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Small Agency Conference and Awards

When it Comes to Ad Towns, Don't Mess With Austin, Texas

Home of SXSW -- and the 2014 Small Agency Awards -- Boasts Booming Ad Scene, Hot Tech Sector

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Credit: Courtesy of Proof

Whatever hipster hub Portland, Ore., might claim, Austin, Texas, is the original "keep it weird" city. But like Portland, the city's advertising and tech scene is on the rise. No longer considered a second-tier market, Austin is home to acclaimed national agencies like Omnicom's GSD&M and big-name brands such as Dell and Whole Foods.

The city hosts major events like SXSW and SXSW Interactive that bring marketers and talent to the area, and the laid-back, creative atmosphere keeps them there.

"It's got great dining, great music, and a vibrant culture translates into the workplace and the community," said Duff Stewart, CEO of GSD&M.

That vibrant culture makes it the ideal spot for Ad Age's Small Agency Conference on July 23 and 24. The event gathers small and mid-sized agencies to discuss the unique challenges faced by this market. It's also where Ad Age announces the winners of its annual Small Agency Awards. For registration information, go here.

Agencies
Omnicom's GSD&M is the biggest player in the area and has not only helped bring national marketers to the region, it's spawned a number of other agencies. That's partly why there's a sense of camaraderie among agency folks. They attend the same portfolio nights, teach classes and workshops at the University of Texas, and GSD&M even hosts an annual Big Wheel race. Of course, that doesn't mean they're not competitive. Agencies often find themselves going after the same national marketers that show interest in Austin.

LatinWorks, a Hispanic agency, is one of the top firms in Austin. The city also has a number of independent companies, including McGarrah Jessee, Proof, Door Number 3, Tocquigny and Blackboard Co., Guerilla Suit, Bakery and Mando Rayo & Collective. A trio of alumni from Mother, NY started an agency called Preacher in town earlier this year, citing Austin's "culture of experimentation, creativity and collaboration." Other agencies include Greatest Common Factory, Sid Lee, T3, and Sanders/Wingo. National agencies like Rockfish, R/GA, Razorfish, and Y&R have also offices in Austin.

Marketers
Sometimes called "Silicon Hills," Austin is home to a number of large tech companies. Dell is one of the biggest employers in Austin with headquarters just outside the city. Whole Foods and HomeAway are also based there. Google, Apple and Facebook have offices in the area. SXSW, an annual film, music and interactive festival based in Austin, attracts major marketers to the city and some unveil new technologies and products there. The fact that SXSW and SXSW Interactive are held in the city makes for another big draw for big brands. "The marketing and advertising community wants to be ahead of the curve on the hottest new trends," said Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW Interactive. "SXSW Interactive is a great place to learn" and to get "a preview of what will be hot in two years."

Media
Austin is known as the "live music capital of the world." The city is home to renowned musicians and its festivals are rites of passage to artists nationwide. It also has a budding film industry through the Austin Film Society and Austin Studios, a production complex. Soon, the city will house Robert Rodriguez's El Rey Network, believed to be the first general entertainment network with production that's based out of Texas. The Austin-American Statesman is the city's major daily newspaper. Texas Monthly, based in Austin, has won 13 National Magazine Awards.

Startup/Tech
Austin's booming startup industry has given birth to national brands like Indeed, HomeAway and RetailMeNot. Tech is especially popular in the city's startup community, and there are a number of new software and game-development companies. Austin Ventures is one of the most active venture capital firms in Texas. Austin Startup Week, which began in 2011, is also helping expand the startup community and attract entrepreneurs to the city.

Dachis Group, acquired earlier this year by Sprinklr, and Bazaarvoice are also based in the city.

Food and Drinks
Austin is the perfect city to get into food fights. Argue about whether it's still worth waiting two hours in line at Franklin Barbecue, who has the best breakfast tacos or where to find superior Tex Mex. The city is also home to a thriving food-truck scene. One Austin-based agency, Tocquigny, stepped into the fray during SXSW this year with a taco tour that visited classic Austin spots like Torchy's Tacos. For after-work drinks, agency folks love Sixth Street. And some shops, like GSD&M and Proof, have their own in-house bars. Or out of the house, since Proof's bar is a stand-alone space -- an actual bar on Sixth Street.

"It just seemed like the perfect thing to do. I mean, our name is Proof," said Craig Mikes, the agency's co-owner and creative director. "It's a great place to entertain clients and employees."

Challenges
Transportation infrastructure is a growing concern as the area becomes more populated and large events like SXSW attract scores of tourists. Agencies also struggle with the lack of major local brands and find themselves pitching to companies outside of the city more often than they'd like. As with many evolving ad scenes, finding the right talent is a priority in Austin.

Opportunities
Austin has been able to attract strong digital and creative talent because of its growing population, tech-centric communities, and the University of Texas's top-tier advertising program. The city's agencies, like LatinWorks, have also achieved broad appeal and recognition by chasing national and international clients. The Austin-based Hispanic shop broke the top 10 in Ad Age's 2014 Agency A-List.

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