PROFILE CHAN SUH - Online pioneer to push integration theme with expansion into Europe

Chan Suh’s Agency.com is worth dollars 80m after just four years, John Owen reports.

In the world of new media, there are still very few genuine,

grown-up agency brands. But there is no disputing the credentials on both sides of the Atlantic of Agency.com.

In the world of new media, there are still very few genuine,

grown-up agency brands. But there is no disputing the credentials on

both sides of the Atlantic of Agency.com.

Like many new-media companies, the story of its birth and meteoric rise

to prominence has a legendary quality to it. From two men with two Apple

Macs and dollars 80 in the bank four years ago, Agency.com has become an

dollars 80 million enterprise with more than 600 employees in 12 offices

around the world.

Chan Suh, now the Agency.com chief executive, was one of the two men who

took the leap in early 1995 - with Kyle Shannon, the company’s chief

creative officer.

Born in Korea in 1961, Suh has lived in New York for the last 23

years.

His initial career in magazine publishing lasted eight years, ending up

at Time Warner where his involvement with the underground youth

magazine, Vibe, led him to embrace the internet as a cheap way of

reaching readers.

As a result, he was recruited to the team that launched Pathfinder, Time

Warner’s pioneering content website, in 1994.

Then, as he puts it in characteristically matter-of-fact fashion, ’there

were some things I disagreed with so I left’. Such as? ’Publishing is a

stultifying business,’ he says. ’There’s a certain way to do it and

that’s it. People have been in magazines longer than I’ve been alive.

It’s hard to change those habits.’

He broke out, met Shannon and discovered that ’we shared a vision of the

internet taking a huge chunk of the communications business away from

telephones, television and other media’. But it wasn’t a vision shared

by the banks, who told them to come back in five years.

Instead, Suh and Shannon financed the start-up with advances from

clients, such as GTE and American Express. ’We decided we were going to

work with large companies,’ declares Suh, ’because, for them, the

investment would be minimal.’

Two defining moments came the following year. First, Agency.com landed

the BA account - beating four UK agencies - and, in September 1996,

Omnicom bought a 40 per cent stake in the business.

Suh has used the Omnicom funds to expand across the US (where nine of

the Agency offices are) and to set up in Singapore, Paris and - with the

acquisition of Online Magic in May last year - London.

Omnicom’s hands-off approach has suited Suh fine - although some

observers question its wisdom. A former staffer at an Omnicom company

says: ’With strongly established agencies like DDB, BBDO and TBWA, it’s

a positive thing, but in this world, the strongly established players

have yet to be determined. You have to wonder if it’s the right attitude

to say: ’go and make your own futures’.’

But that’s just what John Wren, Omnicom’s chief executive, appears

intent on doing. Suh says he’s been a ’terrific’ source of advice, but

adds: ’I think he recognises that we know how to run this business.’

He defines that business as ’a full-service interactive offering ranging

from business consulting to marketing to systems integration’. If this

seems ambitious, he explains: ’Information systems and marketing are

becoming indistinguishable and the whole thing has to be directed from a

core business strategy. But have you ever seen systems and marketing

folk in the same room? It’s painful. We aim to help bridge that gap -

not as replacement staff, but by empowering our clients to do it.’

In many ways, Agency.com is doing exactly what some observers feel

advertising agencies should be doing - using their core expertise to

extend their influence to other key areas of their clients’ businesses.

So are companies like Agency.com a threat to the traditional brand

guardians?

Not at all, says Suh: ’People don’t live online alone. We’ve got to

integrate advertising online and offline for it to be effective. I would

challenge the ad agencies and the interactive agencies to co-operate -

or they’ll both be fired. And they should be. This isn’t about them,

it’s about the client.’

Expansion in Europe is a priority and Eamonn Wilmott and Andy Hobsbawm,

the managing director and chief creative officer of Online Magic - soon

to be renamed Agency.com - in London are in charge of that process.

Meanwhile, Suh will address Internet World’s Online Advertising

Conference, sponsored by Campaign, on 26 May at Earl’s Court.

For a conference programme call Faith Manning on 0171 413 4390.

THE SUH FILE

1986 New York magazine, promotion staffer

1988 New York magazine, promotion manager

1988 Murdoch magazines, creative services manager

1990 Conde Nast, marketing manager for Details

1992 Time Warner, sales development manager for Life magazine

1994 Time Warner, marketing director for Vibe magazine

1994 Time Warner, founding member of Pathfinder launch team

1995 Agency.com, founder

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1 Job description: Digital marketing executive

Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).