10 Takeaways From Ad Age's Small Agency Conference

Participants Offer Big Advice for Shops With Fewer Than 150 Employees

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NEW ORLEANS (AdAge.com) -- Before announcing the winners of Ad Age's second Small Agency Awards last week, we held our first day-long conference created especially for shops that are independent and have 150 employees or less. While a lot of the talk centered on the challenges and opportunities of being small, the thoughts were big. Here's some of what we learned.

Method co-founder and chief brand architect, Eric Ryan, at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference.
Method co-founder and chief brand architect, Eric Ryan, at Ad Age's Small Agency Conference. Credit: Gary He
Don't be about brand promise but brand philosophy, suggested Eric Ryan, co-founder and chief brand architect at Method. "If you don't have a social mission, you're not going to go very far in social media." He pointed out that it doesn't have to be (traditionally) noble. Unilever brand Axe's mission, for example, is to help guys get girls.

Find ways to make people audition for their jobs. That's what Method does with prospective hires, giving them "homework assignments." "Sometimes the people who interview the best are the ones who interview the most [because they can't get a job]," said Mr. Ryan.

Lead clients in solving business problems, not just marketing problems. Bart Cleveland of McKee Wallwork Cleveland calls this "brand therapy." Sometimes it leads the agency to tell clients "you might not be as happily married as you think you are, and that is affecting your brand."

Crowdsourcing isn't all the same. There can be public crowds and private crowds, and the former is much more overwhelming and prone to result in work that's not on strategy, while the latter -- which operates within parameters -- is more likely to be more relevant. "Find your right crowd, brief them properly and incentivize them well," Claudia Batten of Victors & Spoils said.

Own where you live. For agencies that aren't in major cities, that's vital, said Sharon Napier, CEO of Partners & Napier. By getting involved in your local community via pro bono work, you'll establish the shop as a local force, which can help win new clients and recruit out-of-town talent.

Marc Brownstein
Marc Brownstein Credit: Gary He
Silos are much easier to exist in larger organizations. Marc Brownstein, president of Brownstein Group, advises to use your smaller size to your advantage in showing clients how employees play well together.

When it comes to viral videos, avoid surveys that badger and interrupt the engagement with creative. Instead, Seraj Bharwani of Visible Measures recommended looking at comments on YouTube to see if viewers are taking the time to engage with the brand. From there, evaluate if the overall sentiment is positive or negative.

Pay with compliments. A survey by Pippa Seichrist of the Miami Ad School shows that recent grads still care about being compensated well for their work, but they are even more eager to know they're valued, such as hearing a "Hey, we noticed you worked over the weekend to finish that project and it's really appreciated."

Having an alternate revenue stream that's not connected to client business isn't just good for the bottom line, said Rockfish Interactive CEO Kenny Tomlin. It's also great for attracting talent who want to work on diverse projects, and showing clients you really get how to create and grow brands. The best part? Spending time on IP is usually easier for smaller, independent firms to sell through than larger shops with lots of investors.

Think of new business pitches like dates. If you go in talking all about yourself, a marketer is probably not going to be that wowed, but if you ask them about their business, they're more likely to want to keep talking. Brian Martin, founder of search consultancy SourceMartin, said one of the biggest mistakes he sees agencies make is spending disproportionate time talking about their credentials when they could be getting a better insight into the client's challenges.

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