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Dan Gardner: “Our strong understanding of content development, distribution, and consumption is a significant differentiator”

New York, September 15th, 2016

dan-gardner-code-and-theoryFounded in 2001, Code and Theory is a digital-first creative agency that designs products and brand experiences across platforms. Code and Theory is united around value-oriented digital innovation. The agency focuses on three main disciplines: Brand Design, Product Design, and Industrial Design. Radically adaptive, these essential marketing areas where creative design can flourish, are individually nimble and capable of total interdisciplinary synchronization.

Code and Theroy’s extensive experience in the publishing industry – having worked in 60+ newsroom since 2010 – is the backbone of its success in the digital landscape.

Dan Gardner, Co-Founder/Co-CEO, Code and Theory (C+T) says, “Our strong understanding of content development, distribution, and consumption is a significant differentiator over many other agencies.”

The agency has helped to redefine media with clients including Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, Vogue and Hearst Publications and enable brands like Maybelline New York and Burger King to connect with new and existing consumers.

C+T has a culture where passion, thought, and creativity come to thrive. The agency has bagged its first Cannes Lions Award this year for its Burger King Grilled Dogs campaign – which used employees information leak and rapper Snoop Dogg cookery training video as its secret weapon. We talked to Gardner to get his recipe for digital success.

Recognised as one of the top 10 most innovative companies in design by Fast Company in 2015, C+T employs more than 375 people in offices in New York City, San Francisco, London, Atlanta and Manila.

Can you describe your agency in three words?

It’s all right there in our name: Code and Theory.

Give us the ingredients to create a successful digital campaign

Just like any recipe, the best ones are simple and not over thought out. That said, the key to creating a successful digital campaign is first and foremost a multi-disciplinary team.

The traditional simplicity of just a copywriter and art director must be expanded to additional disciplines to open up creative opportunities – skill sets like UX and Engineering.

Since digital is more than a screen, it’s important that any successful digital campaign must not be siloed from other platforms and distribution channels. That means also including non-digital skill sets on the team such as traditional copywriters or industrial designers, which more often than not creates a more cohesive result.

Lastly, you need to assign a single leader who can not only lead and inspire the above skill sets, but also make decisive decisions. This role is critical, given the complexity of the many moving parts. This also prevents the dreaded “design by committee” nightmare.

Can you tell us about a campaign you worked on that was especially successful?

Our campaign for Burger King’s Grilled Dogs was a huge success, garnering acclaim from BK employees, fans and the media, and this summer won us our first Cannes Lion.

The marketing objective was to create mass awareness, shareability and viral activity around the launch of Burger King’s newest signature item: Grilled Dogs. We needed to drive foot traffic and trial and create a sustainable business revenue through this new product platform.

When we led the comeback of Chicken Fries in 2014 we saw that many of BK’s 230K+ employees started leaking the return after watching the mandatory internal training video on how to prepare the product. We decided that instead of fighting it, we’d jump on the opportunity to create an unexpected and entertaining video starring Snoop Dogg so they’d have something that they couldn’t resist sharing. Embrace the leak.

That led to more than 1.8 billion media impressions within 24 hours. Launch awareness of the product was at 45 percent of the public before the product was even released. The training video was covered from Time Magazine to TMZ, with Hypebeast saying “Burger King’s latest product could not have been promoted better.”

Name a challenge your team is currently facing

Share of one’s time is more competitive than ever. Just blasting on large media channels isn’t as effective as it once was, and in our “On Demand” world where consumers can access services and information with a couple of clicks of a button, the expectation of brands is higher. Responding quickly with communications and designing platforms as systems is challenging and critical in almost everything we do.


How did all get started?

I studied computer art in school and started doing some internships during the original dot-com bubble. At the time I was very fascinated with art and technology; how using code you can create amazing things, and more specifically how the idea of technology can open up creativity.

After graduating, I joined my childhood friend, Brandon Ralph, at a traditional advertising agency where we helped start the interactive department.

While we worked on some interesting projects, we felt the agency wasn’t quite ready to fully commit to digital. And if you think agencies today are struggling with how to integrate digital, you can imagine what it was like in 2001.

Brandon and I have known each other since we were six and we wanted to explore the digital world more. C+T was born in the backroom of a Manhattan apartment in 2001. We were super naïve at the time. No clients and no real agency experience. And three weeks later 9/11 happened and the world just stopped. And I remember Brandon and I pausing and saying, “Well, if we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.”

We wanted an environment that would be unencumbered by traditional agency politics, and clients that would allow us to push thinking in a very young industry where almost no one had “years of experience.”

Fast forward 15 years and C+T has radically redrawn the map of challenges a creative agency can confront in today’s digital world. We’ve helped pioneer the modern digital landscape with over 60 major media launches for publishers like Bloomberg, Vogue, Condé Nast, and the Los Angeles Times. We’ve defined a new standard for how brands like Maybelline New York and Burger King communicate their stories, and re-imagined the digital space between government and citizenry through sites like and

What is a digital trend that is here to stay?

Trends that stay are a bit of an oxymoron. It’s fascinating the speed with which our culture now solves human problems. I think the digital space is still so young that behaviors will continue to evolve, which will continue to allow for creative opportunities to take advantage of that. The plethora of startups or larger companies trying to take advantage of digital touch points to reach users and consumers in new ways is ever-changing.

What is your personal definition of creativity?

That’s very simple: Creativity is imagination. And in business it’s the ability to problem solve.

Are there online publications, professionals, industry leaders you follow?

This may sound strange, but not specifically. When I have some downtime, I look at some of the more well-known trade publications that cover the industry, but more often than not I find myself seeking inspiration and guidance from outside of the industry. I try to strike a balance. It’s always good to stay abreast of the best practices and learnings that are happening around me, but whenever I follow the industry too close I find myself limiting my ideas to what everyone else is doing.

Which cities outside where you live interest you creatively?

I’ve always been fond of New Orleans. It strikes me as profoundly different to anything else in the United States. It has a unique and vibrant culture, and architecture that feels driven by creativity.

I think whenever you are in a place that feels different it challenges your mind and ushers in unconventional perspectives.

Please list a few of your favourite digital brands:

Lists feel so final and absolute to me, so I tend to avoid them…but if I had to name a few: the glasses brand Warby Parker for its unique e-commerce approach; Amazon for how it’s been able to use infrastructure as a service beyond it’s original purpose; The Guardian for its interesting digital storytelling; and Uber for its unbelievable simplicity and nuanced updates that make the product better.

Where do you see the future of the industry?

I see a future where a digital-first approach isn’t something that’s talked about, it’s just something that’s done. That said, we still have a ways to go before it gets there effectively. Clients need to adapt and optimise their organisation to deliver on that, and agencies need to refine their process to deliver.

What piece of advice would you give a recent grad looking to work in digital marketing?

Don’t listen to advice too much. The best achievements come from paving your own way.


By Geny Caloisi.

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