The times, they are a changin’… and they’re changin’ fast. With the traditional agency model under pressure and the monolithic giants struggling to adapt in the face of changing client needs, 2017 has been an exciting year for disruptive indies who are doing things differently. From hot new start-ups driven by creatives taking control of their destiny to longer-term innovators whose unusual approaches are starting to explode, there are plenty of free spirits about who are doing things differently. We spoke to some independent creative agencies who aren’t afraid to do their own thing.
“Why pay for the body of an agency when all you need are its brains?” So reads the website of Big Al’s Creative Emporium, an agency that pulls together top teams from a roster of freelance creatives, planners and producers. It’s not a new model – Big Al’s has been around for 13 years – but a growing freelance economy and clients’ hunger for more flexible ways of working, it’s a model whose time has come. Creative Partner Stef Jones tells us more.
LBB> This year we've seen the big holding companies kind of struggle while smaller, more nimble agencies that aren't so wedded to the traditional model seem to be thriving and popping up all over the place... why do you think that is?
Stef Jones> Flexibility. Small has it, big doesn’t. Clients want it.
With scale comes systems and processes. And they’re generally in place to stop big agencies falling over, not to produce a better product for the client.
If you don’t have to be a network, or even a large agency, why would you be - especially if you can get everything you want and nothing you don’t from a small shop?
I mean start-ups are ideal aren’t they? Senior, committed people focussing all their energies on you and your business needs. I guess the problems start when their attention turns to growth. And new business becomes their drive.
LBB> Big Al's Creative Emporium has been around for 13 years - what was the reaction of clients and the industry back then when you launched compared with now? Are mindsets changing?
SJ> Hard to say as we never really ‘launched’. We had no philosophy or mission or whatever it is start-ups have. We just had a way of working which was faster, cheaper, creativer. It was instinctive, creative if you like - it’s problem solving in itself: what’s the best way to work with this client to give them what they need?
I’d say bold and enlightened clients, or dare I say it, innocent clients untainted by the established ways of agencies back then got us straight away. I mean ‘top creatives, brilliant planners and senior producers’ is not hard to get is it? It was probably the classically trained marketeers who struggled with our offering back then. But with the likes of Unilever freeing up their rosters for the sake of diversity and innovation, it has perhaps given others the confidence to dip their toe in the smaller puddles?
LBB> From the outside it looks like a model whose time has truly arrived with the explosion of the freelance economy and the need to be constantly evolving and adapting more crucial than ever... I’m curious, does it feel like that from the inside?
SJ> Yes. But it’s not just about keeping the cost and distractions of a big machine down, it’s about keeping the quality and speed up. Finding better answers faster. That means managing the unmanageable: creativity. Tom and I are creatives - we know where the real talent is, what their talents are for, and which freelancers and moonlighters (the Creative Emporium) are most likely to crack a particular brief. And which planners and producers will help, not hinder things. Again it all comes back to flexibility and creativity.
LBB> How do you think the Big Al's approach benefits the creative output?
SJ> Tom and I have very close relationships with both our clients and our creatives. So, the distance between the person with the problem and the person with the solution is as short as it can be. We also happen to be commercially minded and frustrated planners so we speak both languages which is really why Big Al’s can be ‘faster, cheaper and creativer’.
There are no stragglers chipping in to justify their place at the table. There is no table. And no ladder to climb, so no one is holding on too tight. It’s just talented people doing what they love to do. A great environment for creative people and efficient producers. It’s undiluted creativity. Sometimes it’s immediate and so raw, which isn’t for every client. But for confident or trusting ones, it seems to be something they love to be close to.
LBB> What have been your creative highlights this year?
SJ> Banks’s graffiti. Particularly the advent calendar sprayed on the old factory on the ring round in Wolverhampton.
And the 'Lights, Kamara, Action!' campaign for Ladbrokes. Sports betting is a tough sector, hard to stand out or be liked. I think this campaign does both.
I love our Wren Kitchens radio work too. Always-on sales advertising, done with a warmth, wit and charm (as well as a bloody hard sell) which has delivered great results.
LBB> And business highlights?
SJ> Winning Ladbrokes, retaining Coral and winning the Daily Mail - all great British brands that my mum and dad have heard of! And all without having to change our size, culture or way of working.
ECDs Terri Meyer and Sandy Greenberg set up their agency after 25 years at the coal face of Madison Avenue. The pair peeled off to set up their own shop in 2010. Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength and in the summer, they were named Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year. A lot of their success comes down to the fact that their people are at the core of everything they do – after all their motto is "2 Founders. 48 entrepreneurs”. If you don’t believe us, their Glassdoor reviews are five stars across the board. Being decent and transparent is a moral choice that’s having a business pay off – the agency had some big new business wins this year, including Sunny Delight. Between 2015 and 2016 their revenue increased from $8 million to $13.6 million.
Oh, and this year they also started working for ‘Emojibator’. Sandy Greenberg tells us more.
LBB> How do you think the setup of Terri & Sandy is different from the traditional agency model? And do you see yourselves as an agency… or something different?
Sandy Greenberg> Everything about Terri & Sandy is different from the traditional agency model, from details like our magenta walls and chandeliers to the more significant matters like the fact that we are women-owned, creatively run, and all about breaking down silos and fostering collaboration.
Terri and I spent a large portion of our careers in the big agency/holding company world. When we decided to venture out on our own, we had an understanding of what was missing from the agency landscape, the significant pain points for clients and why employee morale was at an all-time low. We took all of our learning and launched Terri & Sandy. Our promise to our clients is "big, transformational ideas faster, smarter and more efficiently” and we hold ourselves up to that standard every single day.
Our promise to our staff is "You are vested in our success. Literally." We are one of the few agencies that offers a profit sharing program, so when the company has a good year, everyone has a good year. This makes our team feel valued and important. We know from over 20 years on Madison Avenue that many folks feel like cogs in the wheel. We wanted to change that and build a different kind of agency.
MaraNatha - Too Good for Jelly
LBB> We’ve seen this year that the big holding companies are really having a hard time… WPP and Publicis especially… is it a sign that the time has come for small independents working in new ways?
SG> Given the fiercely competitive landscape, clients are looking for innovative ways to work faster, smarter, and more efficiently - both within their organisations and with their partners. Many big agencies are not built to find brilliant solutions fast. There are too many layers, too many departments, too many egos. We believe a lot of clients are frustrated by this reality and are searching for new solutions.
As an independent agency, we don't have to call anyone at the holding company to get permission to do what's right for our clients.
If we have a good idea, we move on it quickly and make sure it gets heard at the top level of our clients. We also have control of our culture, which is of paramount importance to us. We are deeply committed to keeping our team motivated and happy. It shows in the work and our clients remark constantly on the talent, humour, and integrity they feel from our team.
LBB> You have an impressively low staff turnover rate – how do you work differently in such a way that encourages such a buy-in?
SG> Terri and I know an agency is only as good as its people. We set out to create a "culture of collaboration" built on mutual respect and transparency. We believe a great idea can come from anyone, anywhere, anytime - not just the creative department. There aren’t any silos here – we don’t put people into buckets and prohibit them from contributing to other disciplines outside of their areas of expertise. This benefits our clients greatly because our ideas are stronger, smarter, more compelling because all of the best minds contribute to them.
In addition, when we hire new people, we seek talent with a common denominator of an entrepreneurial mindset – our motto is "2 Founders. 48 entrepreneurs." We don’t believe – we KNOW – that empowering people to follow their passion and make a difference is the best recipe for a highly valuable employee. When you walk into our office you immediately sense the positivity and optimism; it is palpable. This is accomplished by carefully curating the folks who make up the fabric of our agency. Terri and I personally meet with everyone being considered to join our team.
We also know that life is something to be celebrated – whether it be a birthday, the birth of a child, or just a random Friday happy hour – and these moments provide a welcome relief from the pressures of our highly stressful, fast-paced industry.
LBB> You’ve had some impressive new business wins this year – is it your ambition to grow or is there like an ‘ideal’ size?
SG> We’re less concerned about the “size” of the agency versus partnering with clients with a shared sensibility - who value long-term partnerships, have a commitment to integrity, and share our passion to win in the marketplace.
We are most proud of the fact that most of our new business wins have come from clients we've partnered with in the past. This is a testament to the fact that our work is highly effective in the marketplace. For instance, Martin Grieder, CMO of the esteemed hearing solutions company, Sonova, was our Nestle client in his last role. The CEO of BJ's Wholesale Club, Chris Baldwin, was the President of Kraft snacks in a prior life. John LeBoutillier, who is the CEO and President at Harvest Hill, was also our client at Kraft. We started Terri & Sandy to work with people we respect, like and trust. That's what matters most to us.
LBB> It’s crazy that I even need to mention this but you are an agency founded by and named after two women! In this day and age that’s still not super common, sadly. Does that in and of itself make a difference in the overall vibe of the agency, the model and how it’s run? (Or am I being super reductive?!)
SG> I do think it's extremely relevant that our company is founded by women, and CREATIVE women at that. First, we provide a unique point of view on brands. Second, there’s a feeling here that you don’t have to “fit the mould” to succeed. Third, we aren’t just women, but people who are committed to creating a nourishing environment, which is not the norm. And lastly, our magenta walls and preponderance of chandeliers signal “This is not the Madison Avenue of the past.” Hopefully, there’s something refreshing about that.
When Matt Gooden, Sean Thompson and Ben Walker decided to launch their own agency Who Wot Why in the summer of 2016, they came up against some surprising stick from the wider London advertising scene. Creatives? Running a business themselves? They received more than their fair share of eye rolls and condescension. But the naysayers were proven wrong as it turned out that lean-but-experienced and direct-relationship-with-creatives was just what some clients were after. In spring, the agency launched its marquee piece of creative, a dreamy campaign about a swimmer who soars through outer space for giffgaff. And in June they won the multi-million Sky Bet account. This year has also seen a number of key hires, with Charles Faircloth joining as Client Partner.
LBB> When you launched, you were described as the 'anti-agency' - what did that mean to you?
Sean Thompson> That phrase was coined by our client Ross Sewley (Head of Sky Bet Brand). Sky Bet went to many agencies and everyone said they were different but they turned out all the same, whereas we didn’t say we were different and they thought we were.
Matt Gooden> I guess we’re the opposite of what people might expect. We quite like the label. It positions us as an alternative to the mainstream.
Ben Walker> Agencies have become a bit homogeneous. There’s a difference in our process, there’s a willingness to collaborate in order to create great work.
Habito - Machines Sort, Humans Talk
LBB> How do you think the set-up of Who Wot Why is different from the traditional agency model?
Charles Faircloth> The three founders are executive creative directors, there’s no other agency in Britain that’s led in that way. Three creative heads involved in everything is definitely unique and it works.
BW> I would say we’re creatively led. The three founders are all creatives. It shows where our emphasis lies. I would add, none of this means we don’t value other disciplines. That’s why we have people like Charles, Katie and Marissa here. They are vital and as we grow we will keep on adding to those disciplines. But it does mean the emphasis is on.
ST> It’s true, what makes us different is the three founders are executive creative directors, and that means we’re more creatively led than most, but we are all highly strategic and very business minded. We always start with the commercial problem, after that we plan to deliver famous work.
LBB> And being an agency run by creative people, dealing with clients and the business yourself seemed to come up against some friction from more traditional quarters - why do you think that was?
CF> Because they’re trying to protect their own model. Our model goes against the infantilising of creatives. There’s a traditional approach where the closer you get to the client, the fear is that you’re more likely to do things the ‘client’s way’. The thought is that decoupling creative from that protects the creative, but actually we believe that getting closer to the business helps unlock the best work.
ST> I’ve never understood why creatives are belittled like that. In the States it is the norm that creatives have the serious business conversations. It’s why the US continually leads the way, in both creative and effective advertising. To be honest, the British traditional quarters have fallen behind and it’s up to them to catch up.
Marissa Jennings> Yes, there’s been a tendency to patronise creatives. Creatives are strategical and business-minded grown-ups. No-one would question three architects, filmmakers or fashion designers setting up a business, but three advertising creatives? Creatives have been kept in their place for too long. I think it’s very specific to this industry.
LBB> What have been the big challenges that you've had to work through or figure out as an agency entirely set up by creatives?
BW> We’ve had the same challenges as any start-up in their first year. We don’t see being creatively led to be a negative.
ST> There were challenges that we had to face that we hadn’t had to so much before, and it was important to get up to speed and be good at lots of different tasks. The question is, why shouldn’t we be able to do that?
MJ> One challenge was to make sure that everyone became as close to new business as possible. In traditional agencies, and many non-traditional ones, that simply does not happen.
LBB> Since then you've brought on Charles Faircloth - what's he brought to the mix?
BW> Charles has brought a bit of rigour and stability to our biggest client and a different approach. Oh, and also a different pair of trainers every day.
ST> Being creatively led doesn’t mean we only have creative people here. Charles is the consummate account man, he has a brilliant strategic brain and knows how to make the perfect cuppa. These are all vital skills if you want to grow a successful creative business.
MG> He’s the perfect client partner and we’re delighted to have him on board. The same with Katie Savelli. A fantastic account person who takes pride in the work because she helps create it. Ben Mills and Mat Butterfield are brilliant creatives, but importantly they are comfortable with clients and have a good angle on creative strategy too.
MJ> Everyone who works here needs to be interested in all aspects of the business, regardless of their core strength.
LBB> How does running your own place your own way differ from working for a big network agency?
MG> We’re in charge of our own destiny, which is exciting. We’re not answering to some faceless person on the other side of the world.
ST> We decide when to say yes or no. That is a very powerful place to be.
LBB> This year has been really great for the agency - giffgaff in particular was a glorious bit of creative and a really show-stopping film. From the outside it felt like a real statement of intent and a real moment that showed the agency had really arrived. I’m curious what it felt like for you guys internally?
ST> It was unexpected from a start-up at only eight months old to deliver work on that scale. To write and direct it was a big statement too. Having the swimmer spring from a diving board into space was a huge launchpad for our company too.
BW> We always want to do work that gets noticed, so that was great! They’ve had some great results at giffgaff from it too.
ST> We had been half-jokingly labelled as a creative consultancy, which we didn’t get. So when giffgaff came out, it really defined who we were. We broke out of the small box we’d been put into.
MJ> Someone said it was ‘a big brand idea nicely told’. I’d be inclined to agree.
BW> It was great working with a client who was really behind the work. It felt very satisfying to do a huge bit of work, and for the client to get positive results from it.
ST> We talk about how “breaking one rule makes brands famous” and that film is a great example of that philosophy. When does a brand ever talk about people leaving? It’s a highly provocative thought.
LBB> This year you won the Sky Bet account - what was the crux of the pitch to them?
BW> Collaboration. Understanding the betting market and the commercial problem. Understanding the audience. Teaming up with media agency Bountiful Cow was a key part of it. We went in as a rank outsider and came out as the only answer for them.
MG> The knowledge of the agency was second to none and the fact that the comms planning was connected to the creativity, which was connected to the commercial problem solving, really worked. I think they suddenly realised that we weren’t a risk. Not going with us was a risk.
ST> Our willingness to work so openly with them. They actually said, ‘the fact we weren’t advertising wankers really helped’. We were able to put together a team to collectively solve their problems, mixed with the high levels of creativity that they had been craving.
LBB> What are your other highlights this year?
BW> Habito and Lily’s Kitchen were great projects to work on. Brilliant brands and we are delighted with the work. They all got very interesting reactions and very positive feedback. Again, they had good strategic thinking at their core and strong rule breaking creative. Habito was a very different offering for the mortgage market, which can be quite dry.
CF> Habito had a big concept attached to it. I also think it is no coincidence that there is an entrepreneurial spirit in all of our clients.
ST> The people that we’ve been able to get on board. Being able to grow and hire people with similar philosophies. It’s really exciting to get people like that on board.
MG> Making something creative and making money almost never go hand in hand, but this year we’ve done that. That’s no mean feat.
BW> We didn’t have overheads. No swanky offices, no debt, no backing and then we brought in some great business. If that’s not business-minded and responsible, then I don’t know what is.
LBB> What's on the cards for 2018?
ST> Growth and bringing more brilliant people in. Winning more great clients and continuing to make great work for those we have.
BW> Getting Sky Bet to number one in the betting and gaming market.
MG> To continue to grow our offering and keep the focus on great work. I guess keeping your creative integrity whilst growing is the greatest challenge but it’s one that we’re ready to face!
MJ> Blind dates that turn into romances on the client front.
LBB> You had a few people join you - what's your goal or ambition in terms of the size and scope of the agency? Is it about staying lean and nimble or do you have your eye on something bigger?
MG> Keeping creative integrity is more important than scale but we’d always want to be lean and nimble however big we get.
ST> We believe that we tackle a big problem and then come up with a big answer. As a result we create work that is bigger than our size, we’re not a boutique agency by any means.
MJ> I’d say that we’re always going to be ambitious, whilst keeping creative integrity and being lean and nimble. Our doors will always be open to new clients and new talent.
ST> We’ll be as big as we need to be and no bigger.