Challenges Facing Small Agencies Not Unique to U.S.

International Shops Deals With Booms, Busts and Tight Budgets

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Thomas Stringham
Thomas Stringham
It's a huge honor to bring the 2010 Ad Age International Small Agency of the Year title to Canada for the first time (um, make that honour). Our agency also won runner-up in the 1–10 Employees category, and it was exciting to be the only shop to win multiple hardware at the Small Agency Awards.

We may be the first Canadian shop to bring the Small Agency title home, but we're definitely not the first Canadian shop to be acknowledged by Ad Age. In 1991, the Baker Lovick team (now BBDO Canada), led by my father, Peter Stringham, president, along with Larry Tolpin, creative director, was the first Canadian agency to win Ad Age International Agency of the Year. So here's to history repeating itself, and thank you Dad, Larry, et al. for setting a great example for me to follow.

Shortly after winning International Small Agency of the Year, Ad Age invited me to participate as the first international contributor to the Small Agency Diary. I couldn't jump on board fast enough and I look forward to bringing an international flavour -- fit with Canadian spellings -- to issues affecting my fellow petite agencies. (That was my compulsory French reference.) Hopefully I can live up to the fine examples that Bart Cleveland, Tom Martin, Mark Brownstein, Phil Johnson, and the rest of the team have set. I do, after all, have the rest of the world on my shoulders here.

I founded Hot Tomali in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1998. Coincidentally, I learned recently that 1998 was the best year to start an agency, according to Crispin Porter & Bogusky founder Chuck Porter -- although we're still waiting for our first crack at a Super Bowl spot. Armed with an entrepreneurial vision, more enthusiasm than common sense, and not much experience (at the young age of 23, I had done one internship and a few freelance gigs), I took a flying leap straight from college into running my own shop. In those days, if you had a half decent portfolio and a good comprehension of marketing you could land contracts to build and promote websites for some pretty high-profile businesses, so that's what I did.

We identified pretty early that we needed to harness traditional marketing skills and digital channels in order to be competitive. It was the approach of strategy guided by ideas, not media (thanks for that, Bill Bernbach) that led us successfully through the explosion of the dot-com bubble, a couple of recessions, and most recently the widespread adoption of social media.

We have maintained a commitment to work on our business, as well as in it. We dedicate time each week for team members to meet one-on-one with senior staff to discuss how we can help them succeed. We also utilize a Kaizen philosophy, which encourages constant, incremental improvement. By breaking big, daunting challenges into manageable parts, we're able to accomplish big things with limited resources.

I have often credited our agency success to good timing, hard work and downright determination. The truth, however, is that we owe a lot to our peers in other small agencies that showed us that there are no size limits on potential. Every single one of the great agencies we all aspire to be like today was once small.

What sets good small agencies apart internationally is that they have learned to succeed in a completely different business environment. Tight budgets don't just scale production down in smaller markets -- they have an impact on the way ideas are approached. When money is tight, the concept relies almost entirely on the strength of the idea. There are no post-production miracles to fall back on.

In smaller markets you learn that in order to be successful you need to outsmart your competition rather than outspend them. You are usually forced to limit TV scripts to a few cuts (around here we call a locked shot a "Vancouver Special"), and you often need to cast actors with limited experience, if any (e.g. cousins, staff). You will often need to find ways to make cheap stock imagery look good enough to actually improve a concept rather than hinder it. Basically, you need to develop concepts that are so bulletproof, that nothing short of a natural disaster will prevent you from getting your shot.

Amazingly, these simplified low budget concepts have actually led to a revolution in design aesthetic, and through a process of reductionism, the best ads in the world are now often the ones that convey a message in the simplest way possible. Look at the "Dove Evolution" viral spot from Ogilvy & Mather in Toronto, which won two Cannes Lions Grand Prix a few years ago. The total budget for that spot was $135,000 (Canadian), I believe. Overall worldwide media exposure of this spot was estimated to be over $150 million -- not bad ROI for a spot that starred the art director's girlfriend. This campaign was a great inspiration for me as a small agency principal because it signified the limitless potential of a strong idea regardless of budget or medium.

As I have seen with many international award shows, judges will forgive a spot with limited production value as long as the idea is groundbreaking. We did a PSA called "NAIGIEM" years ago (one of our first ever TV ads) for the International Dyslexia Association. It cost about $50 to create. We shot it on a table in my office using a DV camcorder. I think maybe four or five people worked on the entire spot from conception to final production. I personally wore the AD, CD, director, DOP and producer hats. Oh yeah, and I was also the suit on the project and I recorded the audio backtrack in my living room using the same camera. That spot went on to receive recognition at numerous award shows, including shortlists at Cannes Lions and LIAA. It was featured as Ad Age's spot of the week, and I was contacted by C.J. Fraleigh, then general manager of Buick and Pontiac-GMC, to see if the spot could be incorporated into a presentation on excellence in advertising for the Stanford MBA program.

The bottom line is a strong, simple idea will shine through time and time again. The digital revolution is creating a power shift that is bringing a parity that independent agencies have never seen before. Gone are the days when you can blame your budget, or lack thereof, for your creative output. Great small agencies simply find ways to do more with less. That's a proposition that our clients generally welcome with open arms.

The good news for those small agencies reading this is that by proving your worth on lower budget projects, you will attract larger clients and bigger budgets. We've seen our share of boom and bust, but in the last 12 months we've received more national and international assignments than we did in our first 12 years in business put together. We're having a blast and we're working with "A-list" clients, yet with every blue-chip campaign we remain focused on staying true to the big, simple ideas that made us successful in the first place.

Thomas Stringham is the founding president and creative director of integrated marketing agency, Hot Tomali, the 2010 Ad Age International Small Agency of the Year. @ThomasStringham @HotTomali.
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