Being Small Agency of the Year Means Sometimes Having to Say 'We're Sorry'

To Pitch or Not to Pitch? ('No' Is the Answer)

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Someone recently asked me, "What's the coolest thing about being named small agency of the year by Ad Age?"

The answer was, "Being named Small Agency of the year by Ad Age." I mean, c'mon.

Winning that honor three years from start-up, against the agencies we did, was honestly kind of mind-blowing. When they called our name at the ceremony in Minneapolis last year, I was like a geek at a party where the pretty girl says something to you and you look behind you to see if Jose Molla from La Comunidad (who I pegged as the winner that night) is standing there and she's actually talking to him.

But besides that, I have to say that the second coolest thing is the amount of doors that immediately opened for us -- some good, and some we made a conscious choice to close after a polite "No."

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In the 10 months since we won the honor, we've seen more than our fair share of opportunities. We're pretty good, but so are a lot of agencies. But as Small Agency of the Year, we're getting asked out on a lot of dates. We've had to learn to draw some lines, to make some judgment calls on which opportunities show long-term potential. And which ones -- it's always a guess; you never know for sure -- do not.

But one of our core values is that we won't do anything just for the money; we won't take a gig just to get paid.

Then again, we are a business, so when the phone began to ring soon after, we really had to decide what to say yes to and what to say no to.

The good thing about having clear values is that when you're not immediately sure what to do in a given situation you at least have somewhere to look for clear answers.

We mostly had projects come through the door, but a number of pretty interesting pitches presented themselves as well. We've said yes to many of the projects and no to almost all of the pitches. That was a hard line to hold, but it's how we've decided to build the place. If we said yes to all the pitches, we could literally have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars chasing business.

We really struggle with the economics of the pitching world. A company our size going up against much bigger agencies -- spending a ton of money on the off-chance that we can win a spec pitch -- is really kind of ridiculous. It's how the industry works, but it's a shame that we agencies allow this to happen. (Clients just don't get a feel for what it's really like to work with an agency in those situations and no amount of chemistry videos is going to fix it.)

What we like to do is get a project from a client and try each other out in an actual client-agency relationship. You get a real-time assessment of what it's like to work together and our game is best played working side-by-side. Kind of like living together before getting married (without suffering the disapproving looks from parents).

I realize that it's pie in the sky to keep trying to buck a very well entrenched system, but it's working for us -- and our approach did land us that piece of shiny Ad Age hardware and a new-business plan that we can live with.

We're not going to change the rules of the industry overnight.

But damned if we're not going to keep trying.

David Baldwin is the founder of Baldwin&, which was named Ad Age's Small Agency of the Year in 2012 (and was the winning agency behind the Small Agency Campaign of the Year in 2011).
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