In Today's High-speed Economy, a New Model Boutique Agency

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In the '80s, you couldn't get up in the morning without tripping over a new boutique advertising agency crawling underfoot.

They made great copy with their savage attacks on the status quo, invocations of the spirit of Bernbach, solemn affirmations that they'd put the fun back into advertising, righteous claims that creativity conquered all. We scribes dutifully gave them a launch column, listed their wins, followed their antics and recorded their demise. By my count, only three true boutiques from that period survive privately held, non-merged and successful: Deutsch, Kirshenbaum & Bond and Wieden & Kennedy.

Few, if any, new ones are springing up. Even small clients desire an international presence, a service few startups can provide. Young creative talent is drawn to the glamour of the Internet. So, too, the creative itch is somewhat easier to scratch these days at large agencies, tamping down the urge to flee. Today, bigness rules.

Which is why Shepardson, Stern & Kaminsky is such a counterintuitive place -- a boutique evolved not from a giant, non-creative parent but from a fabled political consultancy. While the New York firm has already sold a portion of itself to an outsider, the acquirer is a Hollywood talent agency, not an established marketing communications company. These relationships are significant: SSK's pro-genitors believed advertising was but one weapon in the communications arsenal; no matter how small, a good marketing services provider, they believed, needed a full armory.

"It's still Scott and David's vision," Rob Shepardson, a founding partner of SSK, told me not long ago. He was referring to Scott Miller and David Sawyer, partners in the Sawyer/Miller Group, the political consulting firm that leveraged its work for top-drawer Democratic clients -- including Senators John Glenn and Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- into a thriving international and commercial business during the 1980s.

"We're all about strategy and integrated marketing -- the same core idea to this day, he said. Three practice areas have grown out of that: advertising, public relations and marketing consulting, and now we're adding a digital capability."

I thought his firm might represent the future of the boutique. The late '90s and the early '00s have seen an explosion of startups. Unlike the tiny clients that gravitated toward the earlier boutiques, though, the new companies, backed by impatient VCs, want more than a few flashy ads. They desire (as faithful readers know) fast branding. This has thrown open opportunities for marketing partners that are small and nimble, but can provide a wider range of services than specialist shops are accustomed to providing.

"People say, `How can you do PR and advertising and consulting? Pick one,' " Mr. Shepardson said. "But in the New Economy dot-coms want it all. And when they go to a Razorfish they're told, `We don't do branding.' "

So since its founding in 1993 (the principals fled Sawyer/Miller when it was sold to Bozell and merged with a PR agency) SSK has grown outward, turning itself into a full-service agency. It hired senior executives whose backgrounds represent the breadth needed for truly integrated marketing: an ad chief from Angotti Thomas Hedge (one of those '80s boutiques); a PR maven from the merged-into-Ogilvy Adams & Rinehart agency; a marketing consulting chief from what-used-to-be-called Grey Entertainment.

SSK has fully accepted the idea that we live (as my colleague Michael Wolf puts it) in an "entertainment economy" in which a company's communications efforts must engage customers' esthetic sensibilities. Indeed, when SSK sold a portion of itself last year to the Creative Artists Agency, it was in part because it recognized the talent agency's ability to provide it needed "cultural intelligence." As more companies graft entertainment capabilities onto their offerings, CAA's role could grow. "CAA has a mountain of old scripts that didn't work for TV or the movies. It's a gold mine, waiting to be tapped into," Mr. Shepardson told me.

It's a different model for a boutique, but it may be the most relevant to an economy where new technology has speeded up the life cycle of companies -- and made the war for attention a battle fought on many fronts at once.

Mr. Rothenberg can be reached at [email protected]

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