Interviews With Small Agency Leaders: Part 1

Ad Execs on the Future and the Challenges They Face

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Bart Cleveland
Bart Cleveland
I began my career in Houston, Texas. While there, a category four hurricane hit the city. I remember when the eye of the storm passed directly over the city: a perfect circle of blue surrounded by a twisting torrent of destruction. Then the other side of the storm hit, reversing the direction of destruction and making everyone run for cover again. Hopefully, this isn't an analogy of the current economy.

However, with every disaster there are those who find a way to rise above the mayhem and not only survive, but thrive. We call them heroes. I have many small-agency heroes and I've asked some of them to help me discern what small agencies can do about today to climb to the top of the proverbial heap.

I invite other readers from small firms to participate in this forum with your comments.

This is the first in a series of posts to highlight thoughts from small-agency leaders from North America. Their answers should help highlight something of which we should be keenly aware: We small agencies are the key to this industry's success.

Our first group includes Ron Huey of Huey & Partners located in Atlanta; Chris Staples of ReThink, located in Vancouver, British Columbia; Alec Beckett from Nail, located in Providence, R.I.; Francis George of The Republik, Durham, N.C.; and Paul Crawford of Scout Branding Company, located in Birmingham, Ala.

My first question: There has been enough talk about the current economy. Let's talk about the future. What do you believe is the greatest opportunity for small firms?

Paul Crawford, Scout Branding Co.: "Small agencies should spend less time trying to impress their friends and competitors with their press releases and blogs and pick out a big company that they have a passion for and pursue them with well-thought out ideas. Not headlines and killer ad layouts, but rather help them solve the business problems that wake them up at 2 a.m."

Chris Staples, ReThink: "The bottom line is this: Clients don't need a digital agency. They need strategy, ideas and content for the digital age. [They] don't need a social-media agency, they need a communications strategy that is inherently social."

Alec Beckett, Nail: "Our scale allows a kind of intimacy and immediacy in the relationship with many of our clients that morphs our role from being a vendor to becoming their de-facto marketing [department]. That feels like a model that will have more and more relevance as brands need to become more nimble and creative in the new world of 'dialogue based' marketing that we're entering."

Question 2: Does your firm provide the broad range of services clients need today? If not, do you help facilitate finding them?

Ron Huey, Huey & Partners: "We specialize in creative, which can take many forms: advertising, design, digital, product naming, postioning/taglines, promotional concepts, etc. When our clients need research, strategic help, media planning/buying or other services, we partner with likeminded groups -- small, nimble firms who are experts in their disciplines."

Francis George, The Republik: "In the cult of the media, we are agnostic. Which forces us to be good at the things everyone else is doing. And, to go trailblazing, doing what no one has tried yet. It's not easy. We study all the new media that's popping up, and look for ways to use them. It's pretty gratifying to see experts writing white papers and columns in the pubs on tried-and-true, successful ways to use the media. At times, we'll look at each other and say, 'We've been doing that for the last two years.'"

Question 3: As an agency leader, what philosophy do you foster?

Chris Staples, ReThink: "Right from the start, we designed Rethink to be an ideas company, not an ad agency. Our primary role for our clients is to create work that gets talked about -- with customers, with staff and in the press. In our experience, getting talked about is the first step in getting results."

Ron Huey, Huey & Partners: "Even though your title may be chief creative officer, that doesn't mean you can't be willing to take out the trash and wash your own dishes."

Question 4: What is the greatest challenge you believe small agencies face?

Paul Crawford, Scout Branding Co.: "The biggest challenge for small agencies is being aware of what's happening in media and being realists about how to apply it to their clients' businesses."

Alec Beckett, Nail: "We've learned that the formula for doing great work is simple: Talent x Time. There is no shortcut. So for a small agency dealing with smaller clients and proportionally smaller budgets it will be (and frankly always has been) a challenge to get compensated adequately to cover the talent and time required."

Question 5: What has been your greatest moment?

Francis George, The Republik: "Eight years ago, one of our clients told us our ideas and executions were so integral to the growth of their company, they wanted us to be a partner. We had always believed our job was to grow our clients' business, but having a client offer to change our role from vendor to partner really solidified it for us. And it has stuck to this day—we are partners in over 50% of our clients' companies."

Paul Crawford, Scoutbrand: "My most gratifying moment was going up against a giant agency that bills hundreds of millions of dollars and winning a creative pitch against them. We had two employees at the time. Ideas win."

Thank you, gentlemen. Now, let's hear from the audience. And everyone stay tuned. We've got a lot more of our best brains to come.

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