NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In October 2000, Mike Gerfen and Jane Tamraz finalized the deal on their purchase of Kalamazoo, Mich., agency Biggs Gilmore, where they had previously been account leads. That left barely enough time for a champagne toast before the economy collapsed around them.
As many of the agency's clients struggled, the partners had to lay off about half the 100-person staff. "From the start, we were operating in a hole," said the agency's president, Mr. Gerfen.
Today, Biggs Gilmore is a 106-person digital player with a second office in Chicago. Reporting $10.1 million in 2009 revenue, the shop is the interactive agency of record for brands such as Heinz Ketchup, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Pop-Tarts, Cottonelle, Corn Pops and Morningstar Farms, among other consumer-package-goods titans.
What happened in the interim was that Biggs Gilmore leveraged the primary advantage of its small stature: dexterity. While the agency was hemorrhaging traditional advertising opportunities, the partners recognized the opportunity to help companies navigate the digital realm.
Biggs Gilmore started building what it calls a "development department" that now boasts project-management capacities, a slew of awards and expertise in search marketing, social media and analytics.
In 2003, the agency's first digital brand assignment for Kellogg's Apple Jacks was a turning point. That Apple Jacks already had a brand agency of record, Leo Burnett, was fine by Biggs Gilmore, one of whose strengths is a penchant for realism.
"As an agency in a place called Kalamazoo, we recognized that we were never going to become a brand agency for Fortune 100 CPG companies," said Ms. Tamraz, CEO. "But we saw an opportunity, through our digital competencies, to live alongside the brand-agency relationships those companies already had."
The 2010 "Roll Poll" for Cottonelle, a client for which the agency collaborates with agency of record JWT and media agency MindShare, allowed users to vote in an online debate about toilet-paper-rolling preferences that spilled onto Facebook and Twitter. In three months, the campaign for an otherwise low-involvement category attracted 2.2 million video downloads and 3,800 daily social-media interactions.
"They box above their weight," said Mark Baynes, VP-global chief marketing officer, Kellogg Co. "They're a middleweight [company] boxing like a heavyweight, with work that's reflective of a far bigger agency."
In 2009, Biggs Gilmore launched Kellogg's first all-digital effort (it ran without TV or print to support it) with Pop-Tarts' "LOL" campaign. Featuring online advertising, videos, downloadable content and games, in less than a year it generated more than 1.3 million Facebook fans. That earned it the No. 16 spot in MSNBC/Slate's Facebook 50, a ranking of Facebook-savvy companies.
One reason the agency has thrived in the face of a recession is its portfolio of consumer-package-goods brands, which historically perform well in a downturn. But Ms. Tamraz credits something else, too. Biggs Gilmore's early years were like a recession-survival boot camp for the management team, which developed the habit of responding to market trends ahead of the curve. "Since 2000, we've been on a journey of continuous change," she said.
RUNNER-UP: PARTNERS & NAPIER
It's not often that the word "partners" appears in front of top agency executives in an agency's name. But at Partners & Napier, the name is a reflection of the agency's philosophy.
"We fundamentally believe that no one is successful on their own," said Sharon Napier, president-CEO of Partners & Napier. "It's about the collection of people to make the work successful."
In six years, Partners & Napier has grown from 40 employees to 144, with 2009 revenue of $17 million -- more than a 14% jump in revenue from 2008. Not bad, especially considering the recession.
The partnership philosophy at the agency extends to the agency's relationships with clients. Leslie Dance, worldwide VP-brand marketing and communications at Kodak, said, the shop "is an extension of our own team. Our brand is in their DNA. I think you can contribute a lot of our success to the partnership with Partners & Napier."
Partners & Napier created a campaign for Kodak called "People Against Big Ink," a website for Kodak inkjet printers. The website aggregated consumer commentary about Kodak and its competition in the inkjet-printer space from social media, blogs and customer-review sites.