Don't Let Their Size Fool You: Ad Age Announces Winners of 2012 Small Agency Awards

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"The winners of these awards show year after year that great client work that moves business isn't a factor of agency size, but rather intelligent, creative and strategic thinking and strong execution -- and these winners have it in spades," said Ad Age Editor Abbey Klaassen. "Some of the best work in the industry is being done by the small-agency community and we're delighted to give these shops their well-deserved due."

Judges this year had to sort not only from hundreds of entries from the U.S. and Canada, but entries from 20 other countries as well. Ultimately, 19 awards were given out for regional winners, size-category winners and for the agency with best culture. A strong showing was made by California shops, and for the first time there were ties in some categories.

"It's getting harder each year to judge the contest," said Ad Age Managing Editor Ken Wheaton, who also edits the Small Agency Diary blog. "But it's also getting more exciting as we see more entrants from around the world and get to know some home-based agencies that might not have been on our radar. And while we hate to see them grow, it's really inspiring to watch some of these shops jump categories or outgrow the space -- especially in this economy."

Indeed, John Coleman, CEO and founder of winning agency Via, said that's part of the goal. "We aspire to have a culture that maintains itself through its growth," he said. "My personal aspiration is to outgrow the small agency awards in the next few years, but not at the expense of our ability to do really inspired work," he said.

Baldwin& founder David Baldwin said of working on Burt's Bees "Find Your Burt" Campaign of the Year: "As an ad person, you're a professional, the results should be the reward. But to have companies and clients you actually believe in, it's so much sweeter. ... The cool thing about Burt is that he's not a professional ad guy. He's sort of just living his life up in Maine and we just wanted to show people that. He's the soul of the whole thing."

Profiles of the winning agencies will run in the Aug. 8 print edition of Advertising Age and online.

Here's the complete list of winners:

Small Agency of the Year Winner, Overall Gold

The Via Agency, Portland, Maine
An ad agency that isn't afraid to call itself an ad agency, this 73-person shop calls Portland, Maine, home -- with another office in New York. No stranger to the pages of Ad Age for the new-business wins it's been piling up over the last couple of years, Via was last year's Agency of the Year runner-up. Top clients include Welch's, Samsung and Prestige Brands. One of its most daunting challenges this year was helping Samsung launch its Galaxy Tab. Five weeks from launch, the marketer had no creative -- so it turned to Via. With the help of a campaign involving TV, home-page takeovers, social-media efforts and more, Samsung sold 3 million pads. Those sorts of results led the agency to grow by more than 20% in 2011, adding 22 new brands to the roster with a revenue mix of 60% digital, 30% traditional and 10% marketing consulting.

Winner, Campaign Gold

Baldwin&, Raleigh, N.C., "Burt's Bees: Find Your Burt"
Burt's Bees found itself facing a tidal wave of greenwashing going on throughout the $50 billion personal-care industry. With more than 250 products containing the word "natural" on the label, Burt's Bees' one true point of difference was in danger of being hijacked. With a limited budget, the brand had to reassert itself as the authentic leader in the natural-personal care movement and connect with female "Health and Beauty Sleuths." The solution? A (truly) sustainable effort aimed at getting consumers to find their "inner Burt." At consumers could learn about the iconic Burt, his Burt's Bees products and even craft their own "Inner Burt." The results? More than 63 million PR impressions, 20% increase in Facebook fans, 1,700-plus new followers on Twitter. According to Baldwin&, the effort was seven times more efficient than running a 30-second spot on the finale of "Lost."

Small Agency of the Year Winner, Overall Silver

You wouldn't know this 33-person shop was only 3 years old based on its client roster. It's one of three global roster shops for Coca-Cola, is launching Leffe and Hoegaarden for Anheuser-Busch in the U.S. and has been named global and U.S. agency of record for Bacardi. Johannes Leonardo was the shop behind "Google Slam," the online effort designed to showcase all those Google applications many don't know about. "With over 905 million impressions, 9 million combined YouTube and site video views, the world had watched an equivalent of 17 years worth of demos," said the agency.

Winner, Campaign Silver

Mortierbrigade, Belgium, for Scarlet's "One Weekend Off"
Belgian telecom provider Scarlet had an interesting message it wanted to get across for the holidays: "Don't Use Our Products This Christmas." So it turned to Belgian agency Mortierbrigade, which came up with the concept of "One Weekend Off": A weekend off from TVs, computers and mobile phones. The winners won brand-spanking new TVs, computers and mobile phones. Participants were given pre-recorded voicemail messages and Facebook statuses alerting friends of their absence -- and the agency and marketer spent the weekend trying to catch participants cheating. Three thousand families tried to stay offline. More than 2,000 failed. And by urging people to take a weekend off, Scarlet logged 1.2 million unique visitors to its website (a 68% increase over the previous year).

Winner, International Agency of the Year

Buzzman, Paris
The 35-person shop made its name last year with a YouTube effort for Tipp-Ex Correction Fluid. "NSFW a Hunter Shoots a Bear" allowed viewers to change the course of a YouTube video while it was playing. The page racked up 35.5 million views around the world.

Winner, Small Agency of the Year Culture

Modea, Blacksburg, Va.
Like many of the other agencies in the competition this year, the 72-person shop is involved with local nonprofits and teams up with the local university -- in this case, Virginia Tech. Every employee is required to develop and maintain a Career Development Plan that outlines their short- and long-term career goals, sets achievements and directly contributes to their performance bonus. Their employees have helped local farmers harvest crops, traveled to the Appalachia Region of West Virginia where they rebuilt houses and adopted strays. And the shop is in the planning phases of a new initiative to bring digital to third-world countries. First stop: Guatemala City, Guatemala, where it will refurbish a community computer lab with new desktop computers, software and equipment. Since its founding in 2006, Modea has lost two employees to other agencies -- and both of them came back.

Winner, Gold, 1 to 10 employees

Mistress, Venice Beach, Calif.
This nine-person agency works with brands that would make most little boys dance with joy. Papaya King Hot Dogs, ESPN and Hot Wheels. For the later, the agency created a real-life orange Hot Wheels track hanging from a 10-story door and sent down a life-size re-creation of a Hot Wheels toy, shattering an existing jump record.

Winner, Silver, 1 to 10 employees

Tattoo Projects, Charlotte, N.C.
Tattoo, which opened in 2006, is tiny by design. The shop has nine employees and does work for Hoover, Sheetz Convenience Stores and UNC Healthcare -- but its model is based on project relationships only. As they put it, "We prefer to date, not get married." Though it is a micro-agency, it compensates its tight-knit staff in a big way, with competitive salaries, 100% paid benefits and annual cash bonuses, as well as free lunch every day.

Winner, Gold, 11 to 75 employees

Mekanism, San Francisco.
The 61-employee shop was one of two winners with work in the Super Bowl with its Eminem-fueled "That's Brisk, Baby" spot for Lipton. But just as interesting was all the work that led up to that spot, including web films starring Ozzy Osbourne and Danny Trejo -- and the creation of The Brisk 25 Influencer Network to build buzz ahead of the game.

Winner, Silver, 11 to 75 employees

Blitz, Santa Monica, Calif.
Another California shop. Blitz is 55-people strong and based in Santa Monica. Sure, employees like to get their geek on -- they were among the teams hacking the Xbox 360's Kinect platform while the rest of us were still opening the box. And the shop created an augmented-reality video to promote John Mayer's "Battle Studies" album. But it's got a softer side. The agency helped launch Zoobles, a toy line -- and COPPA-compliant gaming site -- for little girls.

Winner, Gold, 75 to 100 employees

David & Goliath, Los Angeles.
This agency's most recognizable work is probably the Super Bowl ads it's done for Kia -- last year's spot with the "Yo Gabba Gabba" characters and this past year's epic ad featuring aliens, Mayans and time travel. The 145-person California shop has also done brand rebuilding work for the Monte Carlo hotel in Las Vegas that involved some pretty sassy print ads -- and half of a magician's assistant lost on an airport baggage carousel. And its events and stunts for the reopening of the King Kong Ride at Universal Studios picked up enough real-world news coverage to give journalism-ethics professors fits.

Winner, Silver: 75 to 150 employees (tie)

Eleven, San Francisco.
This agency's roster is one any shop would envy, as it includes Apple, Virgin America, Callaway, Disney, Visa and Google. It boasts a staff of 120 humans and five dogs. If you've seen a naked man in a burrito, you've likely seen the agency's work for Virgin America. One of its more interesting efforts was for Callaway Golf. In a category that was reduced to club manufacturers bragging about incremental technological advantages, Eleven was tasked with fostering -- or re-fostering -- an emotional connection between golfers, their sport and Callaway. So the agency produced eight short documentary films that gave a rare and personal glimpse into the minds of Tour players such as Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Annika Sorenstam -- putting inspiration back at the heart of the game.

Sterling-Rice Group, Boulder, Colo.
This agency was established in 1984 and now has 140 employees and clients including ConAgra, Wendy's, Walmart and El Monterey. The telenovela-inspired absurdity of its El Monterey TV campaign resulted in a double-digit sales increase for the brand. But the shop does more than just ads. In fact, it helped Walmart create the concept for its World Table brand from the ground up, from ethnographic research to food testing to package design. Not a surprise for an agency that has its own culinary council -- and its own test kitchens.

Winners: West Region (tie)

Zambezi, Venice, Calif.
This 26-person shop counts among its clients the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trailblazers, Champs Sports (as agency of record), Vitaminwater and Smartwater, and Popchips, one of Ad Age's hottest brands in 2010. The agency was responsible for two of the funniest viral-video efforts in the past year, fantasy-football attorney Norman Tugwater (for Vitaminwater) and Jennifer Aniston's Sextape for Smartwater.

Odopod, San Francisco
This 55-person shop's clients include Sony, Electronic Arts, Tesla Motors, Google and IWC. While Odopod does traditional advertising and branding, what caught the judges' eyes were the retail experiences it created for Tesla, the Trends Dashboard and website it created for Google, and the EA Download Manager, which did for EA Sports' PC games what iTunes did for Apple.

Winner, Southwest region

StruckAxiom, Salt Lake City
This 70-person shop also has offices in Los Angeles, Portland and New York. The agency rebranded TCBY and worked on the integrated campaign for the latest "Shrek" movie. But one of its most impressive pieces of work was the creation of Gatorade's "Mission Control" platform, which the sports-drink maker uses to visualize, track and measure social conversations around the Gatorade Brand.

Winner, Southeast region

Planit, Baltimore
The 40-person shop counts Under Armour, Marriott, and Greater Baltimore Medical Center as its biggest clients. Achieving stellar business results for clients are this shop's strong points. After rebuilding Fila's website, the sports-apparel maker saw sales increase 41% in the first five months of site launch.

Winner, Midwest region

Space150, Minneapolis
Another shop adding to Minneapolis' reputation for being a creative hotbed. This 134-person shop counts American Express, Optum Health and Dairy Queen as its three biggest clients. They turned to Facebook to sell boating in the midst of a recession, they took over Times Square for Forever 21 and sent out the Mini Blizzard Treatsmen across the country in a Mini Cooper tricked out like a monster truck to promote Dairy Queen's mini blizzard.

Winner, Northeast region

Deeplocal, Pittsburgh
It wouldn't be accurate to call this Pittsburgh-based seven-person shop an ad agency. But this band of hackers, artists and musicians turn out projects for marketers and other agencies that are nothing short of mind-blowing. They're the brains behind the Nike chalkbot and that solar-powered relief tent for Toyota. The shop also powered AKQA's "Project Reindeer" campaign for Gap.

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