Small Agency Awards 2012

Eight Takeaways from Ad Age's Small Agency Conference

Culture Stands Out as Theme of the Day

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Via's John Coleman interviews former IPG CEO David Bell
Via's John Coleman interviews former IPG CEO David Bell
For those of you who didn't make it to our third annual Small Agency Conference, held last week in Minneapolis, we've pulled together a few takeaways that we think are valuable reminders not just for a small ad agency -- but also for bigger shops, challenger brands and anyone who is an entrepreneur.

One bad hire can ruin your mojo
Culture was a big theme of the day. Both former Interpublic CEO David Bell and Pearson Candy Co. CEO Michael Keller were among those who talked at length about the importance of culture. "If you're going to grow an agency, build the culture first," said Mr. Bell. "Bad cultural influences will ruin agencies faster than anything." A bad cultural influence can be anything from a policy to a hire that just doesn't mesh with the agency. It bears repeating that agencies need to seriously consider who they put in senior management, not only because of how they'd affect an agency's culture, but also because of chemistry with potential clients. The speakers also stressed that financially speaking, a bad hire can be incredibly expensive to fix.

Experimentation in China is key
Though he was talking specifically about China, Network One President Julian Boulding's words about how essential it is to truly understand a market can apply anywhere. He stressed the importance that agencies and marketers need to understand how the Chinese do business, which is more about experimentation and figuring out what's right over time, rather than entering a market with massive marketing budgets. "Avoid the huge, expensive mistakes," said Mr. Boulding. Instead, he suggested, do what they do: Go in with a small budget, try a few different marketing tactics through experimentation, then build the budget from there as you find things that work.

Agency founders' to-do list should start with making themselves irrelevant
It's a scary thought, but it may be your agency's best bet at long-term survival. The best agency leaders aren't controlling and micromanaging, rather they step aside and let others help carry on the values you've established, said Charles Day, co-founder of the LookingGlass Consultancy. For instance, although David Ogilvy is no longer alive, his presence is greatly felt at the agency and his values are intact, and in fact, the next generation actually grew the agency into something far bigger than Mr. Ogilvy could have imagined.

Improve by 1% every day
Mr. Day also stressed the importance of slow-and-steady winning the race. As an example of how agencies can take their businesses to the next level, he used Bradley Wiggins' historic Tour de France win and his philosophy of making a 1% improvement in everything you do. It may sound miniscule incrementally, but the result is in 70 days you're twice as good. Having more manageable goals and not taking too much on at once gives your shop a better chance of actually sticking to changes, too.

Become friends with your competitors in the agency world
In response to an audience question about whether it can hurt small agencies to pitch with partners that have expertise in specific disciplines, such as PR or media, Ken Robinson, partner at Ark Advisors, told attendees that clients appreciate honesty about what an agency is good at, and what they're not strong in. That said, seamlessness is important, so make sure you've at minimum held extensive meetings with pitch partners, and ideally have worked with them before. The ability to collaborate effectively with other agencies will be reflective of your ability to work with the clients' other vendors and could work in your favor.

Packaging matters
From Popchips CEO Keith Belling to the Pearson Candy Co.'s Michael Keller and the Minnesota Craft Brewers Association's Clint Roberts, several speakers highlighted the importance of packaging for challenger brands -- it's a point-of -sale way of differentiating your brand from those that are better known. For Popchips, that meant taking cues from brands like Apple and VitaminWater for a clean, but fun, design. For Surly beer, the idea was to use cans instead of bottles to help the brand stand out from the rest of the pack. For Pearson, which has been a confectioner in Minnesota for decades, it has meant merely sprucing up its historic logo; a wholesale change of it would have been detrimental for the brand.

Take a deep breath, and take a risk
Michael Sprague, Kia's exec VP-marketing and communications, said that the marketer has a challenger mind-set. But it's his agencies that have helped the carmaker take risks in marketing. Kia's 3-year-old Hamster campaign -- an idea that was pitched on Halloween in 2008 by David & Goliath -- which featured animated rodents, was a wacky campaign aimed at millennials that led to a huge spike in sales for the brand. Mr. Sprague said that since 2008 sales are up 78%, and he gives much of the credit to his agencies. "Continue to push the envelope with your clients," said Mr. Sprague. "There are no bad ideas. ... After all, we came up with hamsters."

Clients come first, but don't ignore marketing your own brand
It doesn't matter if it's a large holding company agency or a small independent shop, all agencies need to be able to articulate what makes them stand out amongst thousands of competitors. The problem is , agencies aren't great at staking out a position. Mr. Bell, who in addition to his earlier Interpublic role is now advisor to AOL and Pegasus Capital, said that while agencies are great at positioning when it comes to clients, agencies are "horrible" at positioning themselves as unique and "everyone sounds the same." He added that agencies need to identify exactly what makes them different in the marketplace, and then find "proof points" to illustrate that positioning.

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