Small shops beg to differ

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At the American Association of Advertising Agencies' April meeting, four MegaConglomerate-HoldingCompany-SuperAgencies attended. John Dooner, head of Interpublic Group of Cos., spoke for them. I'm deputizing myself to speak for the rest of us who were there. Dooner cited a chilling statistic: The Big Four holding companies account for 82% of U.S. ad revenues, leaving 18% for Grey, Havas, a couple of large independents and what the Four A's calls STMS-small-to-medium-size-agencies.

On the meeting's final morning, we STMS's huddled together to share ways to kick butt. I'd expected a room full of pessimistic whiners, but in the time it would take Dooner to list his acquisitions, we shared business-building ideas, damn good ones, from 30 or 40 independent owners, mostly founders, for whom the difference between prosperity and failure is a WPP Group rounding error. Maybe we have the false bravado of a mom-and-pop store before Wal-Mart opens. Or maybe we're the wave of the future.

Holding companies were set up to make gobs of money, to finesse pesky client conflicts, like, say, Ford and Chrysler, and to integrate services. But some of the more clever giant clients-the Cokes and GMs of the world-have said, in effect: Why confine ourselves to one global agency network if the holding company owns three or four? If five creative teams are good, 50 must be the ultimate in wallpaper. (And who is the go-to guy hired to do the "save-the-account" creative? Gordon Bowen, a freelancer!)

Why smaller shops succeed

Thus was born the SuperAgency, where day-to-day account management now is at the holding company. That's why Dooner at the Four A's meet proudly mentioned attending a Coke shoot. But wait! If this approach is good enough for the largest clients, why not for the $50 million-to-$100 million little guys? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, if all this consolidation is so beneficial, why are so many of the STMS's thriving with national, name-brand clients?

First, we give clients the same services holding companies do. We have groups or subsidiaries (or just guys in adjoining cubicles) for direct, PR, interactive and brand strategy. Unbelievable as it sounds, they actually work together! Clients are constantly amazed.

Second, our names are usually on the door. The buck doesn't stop in London or New York or Paris but with the guy who pitched the business, works on it day-to-day and whose fate the client helps control. Third, most of us belong to international agency networks, such as Worldwide Partners, so we have affiliates in every major market on the planet. Fourth, most of our clients are "challenger" brands, and we're forced to outthink and outsmart agencies where 30-second TV production budgets are the size of most independent feature-film budgets.

Finally, while our larger brethren moan about lack of CEO-client contact, we pick up the phone or get on a plane. We know CEOs, and we make sure they know we're helping grow their brands and businesses.

Mary Wells Lawrence recently said, "The agency was once about miracles, talent and love for the advertising business." Big bureaucracies aren't set up for miracles. Kowtowing to Wall Street and quarterly numbers doesn't foster much love. If you question why great size and great work are not always synonymous, get to know us.

Bob Gardner is president-executive creative director, Gardner Geary Coll, San Francisco, ([email protected]).

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