1 January 2015

¡Viva la Evolución! Atomic Tango Does The Pivot

by Freddy J. Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Likes Change…

A few months ago a journalist interviewed me about “pivoting.” In case you missed the business-speak memo, “pivoting” means “changing direction” — it just sounds more athletic and deliberate than, “We changed our minds, alright?”

It so happens that I have just pivoted Atomic Tango, which I founded in 2007 years ago as a marketing agency. Here to help explain my new direction and why I chose it is me, circa 2007…

Freddy 2015: Hey, Freddy 2007, welcome to the future!

Freddy 2007: It’s ‘007. Freddy ‘007.

Freddy 2015: Dude, that’s so —

Freddy 2007: I know, but indulge me. A ‘007 year rolls around only once every millennium. And since the name Atomic Tango was inspired by the jet-age era of James Bond, how could I resist?

Freddy 2015: Fair enough.

Freddy 2007: Now, ‘014, what are you doing to my agency? What’s this “an attitude and an approach, not an agency” business?

Atomic Tango Statement: "An Attitude And An Approach, Not An Agency"

Freddy 2015: Well you know how much you love advertising?

Freddy 2007: I can mix creativity and strategy all day!

Freddy 2015: Well, as an agency owner I didn’t get to do too much of that. At least, not for pay.

Freddy 2007: No, that can’t be right. Atomic Tango started off doing a lot of smart, fun work for a bunch of startups. We were getting phone calls and meetings and —

Freddy 2015: That was 2007. The economy went south, deep south, in 2008.

Freddy 2007: The year after we started. Sigh. Let me guess — the cause was a 4-letter word that started with a “B” and ended with a “U-S-H.”

Freddy 2015: That was half of it. The other half was social media.

Freddy 2007: You mean MySpace? We were active on MySpace.

Freddy 2015: Not exactly. Facebook blew MySpace out of the water.

Freddy 2007: Facebook? I joined them, too. It’s just for college students and certain alumni networks.

Freddy 2015: Then it became bigger than the old British Empire, and about as exploitative.

Freddy 2007: I hope I quit it. Or you did.

Freddy 2015: Actually, I still use it almost every day. Social media, and Facebook in particular, proved to be addictive. And in 2008, Facebook and other social networks hit the jackpot thanks to thousands of unemployed and underemployed marketing and media professionals. They all turned to it for networking, career salvation (so they hoped), and a way to kill time. Everyone suddenly became a marketing expert.

Freddy 2007: So let me guess: my number of competitors exploded.

Freddy 2015: And most were terrible and willing to work for pennies. It was as if every other person had become a “doctor,” with all the quackery destroying trust and profits in the medical industry.

Freddy 2007: So let me get this straight: I was facing financially-strapped clients, too much competition, and a profession that had become a commodity?

Freddy 2015: On top of that, social media was seen as a “free” tool that could work miracles. While some clients were still willing to pay for social media, you actually made more money teaching it.

Freddy 2007: Ha ha! Teaching pays almost nothing.

Freddy 2015: Take out the “almost,” and that’s roughly the social media budget for most companies.

Freddy 2007: Can you call up Freddy 2006 and tell him to start a microbrewery instead?

Freddy 2015: That would be a good call.

How We Survived

Freddy 2007: Well, Atomic Tango obviously survived, or else we wouldn’t be having this conversation. How did we do it?

Freddy 2015: Since ad agencies were imploding everywhere, we didn’t bother seeking out investors. Instead, we hustled:

  • We networked at event after event — which, of course, took a ton of time and energy.
  • We blogged every other day and shared our posts to build our brand and awareness — which meant more time and energy.
  • We partnered with other agencies — which, of course, meant splitting the profits.
  • Most significantly, we took on every client, no matter how small or difficult or conservative — which meant a lot of sweat with not a lot of great work to show for it. It also meant that we were investing more time and energy into client management, and less into actual creativity.

Freddy 2007: Did this make me a coffee addict?

Freddy 2015: You even bought stock in Starbucks. One of your smarter investments, by the way.

Freddy 2007: Sweet! How’d my XM Satellite Radio stock do?

Freddy 2015: Let’s not talk about that. Instead, let me just say that with all that hustle, Atomic Tango survived while many other small agencies went under. But here’s the best part…

Freddy 2007: We landed the Apple account!

Freddy 2015: You were always so optimistic. And delusional. No, the best part is that you started teaching college courses to bring in a little money and to promote your experience. And the more you taught, the more you discovered that you enjoyed teaching more than working with clients.

Freddy 2007: Teaching a man to fish…

Freddy 2015: …is actually a lot more rewarding than account management.

Freddy 2007: Not very poetic, but agreed.

Coursing On

Freddy 2007: So where am I teaching now?

Freddy 2015: USC —

Freddy 2007: Fight on!

Freddy 2015: — plus a couple of corporate training gigs, which proved very rewarding.

Freddy 2007: OK, now I get what you’re doing…

Freddy 2015: Then there’s the publishing angle.

Freddy 2007: We have a bestselling book? Woohoo!

Freddy 2015: Not exactly. We did get one very small book published through the Tempus Academy. The Atomic Tango blog has also developed a readership. But the big books you’ve always wanted to write… well, they haven’t been written yet.

Freddy 2007: What? Dude, it’s been seven years! Why haven’t you written our magnum opus already?!

Freddy 2015: See “hustle” (above), work for clients, and teaching. I was so burned out in my spare time, I just wanted to binge-watch TV shows about zombies like me.

Freddy 2007: What’s binge-watch?

Freddy 2015: Something else we’re addicted to.

Freddy 2007: What’s with you future people and all your addictions?

Freddy 2015: Wait till I tell you about texting… In any case, publishing is now a top priority for Atomic Tango. Since I never did find a good textbook on integrated marketing communications, I vowed to write one.

Freddy 2007: Ah, I get it. Instead of all the hustle and headaches, we’re going to channel our time and energy into doing what we love best: teaching and preaching the marketing gospel.

Freddy 2015: Amen, brother. Hence, “an attitude and an approach, not an agency.”

What About The Clients?

Freddy 2007: So we ditched all our clients?

Freddy 2015: We still work with a couple we love. And if an amazing new client should come along, we’ll certainly welcome them, but no breath holding here. And definitely no more RFP’s.

Freddy 2007: So in the meantime…

Freddy 2015: Write, teach, and occasionally consult. And damn it would be nice to take a vacation.

Freddy 2007: Not bad. And I like the site redesign, too.

Freddy 2015: Thanks. It’s actually the third design since 2007.

Atomic Tango Site 2007

Atomic Tango Site 2007

Atomic Tango Site 2009

Atomic Tango Site 2009

Atomic Tango Site 2014

Atomic Tango Site 2015

I had to make this one smartphone responsive — I’ll explain that later. And I decided to go for more of a noir vibe than our earlier mid-century modern vibe, which “Mad Men” kind of wore out.

Freddy 2007: “Mad Men” launched about the same time Atomic Tango did. Don Draper rules! I want to be just like him!

Freddy 2015: Come, ‘007 — I think I need to introduce you to the joys of binge watching…


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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