D.J. O'Neil: Sailing in Unsafe Marketing Waters

D.J. O'Neil, founder and CEO of Hub Strategy, an integrated-media marketing firm, claims there is no such thing as a truly integrated marketing firm.

"Everyone said they could do anything, but they really couldn't," O'Neil said. "They had their specialty." Emerging media create new challenges all the time and agencies scramble to build each coming medium into their creative approach. O'Neil said his approach to work in all media was to flip the standard model by eliminating in-house creative departments.

Working only with freelancers, O'Neil said Hub Strategy won 34 creative awards at the American Advertising Federation's "Addies" ceremony.

"We have this creative philosophy where safe is unsafe and unsafe is safe," O'Neil said. "I was worried clients wouldn't be excited about the idea. They're so used to focusing on specializing in one area."

Unsteady seas are no strange territory for O'Neil. After leaving University of Colorado with a communications degree, O'Neil sailed boats to the Caribbean and spent months hitchhiking the islands.

O'Neil, now an avid surfer, grew up boating with his grandfather, mostly on powerboats. He gradually grew into sailing, and heard about a private sailing subculture where boat owners too busy to travel with their boats pay to steward the ships place to place. O'Neil thought it sounded like an exciting thing to do. He made it happen, sailing as far as Tahiti and Hawaii.

O'Neil said Hub Strategy succeeds because working with a nearly inexhaustible supply of freelancers lets marketers choose the right creatives for a job.

The program is different than a staffing agency, because the firm manages a client's entire marketing strategy. Since the company's founding in 2002, O'Neil has seen a few medium-sized companies try to execute his model, but none of them genuinely committed to the large net of freelancers, he said.

"We never give people any crap," O'Neil said. "We kind of swing for the fence creatively all the time."