You might not know it, but Icon Medialab is the only new-media
agency on this side of the Atlantic to be listed on the Stock
It is undeniably a European success. But even after three years of
unrelenting growth, people still weren’t familiar with the name when
Interpublic snapped up a 20 per cent stake in the company a couple of
months ago for dollars 20 million - the largest single new-media
investment made by an agency group to date.
Somehow, Icon has snuck up on the world - prospering in its native
Sweden before spreading out across Europe. From the usual humble
beginnings - four guys in an old clothes factory in Stockholm with a
couple of Apple Macs - Icon Medialab is today a listed company with more
than 400 staff in 12 countries.
People are impressed. Not least Gil Fuchsberg, corporate director, new
media and technologies, at Interpublic. From his perspective, the deal
with Icon makes a lot of sense: ’It neatly aligns with a lot of the
elements that have helped Interpublic’s networks succeed, particularly
where it counts - working with clients internationally and growing the
business in partnership with those clients.’
The cash from Interpublic gives Icon the chance to expand further, but
while US growth is high on the agenda, it is continuing to secure its
position in Europe. Last month, it acquired new-media companies in
France, Italy and London.
Icon has been operating in the UK since September 1997, but in April it
bought the 15-strong new-media agency, IN.form, an acquisition that
brought the London office up to 70 people.
But according to the man they all report to - UK managing director,
David King - their number is set to swell to more than 100, even without
the work that will flow from the Interpublic deal.
That, by anyone’s standard, is phenomenal growth. King, however, sees it
all as perfectly straightforward. ’This is as it should be,’ he
’We are building a global network to service a global medium. It is not
just a nice idea.’
King has had his fill of nice ideas that remain just that. In
particular, he looks back at his time at DDB Needham in Dallas and New
York with a certain rancour.
He joined DDB in 1993 and a year later founded DDB Interactive. The
agency was part of the first wave of US interactive operations and
created some of the big web projects of the time, including the Pepsi
Unlike Icon, however, DDB wasn’t looking to expand. ’Here was a company
with 280 offices in 80 countries and all those client relationships and
yet, when I made an effort to expand DDB Interactive, the move was not
embraced. That was it for me really.’
King left DDB in early 1997 and, during the final stages of negotiations
for another job, he was approached by a headhunter. He met the Icon
founders and two weeks later he was stepping off a plane and walking
into a London Bridge office with two people and a lot of empty space.
That space is now busy with clients like Fujitsu and Amersham Pharmacia
It is only now, 18 months later, that King feels Icon UK has achieved
the desired critical mass. The recent acquisition was vital to achieving
’Eight people sitting around in a bedsit just doesn’t cut it any more,’
he says, reflecting on the speed with which such operations have been
left behind as the new-media industry becomes increasingly
’Critical mass is being able to support five large strategic clients, as
well as being able to handle smaller projects, pitch for new business
and allow people time to think.’
It is critical mass that allows Icon to develop its structure and
culture in a way that is distinct from ad agencies, the aping of which
is now as old hat as the bedsit geeks.
Icon has moved on to what it calls HCI - human-computer interaction: ’It
isn’t the brand that is important,’ King explains, ’it is usability. We
are in an applications- not a brand-based medium.’
King points to the example of an online bank. Are you, he asks,
concerned with the bank’s brand? No, because you already bank there.
What you are concerned with is how you get on when you try to use it.
That, he says, is a step beyond the brand.
’That’s where we are different from the rest of the industry. Sure,
there is some crossover with what Icon does and what Agency.com does,
but only in the same way that there is overlap with McKinsey.’
The difference is part of what excites King. Perhaps it also explains
the Icon brand’s low profile. But then, as long as clients are suitably
impressed with its usability, why should he care?
THE KING FILE
1974: Trinity University, San Antoine, Texas
1977: Video directing for Rod Stewart and Small Faces, Sex Pistols,
1982: Elektra Pictures Inc, vice-president, marketing and sales
1988: TPE/Telerep, producer director
1993: DDB Needham, director of future technologies
1994: DDB Interactive, managing director
1997: Icon Medialab, UK managing director.
This article was first published on Campaign