What Small Agencies Across America Have in Common

The Themes Are Consistent, and the Path Is Clear

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Marc Brownstein
Marc Brownstein
When the fog cleared after a night of bourbons in New Orleans (at the Ad Age Small Agency Conference), patterns of dialogue emerged. I was chatting with fellow bloggers Phil Johnson, Tom Martin and Bart Cleveland about the business. We quickly realized we are all experiencing the same things, regardless of the cities we're in.

It's all about digital. We agreed that our agencies need to continue to invest in digital talent and innovation. Every day, clients are moving dollars away from traditional advertising and into digital. That wasn't a revelation. What was is the need to find talent that "gets it." We all need people who can: create online and offline; develop products for clients or ourselves and get them to market; and create alternate revenue streams. Agencies cannot afford to hire one person to do each job; we need thinkers/dreamers/really smart business people with imaginations on overdrive. Hard to recruit such talent? You bet. So start by seeing if the team you have on board now can be re-trained, guided in new, exciting directions.

Social-media curiosity. I have been asked the same question by dozens of CEOs and marketing directors: "How can you measure revenue with social media?" Tom Martin hears this 24/7, too, as he's a social-media expert, consulting with companies and agencies alike. For me, the answer to the oft-asked question is easy: With the right plan, social media is highly measurable, and plenty of case studies are being created daily of brands that effectively drive revenue through Facebook, Twitter, blog outreach, etc. Starbucks may be the most famous example. When they announce a new product or promotion on their Facebook page, sales instantly spike. And their CEO credits social media with Starbucks' recent turn-around.

The importance of having a genuine social media competency in your agency was a consistent theme in conversations at the conference.

M&A. Lots of chatter about agencies buying/selling/merging. We agreed this economy has created a unique window to improve your agency by combining forces and specialties.

PR's time in the sun I was surprised that more small agencies did not have a public relations division. It can be difficult for some agencies to figure out and integrate PR into the agency, but at Brownstein Group, I have found that having public relations in-house has been incredibly important to my clients -- especially in this economy, where fee-sensitive marketers can no longer afford large media ad budgets to promote their brand. Also, I truly believe that PR is often an invaluable part of an integrated marketing plan. If you can build a PR team, I recommend it. Your agency and clients will benefit.

Fees. It didn't take many cocktails to land on this topic. Phil, Bart, Tom and I agreed that the pressure to contain fees is one of the troubling effects of the recession, and has become as important to decision makers as strategy and ideas. What a shame. But it is what it is, and agencies must find ways to drive greater efficiencies in how they work.

What does creative mean? It means more than an ad. It now means solving a problem for a client in an innovative way -- even if that creative idea never appears in any form of media. I actually think that's exciting. And it will get agencies like ours invited to strategic planning meetings with our clients.

So a lot of productive dialogue was exchanged down in New Orleans. And it was evident after a couple of days connecting with agency peers that the model of our industry needs to continue to evolve. And that the road to success is paved by innovating in new ways, and helping our clients grow by also thinking like business people. Easily said, not often practiced.

"Waiter, can I have another bourbon?"

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