Even When It's Forced Upon You, Change Is What You Make of It

How Getting Dumped Worked Out Well for Our Agency

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Milan Martin
Milan Martin
I dated a girl in college who was my soul-mate. Or so I thought at the time. She was the super-cool, guy's girl who could slam a can of Natural Light faster than any guy on campus. She was from Detroit Rock City, where she spent summers working at her dad's motorcycle repair shop. I was totally head over heels.

Until graduation day, when she dumped me and moved back to Detroit to work full time in the shop. Damn.

There went my dreams of Kiss playing at our wedding, teaching the kids to slam juice boxes and someday taking over the family business of motorcycle fixin'.

Devastation. Life over. All was lost.

But of course life wasn't over. It had just changed course.

Instead of motorcycle repair, I pursued a career in advertising. Years into my career, I found myself working for an agency that was enjoying a fruitful digital AOR relationship with a large adult-beverage marketer. Aside from creative duties, we were also managing all of its online media planning and buying.

We were only 50 or so people back then, so it represented a sizable chunk of our agency's business. But it was a happy time and we took a lot of pride in the kind of work we were doing. We loved this client and gave it the attention you'd expect from an agency that has too many eggs in one basket.

Then, on an otherwise beautiful day here in San Francisco, our beloved client -- with whom we shared countless nights out together, sharing the most intimate details of our personal lives (OK, the guy tells us he secretly loves Cher!) -- used the word that strikes sphincter-contracting fear into the hearts of all agency folk: "consolidation" (read: "I may be moving back to Detroit to marry my high-school sweetheart.").

As it turns out, one of the big networks offered to manage its media account "free" for one year if the client agreed to consolidate with it. So, yep, we were fired.

There may have been some drinking involved in the next few weeks as the agency management decided how to push forward.

In retrospect, I'd have done the same thing. The media business continued to become commoditized and if the client could throw back some cash to the shareholders that year, good on 'em.

But more good came of this consolidation than just adding to our client's shareholder value. When we lost that account, we decided to get out of the media-planning and -buying business as we knew it.

So where did that leave us? As a "digital boutique," only focused on the creation of creative ideas, leaving the content distribution to others? It just didn't feel right -- like we'd be a less important part of our clients' world.

But as our hangovers dissipated and our anger and despair lifted, we realized that we had a growing expertise that would change the course of our agency's evolution.

Being located in the Bay Area, we were born from geeks. And that geekdom had lead us to the early adoption of social media as a way of learning, communicating, sharing and participating in our community. It wasn't long before we realized how powerful a tool this new dynamic could be for us and for clients.

And for the past few years, that's exactly what we've focused on. Killer content at the center of things, distributed in large part by understanding social dynamics and the technology that enables it.

It took us about a year to regain the size we had prior to the consolidation and another year to surpass it.

It was a tough time for the agency. Change is painful -- especially when it's not your decision to make that change. But if you view change (self-initiated or not) through the lens that more times than not, it pushes you forward, you'll be more thoughtful in calculating how you can prosper from it.

Because who knows what this agency would be doing now if we never got fired by that client. Maybe we'd be living in Detroit, fixing motorcycles and slamming cans of cheap beer.

Milan Martin is VP-business strategy of San Francisco-based Real Branding, where he leads efforts to grow the digital agency here in the US. Follow him on Twitter: @madman2dotoh
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