Ad agency R/GA launches venture capital arm

Ad agency hopes to increase its cool factor by backing innovative startups.

Ad agency R/GA is in the process of launching a fund to invest in startups, the agency’s COO Stephen Plumlee said last night, during a demo day for R/GA and Techstars’ Connected Device accelerator.

In an interview, Plumlee said the size of the fund can’t yet be announced as it is not yet closed. The fund will include capital from R/GA’s parent company, ad holding company IPG, (IPG), as well as from outside investors. It would include fund future accelerator classes of ten companies, which each receive a convertible note worth up to $120,000 from R/GA.

The fund, run by Plumlee, will give R/GA the opportunity to do follow-on deals when appropriate and invest in a small handful of startups unrelated to the accelerator program. R/GA has already done three such deals from the fund, which have not yet been announced.

R/GA isn’t the first ad agency to be lured into the venture capital game. The trend started a few years ago, as I wrote in 2011:

There’s the recently launched Rockfish Brand Ventures and Redscout Ventures. Consigliere, started last year by former Deutsch Inc. chief strategy officer Mike Duda and Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash, is marketing a $20 million fund. Last month Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners launched KBS+P Ventures. Bartle Bogle Hegarty is raising $16 million through its newly formed Black Sheep Fund. And Method Inc. is rounding up $30 million for Method Ventures.
(Notably Black Sheep fund has been quiet since Publicis announced it would acquire BBH in 2012. Mike Duda of Consigliere has since taken a full-time role as CEO of Johannes Leonardo. Darren Herman of KPS+B has taken a new role at the Mozilla Project. And it’s not clear whether or not Method Ventures ever closed its fund.)

Meanwhile, holding company WPP has remained an active investor, backing ad-tech startups like Buddy Media, Facebook (FB), Say Media, Jumptap and Omniture. After it acquired creative agency AKQA, the holding company formalized its venture arm, investing most recently in strategic deals for Fullscreen, Muzy and Percolate.

Agency-style investments aren’t really motivated by money the same way pure play venture capital firms are. Sure, it would be nice to mint a return on the deals (which WPP certainly did with Buddy Media’s $745 sale to Salesforce). But even more valuable is the intrinsic feeling of being innovative by working with startups. It provides a “cool factor” for an agency’s employees and clients.

That cool factor is why R/GA won’t seek out ad-tech deals like some of its agency-investor peers have. Rather, it will invest in startups that have little to do with advertising, Plumlee says. R/GA itself has built products like the Nike Fuelband, and the agency’s 1300 employees include some 200 programmers, 200 visual designers and 100 UX designers.

The sweet nectar of “innovation” is attractive to any big corporation, so R/GA’s new startup family can share its learnings with clients like Nike (NKE), Beats Electronics, Samsung, Capital One and L’Oreal. Likewise, those clients might be able to help the startups. At the demo day, several R/GA clients, including Mastercard (MA) and Equinox, showed up in the pitch decks of startup presentations as early customers or partners.

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