Small Agency of the Year, 76-150 Employees, Silver: Sterling-Rice Group

Small Firm Turns Out Prime Large-Agency Work for Some of the Marketing World's Biggest Fish

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In 27 years, Sterling-Rice Group claims to never have had a down year. That's a streak of revenue increases that spans three recessions, a whole bunch of disruptive business models ranging from the emergence of cable TV to the internet, the rise of the global holding company and at least two generations of hand wringing about the future of ad-agency models.

President Buddy Ketchner, who's been at the Boulder, Colo., agency for 25 of those years, ascribes the death-defying feat to many things, not the least that SRG is diversified into creative agency work, strategic consulting, new product consulting, design and digital work.

Strategic consulting was "a natural hedge" particularly during the Great Recession, Mr. Ketchner said. "We found clients coming to us not just because they wanted a tactic or one thing, but because what they wanted was growth. And there's this recognition you can't fake your way to growth."

But SRG is also plenty proud of its creative work, said Executive Creative Director Steve Witt, including a recent TV campaign for El Monterey that resulted in a double-digit sales increase.

The 140-employee agency claims a 90% client repeat rate despite working in verticals that tend to operate on a project basis rather than retainers, such as strategic and new-product consulting.

And SRG aims for what Mr. Ketchner calls balanced growth of 12.5% annually.

"If you grow too fast, it makes it hard to maintain the culture," he said. "All of our leaders still do the work. ... If you grow too slow, it's hard to give people opportunities to grow in their careers."

Small and steady it may be, but the agency's client list is filled with big names that would make any global network proud, including Walmart, Pepsico, General Mills, Starbucks, Kellogg Co., Wendy's and Energizer Holdings (Schick). And its work isn't just comprised of small one-offs for those big names, but some very big projects, including developing global positioning for Schick and creating the concept for Walmart's World Table private-label, packaged-food brand launched last year, for which it provided ethnographic research, brand personality work, naming, food testing and packaging guidance for a line with 50 SKUs in cookies, chips, salsa, crackers, nuts, snacks and pizzas.

For Cascadian Farm, SRG helped engineer the mainstream push into supermarkets that led to acquisition by General Mills last decade. Then the agency last year won one of five "Bold Experiments" grants open to all agencies. That "seed money" led to the first branded crop integration in Zynga's "Farmville."

Without delving too deeply into the office politics, Sterling-Rice is not too similar to "Mad Men's" fictional Sterling Cooper. But Mr. Ketchner doesn't mind the connection.

"One of the best things that ever happened to Sterling-Rice Group was that [founder] Rick's last name was Sterling," he said. "We couldn't have planned a better name."

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