Five Takeaways From Ad Age's Small Agency Conference

Make Sure You Fail And Fail Again -- And Have A Story To Tell

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It was fitting that Ad Age's Small Agency Conference convened in Portland, Ore., where one of adland's now-largest independents, Wieden & Kennedy, was born as a small shop some 31 years ago. Its founder, Dan Wieden, ended his keynote saying, "Oh, how I wish this agency was 10 years old, small once again. Oh how we wish we were you."

Packed house at conference.
Packed house at conference.

But for players small or big -- or somewhere in between -- last week's conference offered sound advice from speakers who started their own shops, challenger brands, and even established global companies. Here are five takeaways from the conference useful for any size agency:

Deconstruct your performance after a pitch -- win or lose. Knowing why your agency won or lost a pitch is critical, said Laurie Coots, the former global CMO of TBWA and outgoing president of consultancy Disruption Works. Analyzing a pitch can help agencies figure out their strengths and weaknesses and assess what's working in the pitch process and what's not. Ms. Coots said that agencies should appoint a "cool head" -- someone who is not part of the entire process, is unemotional about the situation and can analyze the pitch impartially.

Remember that your priority is your customer. It seems obvious, but it's an idea that bears repeating. Executives from regional bank Umpqua and specialty coffee company Stumptown both said that making the customer experience as pleasant as possible should be a priority before everything else. If a marketer has an issue with its outward-facing brand, its internal culture or both, "don't come to the problem with advertising as the answer," said Lani Hayward, exec VP-branding and creative strategies at Umpqua Bank. Go beyond the brief, she advised, and "harness the organization's DNA."

Fail harder. Those two words are spelled out on a wall at Wieden & Kennedy with 119,000 pushpins. Mr. Wieden shared a story about two young creatives he had hired who were intimidated by office life -- to the point that they were afraid to come out of their office. His advice? "You ladies are no good to me or anyone else until you make three gigantic mistakes, so let's get on with it." In other words, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Ms. Hayward, had a similar take: Be nimble and take risks and help clients challenge the status quo.

Carol Dudley
Carol Dudley

Make sure your agency's diversity efforts go beyond having a current diverse workforce. Diversity has long been an issue in agencies, and adland has much work to do filling out the leadership ranks with a diverse workforce. Carol Dudley, director of the office of career development in the school of communications at Howard University and Claudia Caplan, chief marketing officer at RP3 Agency, said agencies should be talking to colleges to get a diverse intern cohort. But they should also reach out to high schools to help steer teenagers -- whether they excel at art, math or science -- to consider advertising as a potential career path.

Have a story to tell. Many agencies in the rush to pick up new business forget to zero in on their story and who they are. Debra Giampoli, director-global strategic agency relations at Mondelez International, said that if a small agency wants to appeal to big marketers that are constantly approached, they must have more than a capabilities deck to show. She said agencies need to make their story compelling. And don't expect an assignment to develop immediately. Instead, she said, focus on growing a relationship steadily -- a practice she likened to dating. "I don't believe in love at first sight," noted Ms. Giampoli.

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