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Innovating in a Startup World: The San Francisco Ad Scene


Tavo Castro, Senior Vice President Group Director at Carat USA on why San Francisco is the brains of American adland

Innovating in a Startup World: The San Francisco Ad Scene

We have a joke in San Francisco that if you throw a rock you’re guaranteed to hit a startup. While not the literal truth, you cannot deny that technological innovation and disruption is in the DNA of this bay city due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and the dual powerhouses of Berkeley and Stanford. As SVP of Strategy at Carat in San Francisco, I am privy to this technological disruption every day, and while the heart of the advertising world beats in NYC, the brains of it are nurtured in San Francisco. 

But any media veteran will readily acknowledge that San Francisco’s tech-centric, startup culture is a double-edged sword. This reality creates a more entrepreneurial environment for media companies to innovate in on the one hand, while simultaneously threatening to disrupt and disintermediate our whole industry.  Surviving in this environment requires three things: the right talent, the right product, and the right relationships.

It is no coincidence that our San Francisco clients, like Disney, PlayStation, Wells Fargo, NRG, and Schwab, have chosen to settle here.  They are innovators themselves, looking for likeminded individuals that can only be found in the technology hub of the world. But this talent doesn’t come without its costs; San Francisco agencies aren’t just battling each other, we now compete head to head with the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, and thousands of large and small tech companies for the best and brightest minds. Think of it as survival of the fittest with Oracle, Netflix, and Uber as your key competitors.

Technology and the behemoths who shape it are only part of the challenge however. A great product is critical and creativity has always been what makes agencies unique. But great creative requires large resources and agencies are stretched trying to meet this demand. In San Francisco, that entrepreneurial spirit pushes agencies to work with companies like Zooppa, Crowdly, and Imagebrief to help us overcome the hurdle by helping our clients connect with great content creators to scale and meet the increased demands for creative and content. 

Success in San Francisco also requires persistent networking to tap into the right connections. And I don’t mean just stopping in at your favourite local bar; you must strategically map out the neighbourhoods because each harbours a distinct set of people who will help your agency soar.  Looking to meet startup founders? Trek downtown to The Battery or attend the next NewCo open house.  Want to meet that next hotshot designer or developer? Uber over to the Mission to sip a cocktail at TrickDog or Chapel where you can grab some good eats and listen to a great band next door. 

Across these key areas, just remember, San Francisco is a casual town, with a more relaxed West Coast sensibility. It doesn’t mean people here aren’t passionate about innovation, but once you choose to live here, keep in mind that your agency’s success may be met over a bottle of coffee instead of a fancy lunch. Good luck.

Tavo Castro is Senior Vice President Group Director at Carat USA 

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