In 2000, John Noe and Chung Ng were fresh out of college when they met at a large Web design company providing digital business solutions for financial clients like Chase and Merrill Lynch. Neither felt creatively challenged. They didn’t like the corporate environment.
“We thought it would be awesome and fun to start our own business, but we had no idea what running a business really meant,” said Mr. Noe.
So the two men, along with colleague Charles Bae, founded Rokkan in September 2000. They had no clients when they began working from Noe’s living room, with him as CEO, Mr. Ng as executive user experience director and Charles Bae as executive creative director.
They named their company Rokkan—a Japanese word meaning “intuition.”
At first, the team put their creative aspirations aside and worked on securing financing and big, corporate accounts. “We needed to get established, and this is what we knew,” said Noe.
Quickly, they built up a reputation, and though their client list is a who’s-who of corporate America 12 years later, they are known for unconventional thinking.
In 2004 Rokkan helped change the way consumers interact with airline sites with its campaign for Virgin America. “We made it possible to see what seats were available before you booked a flight,” said Noe. “No other airline was doing that at the time. Now everyone does.”
To date, the agency has won more than 90 media and tech awards, including being named an Agency to Watch in 2012 in Advertising Age’s Agency A-List. Rokkan is now houses 50+ employees with $8 million in annual sales from a client list that includes Jet Blue, Virgin America, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Nintendo, EA Games, Stoli Vodka and Google.
“We have built a client list by being the agency that doesn’t give you the thing that you’ve been doing,” said Noe. “We work from our gut, and we look for clients who have the stomach to get outside their comfort zones.”
Even now, Noe is not shy about his distaste for corporate culture. He fled that environment early-on, and in building Rokkan, he’s intentionally kept it small and hip. The office is a T-shirt environment, and ping-pong tournaments are at the heart of Rokkan’s social culture.
Back in the early days, it was hard for a digital agency to land big accounts, so instead of chasing clients, the boys from Rokkan teamed up with larger, more traditional agencies that were looking for cyber savvy. “It was easier to partner with an established agency than to land a brand,” Noe said. It was a partnership with Anomaly that led to the award-winning Virgin America campaign. Rokkan partnered with the agency for 18 months, charging a flat fee for its hours. Then, in a twist of fate that Noe swore resulted in “no bad blood,” Virgin America management severed its ties with Anomaly and hired Rokkan directly.
Today, Rokkan now has the chops to land the big brands on its own.
In early 2009, soon after the economy tanked, Rokkan took on a client that sold luggage, school bags, and backpacks was a cool brand that wanted an eCommerce site. But somewhere along the way, there was a chasm in communication. Rokkan charged a lower-than-unusual fee to do “initial-phase work,” but the client, Mr. Noe said, thought the fee should cover everything on its wish list. Unable to work like that, Mr. Noe said, Rokkan exited the relationship. But its team learned a valuable lesson. “Now,” he said, “we break the work down into smaller pieces with a road map. And we are smarter about looking for more compatible relationships.”
Read more over at Crain’s New York.