Avi Savar, founder of social media agency Big Fuel, sat down with us recently at the SoHo House, a New York City private members club that serves as his second office. Over a cappuccino, he offered a caffeinated recounting of the first palpable feeling of terror he experienced in his professional career. It had something to do with staffing up overnight from 30 to 130 people after his agency won its dream account—Ford Motors.
The caffeine is appropriate, of course, as this story features more crests and troughs than a Mavericks Surf Tournament. Savar has made full use of the lessons learned, as his first book, “Content to Commerce: Engaging Consumers Across Paid, Owned and Earned Channels,” debuts in May.
What follows are Avi’s words and our story boarding.
The Story World
There was no infrastructure. We were on Google Mail. We had to hire like crazy. We had to open an office in Detroit. I could write a book just on operations that got us from point A to point B. We hired instantly—HR people, IT people. It was insane. Our office on 5th Avenue and 31st Street, it was 3,500 sq. feet, and we had converted stairwells into conference rooms, six people in a stairwell having a meeting. That was probably the greatest single moment in time in the history of our company, when you’re that startup that’s about to pop. Everybody was shoulder to shoulder. It was like a sweatshop. People were taking phone calls in a stairwell. It was insane. It was awesome.
At a conference I was talking about mobile apps, and a marketing manager from Hyundai Motors finds me after the show, and he says, ‘I love what you’re saying. I’m trying to create an app.’ A week later I’m in Irvine, doing a capabilities presentation with Hyundai. It’s going really well and I’m halfway through the meeting when this woman walks in; she’s probably 26, and she’s the head of social media for Hyundai. At the end of the meeting she gives me her card and says, ‘I love everything you had to say.’ Two days later I get a call from Hyundai: ‘Hey, we want to talk to you about social media.’ I go through three or four months of meeting after meeting at Hyundai. Eventually, with my partner Mike, I’m sitting in the office of the CMO of Hyundai, and he gives us the green light. Next, my partner and I are in the parking lot, high-fives. We just landed the biggest account of our lives. We were hired as Hyundai’s social media agency.
Twenty-four hours later, there’s an Ad Age alert in my inbox. ‘CMO of Hyundai is leaving.’
I’m freaking out. I call Hyundai and they say, ‘Don’t worry, you’re still our guys, it’s just going to take longer now.’ Another two months passes, and the final agreements from Hyundai hit our inboxes. I’ll never forget it. It was Fourth of July weekend, and I’m in Connecticut, in a place that I go to with my family. I get a voicemail from my contact at Hyundai, and she says, ‘I just want to let you know that today is my last day at Hyundai.’
And then she says, ‘But don’t sign the contract because I’m going over to GM to work for Joel.’ Joel was the former CMO at Hyundai who had left to go to GM. The following Wednesday, my partner Mike and I are in Detroit, taking meetings with top GM brass. At the end of one meeting—it was probably the only time in my life that I will have that much leverage, because I’m in the meeting with Joel and the woman who was his former colleague from Hyundai who was telling us not to sign with Hyundai—I said, ‘Hey, this is a dream. We would love to work with you, but I have a contract waiting to be signed in my inbox, that, oh, by the way, this woman right here negotiated. She knows every detail of that contract. I can only drag this out so long. We can’t go through another four months.’
And they say, ‘Give us 24 hours.’ No joke, we walk out, and it took 11 minutes. My phone rang, and she was like, ‘You’re hired.’ What ended up being an unbelievable opportunity at Hyundai became the opportunity of a lifetime at GM. We were General Motor’s social agency of record. It was Cadillac, Buick, GMC, and Chevy. Overnight we were the largest social media agency in the world.
YouTube had already been bought by Google. Social media was there, and GM was making a huge investment in it. We had come a far way from when we started in 2004, when social was a blip on the radar—Facebook was still in a dorm room, and we were really leading with content as the story, which was good for us because it was what we knew, but what we came to realize eventually over time was that the shiny object was less what brands were interested in. It was what they wanted, but they were more interested in the channel. At some point we made a very overt switch, from being a content agency to being a social media agency, because content was what lived in social, and social was the channel.
So, at GM, we basically built GM Studios. Inside of four months, we probably produced 160 videos for them. We were producing campaigns. We were managing all their channels. We were creating original content. We were doing product launches. We were integrated into a 16-agency construct. This was 2009.
The Back Story
I spent a lot of time in Switzerland growing up and then eventually ended up in LA from sixth grade on. Graduated high school in LA, went to Boston for college, got my degree in broadcasting and film, ended up back in LA, no connections in the entertainment industry, always had a camera in my hand, and was editing reel-to-reel back then, and knew I wanted to be in the entertainment industry.
I got a job producing at Good Morning America, and then landed at VH1, where I learned how to produce video fast, cheap, and high quality. It also taught me how to break down content, which was really interesting. At GMA, everything was segmented and you’re producing a five-minute segment with some author or some celebrity, and you’ve got five to eight minutes of time to fill with a segment. At VH1, I was producing an hour-long, which is 44 minutes without commercials. So you’re breaking them down into lots of segments to tell a great story. It was a really great exercise for me to learn how to tell a true story arc over a condensed period of time through a number of segments.
Fast forward, once I got into digital and what I’m doing now—short form content, two- to three-minute YouTube videos—coming out of VH1 really was helpful, to be able to tell webisodes. Not only are you telling a full arc over 44 minutes, each segment has its own arc that ladders up to a broader arc, and that translated really well into digital.
When I started the company in 2004, as Savar Media, I literally converted a closet in my apartment into a little cubicle, with a little wraparound desk. I was editing in there. What started as a one-man band shop eventually grew to 135-140 people over seven years, and was sold to a public company [Publicis Group] and I was able to ride a seriously interesting wave from the early days of branded content and digital content to what has become social media marketing.
In 2013 I see brands are starting to understand now that you use social media for a number of different things, that you develop a clear architecture for what your channels are supposed to do for you. You’re going to use Facebook for this; you’re going to use Twitter for this, and really stick to a way of thinking that helps build what I call a brand network. If I’m Viacom, I have Nickelodeon for kids. I have Spike for men. I have VH1 for music and pop culture. I have a number of different channels that make up my overall network, and each channel does something uniquely different for the network. Now that brands have gotten to a place where they have to be in social media, they’re thinking about their channels in the same way.
Before it was about brand as publisher, now it’s brand as network, and it’s the evolution of that—continue to push the strategic value of what this stuff does for a brand. Twitter for customer service. Facebook for promotion. FourSquare for local engagement. YouTube for original programming.
The Second Sequel
I’m not going to say that the days of the laptop are over—when you’re talking about behavioral cases, you’re looking at smart phones and tablets as a functional vehicle, whereas your desktop or your laptop is a creation place. You’re writing a document on your laptop, but you’re consuming on the smart phone and tablet. I think that’s really interesting. I’m curious to see a push on second-screen stuff, and to see how social and local come together. I think that’s where were headed. I’m not going to say that we’re in the first inning anymore, but were not past the third inning. Not even close.