Washington, DC is known for many things. Great museums, divisive politics and really bad humidity come immediately to mind. Great advertising? Not so much.
Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “The work being done in DC is just as good as anything coming out of New York, Chicago or LA.” (Usually from some local hack whose claim to fame is the “Get your flu shot” campaign or some shadowy Super PAC ads.) I heard it 25 years ago, when I was a junior copywriter, and left town the first chance I got for greener pastures on the West Coast. They were saying it 10 years ago, when I returned for family reasons and a CD gig at Arnold’s DC office. I’m hearing it now, not from agency guys but from marketers, too.
In fact, as someone who’s running an agency here, I’d dare to proclaim that DC just could be... wait for it... America’s Next Great Ad Town.
Why? Well, it has nothing to do with stale explanations like, “We have more communications professionals per capita than any city in America!” And everything to do with deeper shifts in our industry and culture in general.
For starters, DC’s knowledge economy is a mecca for smart, young, ambitious college grads–the fuel advertising runs on. In fact, the region has the highest percentage of 25-34 year olds in the US; more importantly, these days they’re not all bound for internships on the Hill. More and more they’re entrepreneurs, activists, designers and techies. A recent Time Magazine article describes an influx of affluent hipsters, commuting by day on shared bikes and hitting the speakeasies by night in digitally dispatched limos. What’s more, Gallop’s Well-Being index ranks DC as the most satisfied large metro area in the US. “Washingtonians are skinnier, exercise more, and eat more vegetables. They’re also more optimistic about the economy and the future in general.” Sounds like the perfect talent pool.
The rise in the importance of technology in our business is another factor in our favor. DC has always been a technology hub. AOL was born here. There’s a defense contractor on every corner. Heck, one of the Google founders went to University of Maryland – yep, Sergei Brin is a Terp. These days, a lot of those brilliant techies, software developers, information architects and analytics gurus are leaving behind their cubicles and buttoned-up work environments for agency life.
There’s also a growing concentration of media companies here; Discovery Networks, PBS, BET and National Geographic to name a few. These brands have been living the “brand as content publisher” model for years. They know how to tell engaging stories in the digital space, which is exactly what agencies should be doing for their clients.
Throw in a new infusion of forward-thinking marketers at start-ups like Living Social and O-Power, and recently relocated companies like Audi/VW and Hilton, both of which moved their corporate headquarters to the DC area in recent years, and it’s a perfect storm.
The proof is in the work. Local design shop Design Army has been raking in national awards and was chosen to create this year’s One Show theme “ONEderful”. JESS3 specializes in data visualization, and has been creating some amazing experiences for brands like Google and Samsung. EightShapes is a leader in UX Design and holds workshops at conferences around the world. The DC office of AKQA cranks out amazing digital work for VW, as well as for Delta Airlines and the USPS. My agency, RP3, won an Effie last year. And we’re not alone. There’s great work coming out of independent shops all over town like iStrategy Labs, nclud, Viget and others.
Sure, a lot of great local brands (who shall go nameless here) will still hop on the Acela for the prestige that can come from working with Madison Avenue shops. But those days are numbered. Because the truth is, the work being done in DC is fast becoming as good as anything coming from there – and from Portland, Austin, or San Francisco, those other great ad towns.