‘We’ve been working on 1 computer with 2 keyboards for 22 years’: Known on integration
Ad agency Known has been playing hard since its inception two years ago, clocking in over 200% personnel growth and some out-of-this-world executions. The Drum sat down with two of its founders to talk their Tinseltown careers, the future of data-backed creativity and a particularly proximate working relationship.
Mark Feldstein and Brad Roth talk growth, the integration of art and science, and sharing one computer / Image courtesy of Known
As the marketing landscape consolidates, more and more agencies claim to be ‘fully integrated.’ It’s the dream of truly merged expertise: right-brain creativity and left-brain analytical firepower, melded for a galaxy-brain one-stop-shop.
Ad agency Known’s integration credentials are clearer than most. It was formed in 2020 when three agencies combined: marketing and data strategy firm Schireson Associates; brand strategy shop Blackbird; and creative agency/production company Stun Creative. Since that integration, the former’s Kern Schireson has been chief exec; Blackbird’s Ross Martin president; and Stun’s founders Brad Roth and Mark Feldstein have taken the helm of Known Studios as presidents and partners.
Once upon a time in (east) Hollywood
Integration, in the sense of an almost symbiotic working relationship, has always been part of Roth and Feldstein’s two-decade working relationship. “We have our own laptops, but we’ve been working on one computer with two keyboards for the last 22 years,” says Feldstein. Yes, as Roth explains, that’s “two monitors, one computer. One of us could override the other; we [each] have the ability to stall or impede the other.” Feldstein, finishing Roth’s thought: “It’s very natural for us. You work out a rhythm where you’re not stepping on each other.”
What might sound like insanity was borne out of practicality: working together on ad scripts in a former storage closet in east Hollywood, in what had once been the post-production facility housing the Dick Wolf reality series Arrest and Trial. They shared the room with the facility’s air conditioning unit and agreed that the room could still be used for gruesome re-enactments (leading to the occasional 9am prop cadaver).
The pair had met earlier at a (different) edit facility in New York before moving west to set up Stun. Now, they talk excitedly about the ambition and “arrogance” of two young men setting up shop in LA. “Mark and I only met twice in person before we decided to start this business,” says Roth. “We didn’t overanalyze things.” Feldstein says that the pair “used to write and direct everything we did; we did our budgets in Word because we didn’t know Excel – we added up with a calculator.”
Their credits from that early period bespeak a company willing to follow its creativity wherever it leads, and one with deep roots in Hollywood: a rap video with Mr T and The Odd Couple’s Tony Randall; a faux-cinéma verité ad for Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm; a mockumentary featuring Late Show alum Chris Elliott as the world’s first professional mini golfer.
With around 190 people at integration, Known now boasts a headcount of over 500. Its founding concept, that “art and science are best friends,” seems to be being borne out: in the agency and in the wider industry, says Roth, we’re seeing a “moment of Pangea, where these things have always been – at least for quite a while now – separate [but are] coming together as one.”
For a couple of LA creatives, one might think it’s a bit of a culture shock to see, as Feldstein puts it, “ECDs sitting right next to PhDs.” Roth says not, thanks to the truly “braided” way data, strategy and creativity come together in the business: “There’s not one particular practice that in a sense supersedes the other, subjugates the other.”
Data, undoubtedly, has taken the marketing industry by storm in the last couple of decades – to the extent that, as Feldstein says, “we knew that strategy and data were critical to telling better stories; we knew we needed that as part of our calculus ... we figured we could either grow it organically or find people that do better than anyone in the world, and do this together. And that’s what we did.”
Arguably, then, storytelling needs data – but for Roth the reverse is also true. “Steven Spielberg said that, if you’re in the storytelling business, you’re in the feelings business. No matter what data or insights you have, if you cannot successfully create a feeling, evoke an emotion, create some level of connection, it becomes insignificant; immaterial.”
No anxiety about ceding space to quants, then – or just one. Roth says: “The only thing Mark and I had got a little apprehensive about is that we used to at least like to think we were the smartest guys in the room. Now we know that we’re not.”
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To the moon
As the pair have shifted from LA creative shop to integrated agency with global ambitions, they reflect that their own goals have matured too. Feldstein says: “Everything that we create has always been about impacting culture. We wanted to be part of that cultural conversation. Now, we’re just doing that with larger global brands.” Roth adds: “We’re just telling bigger stories on bigger canvases.”
Take their 2021 Netflix project, Countdown: Inspiration4 Mission to Space, a docuseries about SpaceX’s orbital mission. Known produced the Superbowl ad announcing the mission. Feldstein says: “Then we figured, let’s start documenting this, because this is historic, in every sense of the word. We partnered with Time Studios; we sold the series to Netflix to be one of their first near-real-time series; we got the crew on the cover of Time Magazine ... then we worked with the marketing team to help with the marketing of our series. It’s exciting to see this whole ecosystem around creativity and production and everything that goes with it, and big ideas that we can participate in every element of.”
“Our ambition and priorities have just changed,” says Roth. “We could never have done any of this with the level of impact that we’re having. It just was impossible. Now, it’s less about doing a great campaign – although we still absolutely want to do that. We want to impact culture, that’s unwavering. But we’re doing something unique here with Known.”
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Known is a modern marketing company that pairs Ph.D. data scientists with award-winning creatives, expert research teams and strategists who leverage machine learning, AI and the company's proprietary media operating system, called Skeptic. Known is anchored by two decades of groundbreaking market research and data science capabilities, which uniquely empower our marketing strategy and acclaimed creative groups, who produce some of the most innovative, cutting-edge creative work in culture. The result? Marketing that is predisposed to succeed and be persistently optimized, directly impacting clients' bottom lines.Find out more