'This market has run its course': An independent-agency CEO sees storm clouds ahead

Walrus co-founder Frances Webster weighs in on building out media services and training women for leadership roles

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Webster: 'It doesn't make sense for media and creative to be separate'
Webster: 'It doesn't make sense for media and creative to be separate' Credit: Ad Age

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Advertising agency employment has reached its highest levels since 2000, something that many in the industry are taking as good news. But Frances Webster, co-founder of the New York-based creative shop Walrus, sees a red flag.

"This market has run its course," she says on the latest episode of the Ad Lib podcast. "We're all anticipating there's going to be some sort of correction. I don't think it's going to be like the mortgage crisis, but we'll definitely feel it."

Webster knows a thing or two about recessions. Launched in 2005 in the ashes of Mad Dogs & Englishman, Walrus is a nearly 14-year-old agency that has worked with clients including General Mills, Amazon, Comedy Central, HBO and Staples, among others, all while remaining fiercely independent.

In 2009 the agency gained notoriety for its "expense-a-steak" stunt for client Maloney & Porcelli, for which it created a website that generated innocuous and realistic expense reports to hide those $100 steak lunches that fell out of favor during the recession. "That really kicked off a period of momentum for us," Webster says. "It really did save us."

Webster -- who co-founded the agency with her husband, chief creative officer Deacon Webster -- has more recently been outspoken on the conference circuit about the need to train more women to take on agency leadership roles.

"I do think we're making progress. What I don't think we're doing a good job at is preparing younger women for these roles," she says. "We're not teaching the business of the business: How do you actually run an ad agency? How does the business you're working on contribute to the health of the agency? Where is the agency going? How do you interpret a P&L? An MSA? Those sound really boring. For certain people, if you can identify them and mentor them and sponsor them, they can ultimately leapfrog."

Beyond that, about two years ago Walrus began offering media buying in its menu of services, something Webster says she wishes it had done from the very beginning.

"In the world that we live in, it doesn't make sense for media and creative to be separate. We of course hit some bumps along the way. It's a lot more complicated and complex, especially with programmatic," she says. "What I'm trying to build is a durable business. I'm much more interested in clients consolidating their business with us, even if they have smaller budgets, that are going to be with us for five years, versus being on a roster where there are a lot of politics."

As she prepares to head to Orlando for the ANA Masters of Marketing summit next week, she is also frank about her clients' biggest pain points.

"All clients, what's keeping them up at night," she says, "is, 'How do I figure out this insanely complex media landscape and really understand how to reach my audience and also put out work that means something and connects with people?'"

Lastly, she opens up about what it's like to work and live together as a married couple.

"Most of it is great. It's super easy to make decisions," she says. "We don't expose the agency to the domestic underbelly very often."

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