Dan Gardner and Brandon Ralph, the 35-year-old founders of Code and Theory, are by no means new to the media landscape. They started their digital creative agency in 2001, but it was, as they say, the “early days” of the Internet.
As the Web became a destination for shopping and consuming content, Code and Theory gained prominence and began growing quickly. Gardner said that period — around 2008 — injected the company with “hockey-stick growth.”
“The recession never affected us,” he said, explaining that media companies faced with the challenge of developing their business strategies to encompass a growing digital readership turned to Code and Theory for solutions.
The mix of clients — from media and fashion brands to hospitality brands and beauty companies — has helped shelter Code and Theory from much financial risk.
Some of the firm’s media clients have included The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Times, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Du Jour, Bloomberg Politics, InStyle, Comcast and others.
Non-media clients have included Burger King, Motel 6, Bottega Veneta, Dr Pepper, Essie, Calvin Klein and L’Oréal.
The company, which has 260 employees in offices in New York, San Francisco, Manila and London, is split between product design and product management. Revenue is evenly split between both divisions.
“We’ve been having close to 50 percent year-over-year [revenue] growth. We’ve had steady growth,” said Gardner, who offered insight into their success. “Brandon and I are creative people, not traditional businesspeople.”
The two creative directors also go way back. They’ve known each other since they were six, and coincidentally, both showed an interest in computers and design at an early age.
Instead of simply coding and designing for brands and publishers, the pair set out to launch a company that would provide digital business solutions that include a social-media strategy and content to boot.
While creating and designing Web sites is still the bread and butter of Code and Theory’s business, the New York-based company manages social media for clients, and it helps develop storytelling for ad campaigns.
“We manage close to 50 million fans on social media,” Ralph said, noting that it helped market Burger King’s campaign on chicken fries via social media. Although that may sound odd, the agency helped to develop the offbeat campaign to spread the word about the chicken fries, which were introduced by Burger King in 2005.
On Facebook, this translated to a digital campaign for Burger King to “bring back” the fried-chicken strips. It went viral and not only drew attention to the restaurant chain, but it also resurrected the all-important hangover food from BK’s menu: chicken fries.
Code and Theory has also invested heavily in physical design and data. It has an industrial design practice, which it started in 2012. Led by Geoff Baldwin, the team is small — about five people — but it speaks to Ralph and Gardner’s desire to connect to everything from designing a physical object to creating the interactions around it and telling the story about it.
The company also has a data-analytics division that has become vital to its business.
Adding in a “layer of data,” as Gardner put it, has helped the company better analyze how to help their clients reach customers more effectively.
For Maybelline New York, the company used data to develop a campaign for the brand. That campaign included developing CITY, a monthly “blogazine” for the brand that made use of its archive of how-to videos as content. The agency also put photos and short how-to videos on social media channels, such as Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and Pinterest, as well as on Maybelline’s Web site.
For nail company Essie, Code and Theory put together a searchable database giving users the ability to search nail-polish color via a virtual color wall. Additionally, users could see on-hand nail art featuring models and user-provided looks. Code and Theory said it used data on browsing behaviors to inform its design decision for essie.com.
To tackle its project for the L.A. Times, Gardner and Ralph embedded themselves in the newspaper’s newsroom to understand what the business needed. Using a mobile-first strategy, Code and Theory developed a responsive site that could handle a high volume of content that included video. The site incorporated the ad units for sponsored content, as well as native advertising. They also added endless scrolling and multidirectional navigation, as well as a local feature that allowed users to easily browse “neighborhood-level geocoded news and dining information, as well as crime data.”
From their headquarters in SoHo — which looks more like a professor’s study than the workplace of digital entrepreneurs — Gardner and Ralph downplay their success and hefty client list. Instead, they talk about technology and advertising, and as a company, they strive to remain ahead of the ever-changing digital landscape.
“We’re in the industrial revolution for technology,” said Ralph, who explained that from a publisher’s perspective, digital advertising is still in its early stages.
“The reality is, the ads haven’t changed as fast as the rest of the Web,” he said. “In 10 years, things will look very different.”
Gardner weighed in: “We’re the digital agency of record. Our internal mantra is that we are only limited by our creativity. We want to be everywhere.”