Company Profiles in association withCompany Profiles on LBB

How Do Independent Agencies Scale with Freedom?

Advertising Agency
Denver, USA
John Harris, CEO of Worldwide Partners, explains why more agencies are looking to the independent network’s model for fluid growth and collaboration

In the past 12 months, Worldwide Partners Inc. (WPI), has attracted 12 new agency partners, bringing the independent agency network to 75 agencies in 43 countries. CEO John Harris says the need for fluid scale is driving agencies to the reverse holding company model.

“I had three urgent calls from prospective partners this week, all desperate for different sources of scale,” says John. “One needs to cover international markets for clients. Another needs to deliver CX and video production they’re not set up for. And another needs strategic expertise in media. All of them need it right now.”

While the heightened urgency is new, the scenario is consistent. “Say I'm a $3 million a year web development agency on pace to double revenue in two years,” says John. “I'm going to do that by focusing on what I do well, but I also realize that my clients are asking me to do more. I need to go outside the box that makes me great to scale my capabilities, footprint, and knowledge base without selling or taking on debt.”

Above: Worldwide Partners April 2022 global summit

Worldwide Partners agencies own the network, so they operate independently and interdependently to boost business for clients. Working with the likes of The Union in the UK, Tombras in the US, Advance in Denmark, Propeg in Brazil, and WE Marketing in China, WPI partners leverage each other for opportunities, ideas, talent and executive support. 

LBB sat down with John and WPI partners John Keane, CEO of Ardmore, and Libby Brockhoff, founding partner of Odysseus Arms, to find out how it works. 

Not in it Alone

“I ran an agency myself,” says John. “It can be a pretty lonely business, and agency leaders are expected to have all the answers. Having a community of peers to lean on, who openly share learnings and best practices in a sage and non-competitive environment, is invaluable.” 

WPI partner Mering, a travel and tourism specialist, faced the challenge of responsibly steering the agency and protecting its staff when the business was slashed almost overnight due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mering CEO Dave Mering shared in a partner roundtable all the moves he was making to stay afloat. After the meeting, Rick Milenthal, CEO of The Shipyard, gave him a call. Months later, The Shipyard and Mering joined forces. 

Above: The Shipyard's Rick Milenthal and Mering's Dave Mering

“Mering and The Shipyard brought together complementary footprints in the U.S.,” says John. “Mering had brand strategy and creative on the West Coast while The Shipyard had data and media expertise in the middle of the country. A situation of ‘I may have to close down’ turned into an acquisition (functioning like a merger) that created stability for staffers and one bigger, stronger agency.”

The acquisition demonstrated a willingness to share that distinguishes WPI partners. “My comfort level for sharing and being vulnerable was very, very low when I worked in holding companies,” says John. “I was competing with all the other agencies in those networks. Here we are non-competitive agencies legitimately trying to help each other.”

It’s a sentiment shared by John Keane, CEO of Ardmore in Belfast, who tells LBB: “Agency leadership isn’t a lonely experience for me because I have open access to agency partners, and we share absolutely every experience – positive and negative – with each other. When we talk there are no bad ideas, no judgement, but there is always someone amongst our 70 plus partners who has been around the corner I’m facing. They’re willing to help. I always sound out partners confidentially on key decisions, often before I engage my Ardmore team.”

Above: John Keane, CEO of Ardmore, was WPI chairman for the 2021 fiscal year

Winning Business 

In an age where clients want elite specialists and multinational coverage, many independents have trouble competing in big pitches against holding companies with diversified offerings and offices around the world. When WPI partners team up for broader assignments, they lean on elite agencies with the credibility of a longstanding network. 

“When one of our partners can’t 100% fulfil a client brief alone, they know there is an agency within the network that can come on board, support, and share a mutual benefit,” says John. “They know their partner’s first question will be ‘how can I help,’” not ‘how much can we make?’ And clients won’t think they’re a band just cobbled together.” 

John tells LBB how one of Worldwide Partners’ US agencies – R&R Partners – beat out holding company agencies for a large global transportation brand that wanted to develop culturally relevant, localised content for China, Europe and the Middle East. Through the network, R&R Partners created production hubs in Beijing, Dubai and Prague

“They say ‘you can’t be all things to all people’ as an agency, but WPI gets us super close,” says Libby Brockhoff, CEO of Odysseus Arms. “With 75 partners, we can hyper deliver on a client problem by coupling with complementary specialists. So while we’re 47 people, we can respond to an RFP as a giant agency with power and efficiency clients appreciate.”

For all the virtual advances reshaping how advertising gets done, it’s still a personal business. While scale, talent and freedom may attract agencies to the network’s model, it’s trust and community that keep agencies in Worldwide Partners.

Above: Odysseus Arms CEO Libby Brockhoff (center) with team and WPI CEO John Harris (far left)

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