POV: Interview with James O'Brien of Aarra

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting

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james-obrienTell us about Aarra and what problem it hopes to solve in the industry.

Aarra was the first sales management agency in the world that focused exclusively on digital production and emerging media companies and connecting them with agencies and brands. Many of our colleagues in the industry call us the original digital rep agency, but we’ve always been a lot more than just “reps.”

The marketing and communications landscape was vastly different 12 to 13 years ago. The majority of Madison Avenue agencies did not have a digital seat at the marcomm table with their brand clients. The majority of brands’ “digital advertising” work was being produced by a new breed of relatively young but very successful, full-service digital agencies such as Agency.com. Everything changed after the dot-com bust in 2002, when holding companies started acquiring what was left of the once red-hot digital agencies. Through these acquisitions, or by simply evolving quickly, ad agencies began incorporating digital into their traditional offerings.

I was 26 years old in 2002 and had just moved to New York after selling a digital production company I started with a friend in college. As I was watching this transition in the industry, effectively from the sidelines, I made a bet that these ad agencies would soon need digital production vendors to design and build digital projects.

I started Aarra with the goal of being the best digital talent resource for agencies and brands. Digital production needs are so fragmented; an organization like Aarra would provide a very robust solution for brands and agencies in need of varying production services.

We now oversee and manage new business for 14 companies that focus on varying aspects of digital production — i.e., mobile applications, site design/build, content and physical interactive installations. Aarra is an amalgamation of problem solvers, thinkers and industry experts. As co-founder of a few of these companies in Aarra’s portfolio, we’re involved with our entire portfolio at the deepest level.

For almost 10 years, brands and agencies have come to us to solve problems and find the best digital talent to design, build and/or produce their projects. We serve as a mix of consultant, matchmaker and trusted partner. We give them one place where they can find quality, award-winning partners for any type of project, and we take guess work out of the equation. We work alongside them as a trusted partner in finding the absolute best fit.

Our focus has and will continue to be on digital production and emerging creative technology, which continues to make us the premier niche resource to agencies and brands.

When considering a digital shop to be included in Aarra, what specific characteristics do you look for?

We look at several factors, and we go through a very long evaluation process (if any of our portfolio companies are reading this, they are probably nodding their heads in a firm “yes" type of movement and maybe cracking a smile).

First and foremost, we’re interested in companies that are producing great work, are well run and, most importantly, offer the highest level of service. If your company doesn’t offer an outstanding level of service, or if we hear that you have a reputation for bad service, that’ll be the quickest way we become uninterested.

We love building companies, so we’ve historically been more interested in smaller companies or startups that have the skill sets and ability to combine creative and technology, priming them for a bright future. We rarely add large and well-established companies to our portfolio, but that may very well change.

If we’re interested in a company, the most important next step is to get to know the people running it. We pay specific attention to the executive producer, who is crucial to both the company’s success alone and in terms of its relationship with Aarra. You can build and grow a company around an amazing EP.

Why are big brands and agencies looking to Aarra for strategic direction and execution on digital projects? What do these smaller, more creative-focused shops offer?

Trends, technology, what clients want, as well as the skill sets needed. Things are changing too rapidly in digital marketing for any one company to stay on top of it all.

Since we have a large portfolio of several digital-focused companies that specialize in different areas, our value lies in our ability to serve not only as the best resource of digital talent, but also as a resource for knowledge of the industry. We have access to an amazing array of resources, and we’ve assisted on just about every type of digital project. If we don’t know the answer, we have the tech directors and digital strategists at our agencies who we can tap into. Our knowledge stems not only from our exposure to individual companies, but also from our experience combining talent from multiple shops for a single project. Aarra’s deep involvement in the development of these companies has allowed us to place each specialty within the greater industry context and advise brands and agencies accordingly.

How are small, more niche digital shops able to compete with larger, full-service companies?

If you want new kitchen cabinets and have the choice of hiring a general contractor for one price versus a custom cabinet-maker at a lower price who can get the job done more efficiently, who will you choose?

The smaller niche shops can compete with larger general service companies for those niche projects where, by definition, the small niche shop is simply the better option. It’s also often a lower cost choice that will get the project done more efficiently.

Take mobile application design and development. If all you do is make mobile apps, that’s a niche. The design and building of mobile applications requires a specific skill set and knowledge base that often does not exist within the walls of full-service agencies. Our niche mobile companies, quite often, get amazing projects from agencies or from brands directly simply because of their niche offering.

What developments in digital are causing marketers to rethink the business decisions they make? How is experiential marketing, mobile and real-time marketing affecting these decisions?

Social media is certainly high on the list of developments.

The combination of creativity with what one can currently do with technology in the physical space — whether in-store or outside at an event — is certainly another development that marketers need to consider.

Nearly all brands require social media integration for digital campaigns, especially those that are experiential, because it allows them to tap in to their pre-existing consumer base. Social media integration augments the experience by pulling in conversations important to the brand into the experience in real time. The immediacy and relevance of the conversation is the key here. It’s no longer enough to just create a great looking projection on a wall or onto a building; it has to speak to the consumer and more importantly, allow them to speak back and inject their own thoughts into it.

Add a mobile element to that combination, and now brands can interact with their clients in ways we could only dream of 10 years ago.

We’ve seen an increase in projects that include all of these elements and companies that specialize in this area.

The Champions League Finals that Minivegas did for Adidas via Heimat is a great example of a project that included all of these elements.

One reason you love what you do: I get to come to work and help extremely smart and talented people build their businesses every day.

Favorite ad: I have a few favorites, so I don’t think I can really pick one out as being my No. 1. I really loved the Porsche print ads of the mid-1990s like this. In TV, the “Think Different” campaign for Apple ranks rather high for me. Regarding digital, the jury is still out on that one.

Must-read book: I’d say “The Great Gatsby” ranks up there. I have a young daughter, and I was reading her book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” the other day, and I think that book is rather special and is as relevant to a four or five year-old as it is to any adult who is making a drastic change in their life.

Connect with James on Twitter @jxobrien or LinkedIn.

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