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Small Agency Conference and Awards

The Highs—and Gut-Wrenching Lows—of Small-Agency Life

By Published on .

Jeff Benjamin (l.), Barton F. Graf's exec creative director, and Greg March, CEO at Noble People, at the Gerry's Giude to Surviving Adland session.
Jeff Benjamin (l.), Barton F. Graf's exec creative director, and Greg March, CEO at Noble People, at the Gerry's Giude to Surviving Adland session. Credit: Jon Morgan for Advertising Age

Fewer assholes, more freedom and a tight-knit team are some of the perks of working at a small agency.

The downsides? For one, there's nobody to blame when things derail.

More than 200 attendees gathered at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference and Awards in Nashville Wednesday to talk about the triumphs and tribulations of working at a small shop. We spoke to a few of them about the best and worst parts of the job.

Ryan Kutscher, founder, Circus Maximus

The best: You kind of get to make [things] up. I feel like most people that have small agencies have worked at large agencies or elsewhere and that planted the seed of, "If I had my own agency, I'd do this, this and this differently."

I think the idea is that you finally get to craft this place that you want to work at, whatever your mental image of that ideal workplace is. (For us), the idea was to create a space in which the creative ideas are the most important.

The worst: You actually have no idea how to do that. You don't know at all. And you realize pretty quickly that's why there are structures in place, that's why agencies have this kind of infrastructure and P&Ls and rate cards, and all this stuff you've heard about—all of that's there for a reason. You learn that you didn't know a lot of important stuff.

Nick Paul, president, O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul

The best: Ultimately, our partner team gets to make the final decisions on everything. Creative first and foremost, but even how to deal with clients. You get put in a lot of funny positions when you're with a big holding company, especially in new business—sometimes you're mandated to pitch, sometimes you're mandated to defend. When it's just your own place, you get to make all those decisions and you really don't ever look back. [What's great is] knowing you make that call—everything from how you structure your culture to the creative work you will or won't do to the talent you bring in.

The worst: You're accountable for everything … people do make mistakes. It could be a mistake on somebody you hire or a mistake on the fees that you're charging. You have to sort of be self-aware enough to say, "I made a mistake." You don't have anybody else to blame because your name is on the door.

Karen King, president and CEO, Spawn Ideas

The best: One of the best things is we all know each other. The collaboration is really great. The word "family" does come up a lot—you feel like you're working with your friends and family.

The worst: There are times when the resources aren't as readily available. But I think we've done an amazing job at Spawn of being as locationless as we can be by having employees and freelance talent [spread out geographically]. Our talent can live anywhere. I think that's a perfect way to operate in today's world.

Aaron Mason, co-founder, NA Collective

The best: The best if you've got the freedom to be the boss and it [all] stops with you.

The worst: That's also the worst part.

Greg March, CEO, Noble People

Lindsay Lustberg, COO, Noble People

The best (March): I think you feel more in control of where you spend a lot of the hours of your life. It's certainly in your control one way or another. I would say for the employees, there's faster room for advancement in their careers since small agencies are filled with giant, gaping holes. If you're proactive and fill a hole even if you haven't knocked [out] all the appropriate amount of years, somebody with talent and ability can find themselves in a leadership position and acquire experience that otherwise might take a long time to get.

For a senior person, the higher you go up the food chain at a big agency your job actually gets pulled away from the work and [you're] actually managing the logistics of a bureaucracy with a lot of people in it. Your job becomes spreadsheets and management and resourcing and things like that. There are a lot of people that just like doing the work, and you can probably do more of it at a smaller agency.

The worst (March): You feel the highs a lot higher and you feel the lows a lot lower. The lows are just gut-wrenching.

March: There's no one to blame for anything at all. You can't be like, "Well, everything would have been awesome if the guys up in corporate didn't..."—you're the guys up in corporate.

Bridget Deenihan, associate creative director and copywriter, Bohan

The best: As much as it sounds like a cliche, the nimble thing we talk about when being a small agency, as a creative that directly affects us. You don't have that bureaucracy when you're trying to push an idea through. ... When it comes to doing the work and being creative, you want as few barriers as possible.

Being in the business as long as I have, I have often heard, "We're like a family here." That's something you always hear during the interview process, and it has always sort of felt like lip service. There are a couple of agencies I've interviewed with that haven't said that—one being my current agency. They didn't have to say it. It really is like a family.

Lastly, I would just say that you cannot be an asshole. ... If you're not a nice person and you're not going to be kind to [other people], it might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but eventually you will hit the door and we will not miss you. Which is great because people who are really there to be kind and do good work and have a good time together stay.

The worst: From a creative perspective, [the worst part is] not getting enough clout in the industry. Both from a broad level—say a big brand doesn't take us seriously because we are small—and from a personal level. ... There's this thing in our industry where unless you've moved to New York or L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago and worked at the big shops, your experience is not weighted as heavily. It's a deterrent for small agencies for creatives; that's why they don't start out [at small shops].

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