Creativity often requires freedom. When you have a hierarchical structure, it can be easy to feel as though there is always someone watching over your shoulder and directing your every move. In today's hyper-competitive media environment, original ideas, unfiltered thinking, and entrepreneurial instincts are often what drive success. Although small agencies are often viewed as simply the cheap alternative, many independent agencies are finding that their lack of corporate structure and hierarchy is actually the foundation for profound and unique advantage.
Small Egos, Huge Hearts
"Nothing will change." said the liar. I bet that phrase has been uttered every time a dynamic independent agency has been acquired by a holding company. But it’s not true. Because it can’t be true. Because ultimately an agency will always take the shape of its owners’ incentives. And when the owners’ incentives are solely financial, inevitably an agency will reflect that.
But you’re an agency owner! And you like money!” you say indignantly. And you are right. I am an owner and I do like money. But I also like other things. I like working with people I like. I like working for clients I respect. I like working on projects that interest and inspire me. I like these things so much, in fact, that almost every day I make decisions that prioritize them over my desire for sweet, sweet money. So what does that mean? It means a tight-knit group of employees with small egos and huge hearts. It means collaborative relationships with clients where their successes and failures ring and sting as our own. And it means not once in 15 years has the alarm clock gone off and I’ve muttered, “Crap.”
Since starting Meers Advertising over 20 years ago, I’ve come to many crossroads where I had to make hard decisions. 2008 was one of those crossroads. With the economy stalling, I faced three options: close, sell, or reinvent. Despite the temptation of selling to another agency or parent company, I chose to keep Meers independent, which has given us a unique set of advantages.
We’ve come to realize this business is not about us; it’s about our clients. As an independent agency, we have the privilege of choosing the clients we work with, the ones we pass on, and the relationships we terminate. We look for clients who demonstrate a similar passion as we do. Because we know we’ll have greater success for both parties in the end.
We also have the ability to make choices that are right for our own agency/culture, including when to make entrepreneurial hires and how to reinvest our profit. Since we continue to come to crossroads, we are able to shift our strategic direction without approval from another company. This allows us to focus on our own people and our clients. To encourage them to push themselves. To raise the bar. To love something.
The operative word is ‘independent,’ but the advantages go well beyond an agency's ownership structure. It’s also about the people. In my experience, independent agencies attract a different kind of talent. We have people in every function who value independence, empowerment and entrepreneurship. They’re not afraid of accountability. And they don’t want to be swallowed up by a massive organization where their contributions aren't visible or recognized.
Independent agencies aren't required to live quarter-to-quarter. We are our own stakeholders and stockholders. We can take calculated risks, work with clients we truly want and partner with suppliers we know will deliver. Independents tend to be lean, mean marketing machines, and bureaucracy isn’t something we worry about. Working with an agency with a who’s who client roster, multi-million dollar billings and dozens of locations may be right for some companies. But we challenge the “bigger is better” mentality and believe clients should reconsider that line of thinking. Maybe it’s time to invite a qualified independent agency to the table.
Flexibility. Pragmatism. Speed. Entrepreneurial instincts. Dare I say independence? We can make a decision on the fly to activate research, do spec creative (or not), send the entire agency out to do mystery shopping or even compete within a category, should we a reason to do so. Example: if we see an opportunity to do work for a client that might be considered too small or not attractive by "procurement," we can go after it.
Simply put, there are no holding company rules and no one to ask permission from. My father started the company 47 years ago and today, my brother and I own the company and run it as a family business with an open-door policy: any employee can walk in, make a suggestion or pitch an idea, and if we like it, we'll do it. Kids are welcome. Dogs are welcome. We've even had a hedgehog here. And, because management has been steady and consistent, we have been successful in establishing a culture that is clearly defined and attractive. The net result is we enjoy long-term relationships with our clients and our employees, welcoming many of them back after they see how the other agencies are run.
It's not so much that an agency is independent, it's that all the people working there have chosen an independent agency. These types are often more novel thinkers, thrive on risk, and generally produce more transformative ideas.
For 20 years, remaining an autonomous top-tier New York agency has allowed us to quickly adapt to ever-changing market demands and client needs. The Halo Group is a branding and marketing communications agency that’s led by an executive team of business, branding, public relations, social, digital, and traditional creative and media experts who work collaboratively as a single team.
This truly collaborative business model fosters an exponential number of ideas that can be generated from anywhere inside the agency or in partnership with our clients. Corporate, more hierarchical structures, are antithetical to the flat, carefully balanced environment needed to foster innovative and independent thinking. In many cases, corporate agendas drive decision-making, which may not result in the best end benefit for the client.
The benefits of Halo Group’s independent status is an ability to remain focused on client needs as well as new areas of profitability, and to make necessary internal changes at an accelerated pace. And, because the personality of The Halo Group is influenced by the independent entrepreneurial spirit of our founders, it attracts like-minded professionals who are bold, solutions oriented and want a direct line drawn from their efforts business to growth.
A lot can change in 50 years, but for WHITE, one of D.C.’s largest independent advertising agencies, one thing that hasn't is their passion for the power of ideas. In 1964, founders Nolan, Duffy, and White opened shop in a small Georgetown office where more than ad advertising agency was formed, a culture was created, and the course for the future was set.
Founded in a time when design reigned supreme, WHITE has evolved to the digital world of today. As an independent advertising agency, WHITE has continuously protected the ability to embrace creativity and stay nimble, allowing them to lead clients through the ever-changing marketing mix. Part of what makes being an independent agency so rewarding is the opportunity to pick the clients to work with. WHITE supports not only large clients, but also smaller clients that serve as the backbone of our region and our country. Helping these clients grow creates jobs, which supports the economy and, in turn, the agency. To WHITE, being in the independent advertising business means the opportunity to control the agency and working with businesses whose efforts they believe in – part of what brought them a half century this year.
Because Planit is independent, we allow our true ideas rise to the top, unfiltered, unedited by someone else’s agenda. We can truly put effort towards solving our clients’ needs while remaining 100% true to ourselves. This has resulted in some amazing client partnerships and campaigns with big brands. Most recently focused on reinvigorating the brand, most of which have been around for decades and are still leading their categories. We challenge them to take a leap and rethink how they portray themselves. It results in Planit helping to breath new life into our clients.
Being independent allows us to run our agency in a way that is best for our business, employees, and clients. We are able to staff our agency with senior level people so that our clients are never assigned a junior team. Bouvier Kelly consistently provides a good bang for your buck and prides itself on things like collaboration, honest relationships, having fun, taking risks, and thinking both in and outside of the proverbial box. Being independent allows us to choose clients that have the same values and philosophies we do. It’s the best way we know how to do business and believe this is one of the primary reasons we are celebrating our 40th anniversary this year!
For more than three decades, Phelps has been one of California’s largest independent integrated advertising and PR agencies, and that independence has allowed the company to deliver great work for deserving clients. In order to provide better client service, we have fewer layers of hierarchy for faster delivery, more personal satisfaction, and better transparency. Due to the size of our teams and our flat organizational structure, associates are able to directly contribute to and own more of the projects they produce for clients.
Being independent allows our agency to be agile and adapt quickly to the changing business environment. As a result, we can offer more competitive pricing for our clients and better work satisfaction for our associates. Lastly, our biggest advantage at Phelps is that we have the freedom to choose deserving clients carefully without pressure from shareholders and stock analysts. This, in turn, allows our associates to take great pride in what they do, enjoy balanced lives and produce impactful work.
Mega-agency holding companies are defined by their infrastructure: hundreds of different agencies that were appealing at the time of purchase because they were doing the latest and the greatest. Problem is in today's marketing environments — characterized by speed, innovation and chaos -- yesterday's latest and greatest is tomorrow's irrelevance. Most importantly, an agency's advice is inherently biased by a need to funnel dollars to in-network solutions, i.e. infrastructure predetermines solutions. When by definition, the most innovative audience engagement tools are being birthed nearly every day by 5 person start-ups who have never heard of a "creative brief" or an "account executive."
We launched Mechanica based on rethinking the legacy-bound "mechanics of branding" that will forever hamper the abilities of giant holding companies. Our approach combines what we call "deep strategy" with a creatively expansive, collaboration based executional model. We have 20 full time "Mechanics" working with 30-40 executional partners during a given month. Our model combines the strategic chops of a large agency with the unlimited executional expansiveness and flexibility that an AE in a big agency network trying to cajole a network partner to work on a project can only dream about.
Being employee-owned, we aren’t driven by responsibility to outside investors. We make decisions based on what’s best for our clients and our employees. We allocate our resources to our business rather than having to send a fixed revenue amount to a parent. We invest in talent to build our capabilities. We also aren’t forced to deliver arbitrary profit amounts, giving us better pricing flexibility for our clients.
All our service groups (media, digital, PR, etc.) and offices work under one P&L, not as independent profit centers, so there’s no in-fighting for revenue. We offer our clients the best approaches for their needs and can be much more innovative in our solutions. We aren’t managed by some distant party with an approval hierarchy and little feel for our clients’ needs. Instead, our senior management is directly involved with our clients’ businesses, and we make business decisions with a full understanding of our client’s needs. As an independent, entrepreneurial company, we move quickly and respond to client needs quickly. Staffers who’ve worked at holding companies tell us we have a better client-service culture than the holding companies because our senior management is in touch with the day-to-day business and our clients’ needs.
Objectivity is the context that our independence creates that is most important to us and most valued by our clients. It allows us to give the advice that is best for our clients and their brands, rather than what might be best for us. It makes for better work, happier staff, and repeat business from clients whose trust is critical to our growth.
We’ve been an independent creative agency for the past 10 years and, more than anything, our independence has allowed us to grow on our own terms. We go after clients we’re truly passionate about, we choose our partners, and we invest in what we think is right for our clients and our agency. These are huge advantages when we’re up against a non-independent agency whose hands may be tied in some way. Our independence also means we can be nimble and flexible when and where it counts. We can make quick decisions without wading through layers of approvals. We’re not driven by the need to meet quarterly numbers. And, when we walk into a pitch as an independent agency, we bring that swagger. I think clients respect us for charting our own path and maintaining our autonomy.