Can a Collaborative Cohort of Indie Shops Topple the Big Agency Networks?

Creative Ryan Kutscher, Founder of New Agency 'Circus Maximus', Thinks So

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Two months after exiting JWT New York, creative Ryan Kutscher has launched his own shop.

Mr. Kutscher most recently served as co-chief creative officer at the JWT office, and before that was a creative director at MDC Partners' CP&B. His time at JWT was short-lived; less than a year after he was appointed to the senior post, the agency parted ways with him.

In short order Mr. Kutscher has landed in a very new place, one that takes him out of the big agency world.

He's teamed up with two partners to launch a new shop called 'Circus Maximus'. One of them is Doug Cameron, a former exec at Amalgamated (now called Silver & Partners) who will serve as chief strategy officer. The other is Craig Carey, a marketer who's started his own burger chain and chief technology officer. Mr. Kutscher is the chief creative. The name of the agency, they say, is a reference to an arena full of spectacular ideas.

Circus Maximus
Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus is located in midtown Manhattan and is among a new crop of agencies that have opened their doors here in the past couple of years. It wasn't long ago that the landscape of the New York ad market was largely made up of long-established Madison Avenue firms, the flagship offices of network behemoths. But today, there's a mix of indie shops -- many started by big agency creatives that have departed to hang their own shingle, such as Eric Silver, Gerry Graf and Matthew Bull -- and others like Leo Burnett, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and McKinney that are giving the New York ad market a try largely for the sake of attracting and retaining talent.

"The conventional wisdom says the world doesn't need another advertising agency," admits Mr. Kutscher.

Indeed, the launch of another new agency seems daunting given differentiation -- proving to clients why your model is most relevant for today's fast-moving world -- is one of the hardest daily tasks for shops. Surviving in adland these days requires equal parts experience and theatre. It's, er, a bit of a circus.

But Mr. Kutscher and his partners believe a rise in project work means that marketers are increasingly looking not for dedicated shops to work on their business, but rather 'creative platoons.' Further, Circus Maximus wants to be seen as part of a new breed of agency that's focused on collaboration.

In many ways the trio of execs are attempting to follow the path that Mr. Kutscher's predecessors at JWT and CP&B -- Ty Montague and Alex Bogusky -- have embarked on with companies that espouse partnership instead of competition.

Said Mr. Kutscher: "There's a trend towards project work. There's the rise of the freelance class. And, as someone who was in a management position, I saw that the best talent didn't want to work full-time. I couldn't get them to come to the agency. They wanted to manage their own hours and work on the projects they believed in. It was hard to blame them.

We think of ourselves as an 'adhocracy', the opposite of a bureaucratic structure," said Mr. Cameron. "Based on the problem we need to solve we will put together a team, and it's an informal project structure that's organic, and adaptive." The agency says it plans to keep a minimal management layer, with as few as five full-time staffers, with the rest all be project-based and freelancers.

So is this the right model today? Mr. Kutscher is insistent that the collaborative model -- one where indie shops partner with each other to go to market -- will eventually prevail over big holding companies.

"A holding company tries to literally hold all the people that work for them but the smarter model in this economy is about letting go of those structures and freelancers are the way to go," said Mr. Kutscher. "That can provide a better level of service for specific needs. Big agencies will sell you on the all the people or capabilities they have there waiting there for you, whether you need them or not. So it's about selling the people not solving the problem."

Its hard to imagine that big multinational companies could ever entirely cut out big agencies that can serve their needs around the world. For small shops it would mean usurping longstanding relationships and being able to offer competitive pricing at scale.

"I think it's a movement and a revolution in advertising," said Mr. Kutscher. "First we saw Co-Collective, and then Common in Boulder. These forces are seemingly conspiring together to create something exciting."

For now, though, Circus Maximus needs to focus on attracting clients. It claims to have engaged with a few clients and is in the pitch process for others, but declined to identify who.

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