respected firms that dazed the community, and JWT Chicago, once the global network’s largest office, reduced to a mere outpost of a few staffers.

Yet here we are in 2011, and Chicago is definitely getting some of its mojo back. Agencies are hiring, expanding their offices and winning big accounts. And the city that used to be the domain of the big multinationals has made some elbow room for smaller, nimbler shops. ihaveanidea saw all of this on our Windy City excursion, and we’d love to share our travels with you.

spongetower Agency Profile: Sponge


If you’re in Near North Side, Chicago (and if you work in that city’s ad industry, chances are that’s where your office is) and you are looking to get out of the downtown core and escape out of town, or perhaps to O’Hare Airport, chances are you’d jump in a cab that’ll take you to East Ohio Street, across the Chicago River, and onto the Kennedy Expressway. And as you cross that bridge over the river, as tens of thousands of people do every afternoon, you’ll see a great big old fashioned water tower to the north, nestled between the buildings. Not a common sight, but not remarkable either… except for the word “Sponge” emblazoned across its side. What is this “sponge”? Is it a factory for cleaning equipment?

Nope, it’s a factory for ideas.

Sponge is yet another small agency we discovered on our trip to Chicago that exists amongst the Great Beasts that the city is known for. I say “discovered” because it was my first time visiting them, but not my first time hearing about them. You see, Paul Brourman, Sponge’s Chief Creative Officer and Founder, had participated in ihaveanidea’s Portfolio Night 7 in Chicago, and he and his crew had created a little competition for the attendees. “We put together a trail of breadcrumbs, so to speak, that would lead to a fun opportunity to redesign our water tower,” says Paul. “The winning team really showed some different thinking, the kind that we like here at Sponge.”

That “different thinking” was the impetus for Sponge being created in the first place. “Sponge is an answer to something I observed a number of years ago, when clients said they were looking for something different, more agile,” explains Paul, a former longtime DDBer. “The way I saw it, the only way to help clients arrive at truly fresh perspectives was to start from scratch. Like-minded clients are the ones we wanted to help reach further potential than they had before. We wanted to be as much a ‘lab for new thinking’ as we would be an agency.”

And so, with a four-month old child to raise and no clients to speak of, Paul left the big agency world and started Sponge in January of 2007. “I had no idea what the exact model would be, and it has changed a bit over time,” he says. “All I knew is that I wanted something that could adapt and move with a client’s needs, not a place where the agency has a certain way of doing things and the client better like it or it’s not going to work.”

It would seem that Paul’s way of thinking meshed with both clients and jaded agency people; within three months of opening, Sponge had a few new accounts and new staff that really wanted to be a part of this place. Today, Sponge consists of a core of about a dozen people, which has been to known to expand to more than double its size with freelancers as needed. And they must be needed; Sponge’s client list includes national brands such as Sears Optical, Penguin and TicketsNow.

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One thing that is very noticeable about Sponge and its staff is that there is very family-like atmosphere. Of course the agency is small enough to be really close to everybody, but there is more to it than that. In my travels I’ve seen a few “dog friendly” agencies, but at Sponge, dogs, spouses and even kids are frequent agency visitors. The Sponge “family” often has outings to Chicago Cubs games, and have been known to invite local musicians to hang out and play on Friday afternoons.

And like many families, you sometimes have to deal with grumpy neighbors. The office immediately below Sponge is a capital investment firm, and as you can imagine, they have a slightly more conservative workplace that doesn’t take kindly to visiting guitarists, hardcore ping-pong battles (Sponge is an agency that definitely favors table tennis over foosball) and other things that make Sponge lively and noisy “I think they are a bit jealous,” jokes Paul. “But we’ve invited them up for Thirsty Thursdays, so hopefully they’ll take us up on that one day.”

Ah yes, Thirsty Thursdays. An in-house happy hour is a common enough sight in various agencies — hell, the guys on Mad Men have 24 happy hours a day — but while most agencies I’ve been to favor beer as their libation of choice, the gang at Sponge prefer a little vino near the end of the day. “At Sponge, you have two choices: red or white wine, no other colors,” jokes an employee. Fortunately for me, I don’t mind a little wine. Even more fortunate: the calendar says it’s Thursday.

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But not everyday is Thursday or a Cubs game at the Sponge offices. Still, there are plenty of things to keep spirits high on normal days. Runs to the nearest Caribou Coffee; the nearest location takes you through the beautiful A. Montgomery Ward Park across the street from Sponge. But for real treats, the staff doesn’t even have to leave the office; one Sponge employee is also in culinary school, and frequently uses her co-workers asc more than willing guinea pigs.

All in all, this makes Sponge seem like a fun working environment, which was a goal of Paul’s all along. “You can’t force an environment into existence, you can only try to guide it and hope that it turns out that way,” he explains. “For us, we wanted an environment where people could bring different things to the table and be themselves. You can’t make that happen, but you can draw in people who aren’t the usual suspects.”

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So who wouldn’t be a “usual suspect” at Sponge? “We like people who are really want to attack things from different angles, but are far from being know-it-alls,” says Paul. “Open-mindedness is key, not just for newcomers but for everybody. We like to put the idea in the middle of everything that we do, and then think about how we can put the right people on this challenge, and come up with the best possible solutions we can think of. If that’s the way you think, if that’s the way you do things, then you’re the kind of person we would be interested in. That’s what’s really cool about the people we have here. They are all part of this small agency movement that’s going on in Chicago, and they all want to take on new challenges without the restrictions of bigger agencies.”

“We are young, we are independent, we are growing — but not for the sake of growing. We are interested in taking brands as far as they can go while still being true to themselves. If that’s you, whether employee or client, there just might be a place for you at Sponge.”

Especially on Thursdays.

A big thanks to Paul Brourman and the rest of the crew at Sponge for inviting us inside their walls.




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