Small Agency Awards 2009

Small Agency Awards: McGarrah Jessee

Austin Shop Is Southwest Agency of the Year

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NEW YORK ( -- McGarrah Jessee's commitment to a broad definition of branding was immediately apparent to the cofounder of an East Coast hot shop, who stopped by the Austin-based agency for a few beers this past spring. "I didn't know any agencies out there still have relationships like this with their clients," Rick Webb, cofounder of the Barbarian Group, wrote n the interactive agency's blog.

COSTA DEL MAR: McGarrah Jessee conducted an 'authenticity audit' of all the communications for the national sunglasses brand. Sales rose 13% in 2008.
COSTA DEL MAR: McGarrah Jessee conducted an 'authenticity audit' of all the communications for the national sunglasses brand. Sales rose 13% in 2008.
The 68-person shop won Mr. Webb's envy for going "super deep" with each of its clients. McGarrah Jessee handles everything from retail design and digital to brand ads for clients such as regional burger chain Whataburger, Texas-based Frost Bank and the near-national Shiner beer.

For Shiner, McGarrah Jessee has designed bottles, the brewer's social-networking platform and the guerrilla campaign that stuck its tongue out at a big beer brand encroaching on its home turf. To one-up Heineken after it snagged the Austin City Limits music festival beer sponsorship from the local favorite that was too small to compete, McGarrah Jessee created beer holders to keep the green Heinekens cold and cover over the intruders with Shiner branding.

Cofounder Bryan Jessee calls his agency "keeper of the brand flame" for its clients. Mr. Jessee, an art director, teamed up with account-minded Mark McGarrah in 1996 . "If clients are going to do something that faces the consumer, they want us to be a part of it," Mr. Jessee said.

And this design-minded, beyond-ads approach has paid off. McGarrah Jessee saw revenue jump more than 30% in 2008 to $9.9 million and was growing in 2009 until it decided to resign its Central Market business, a unit of supermarket chain HEB, because the client came up with a down-market strategy.

For Frost, McGarrah Jessee created a prototype bank and had its hands on the architectural and interior design down to the couches.

For national sunglasses brand Costa del Mar, the agency designs everything from store display cases to its e-commerce site and reports that, while sunglasses sales were down 11% in 2008, Costa saw sales jump 13% and profits increase 15%. Costa del Mar VP-Marketing Al Perkinson said McGarrah Jessee is responsible for the "authenticity audit" of all brand communications.

"They're built as a brand shop," Mr. Perkinson said. "They don't take the high-volume, high-dollar cash-cow clients. They want to manage brands. They've been real disciplined with their growth strategy to wait until those brand opportunities come along."


It's not easy to make plumbing funny, but this 27-person Albuquerque, N.M., shop has done it with its Mr. Rooter work, which does an amazing job of creating a brand for a business that's not easy to differentiate. The agency can also brag about strong anti-tobacco work and leaders in (Small Agency Awards judge) Bart Cleveland and Steve McKee that keep the agency in the news.

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