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What Independent Agencies of the Future Will Need to Compete

By:   Date posted: July 3, 2014

independent-agenciesIt can often be intimidating to be the little guy. The larger players have the big wallets, impressive offices, big name clients, and, of course, the advantages that come solely with their name recognition. How can independent agencies compete?

Well, many small agencies are finding great success, not by competing with the major players head on, but by changing the game. They are finding that it is actually their “disadvantages” that enable them to think outside the box, face challenges head on, and continuously deliver creative, forward-thinking solutions to propel their clients’ success. So the question is, what exactly does the small, independent agency of the future need in order to succeed?

Make Clients Number One

If You’re Not Innovating, You’re Dying: A small agency can survive and grow in a competitive market by over-servicing its clients and delivering strong creative and analytic products on time and on budget — on this premise our agency was established. Having spent the last 20 years on the forefront of technology development in direct response marketing, technology is at the center of this agency. It was created specifically to serve our clients with transparency and has helped them experience a strong return on their investment.

Make Clients Number One: Our clients’ needs are the most important thing to our agency which reflects in our customer service and constantly evolving product suite. As you plan marketing strategies, understand that brand awareness goes hand-in-hand with metrics and analytics. Businesses today need to utilize information systems that analyze sales and lead data in real-time, allowing you to make quick decisions on what works and what does not—saving you time and money.

- Darryl Mattox | COO & President, Gragg Advertising

Be Faster. Be Smarter. Care More.

Three simple rules: Be faster. Be smarter. Care more. We are a digital marketing agency with a long history or innovation. We are the product of a 2011 merger. Webbed Marketing was a company I stated in 2006 that grew from my kitchen table to being at the table with the big conglomerates of the advertising world. Fathom started in 1997 as a development shop and transformed into an SEO agency.

Today, Fathom Healthcare serves hospital systems across the country. We have the innovation and flexibility the larger firms lack. We also compete by bringing on and developing only A players; clients won’t get our B team because there is no B team. We offer niche expertise and industry knowledge that a mega agency cannot. Our culture is excellent. Employees love being here and it shows in their work. Our team cares about our clients. Several clients have awarded contracts to us over the big boys for the above reasons. Equally important is the fact that we don’t compete on price. We have no interest in being the “cheap alternative” to the mega agencies. We want to be the better alternative.

- Bill Balderaz | President, Fathom Healthcare

Learn to Say ‘No’

First, you need a soul. We didn’t create the agency in some intellectual exercise that is then forced on all the employees. The essence of the agency is in the living, breathing hearts of the partners and its critical employees. No boss is as demanding as yourself when you want to prove your worth — everyday performance is best attributed to the bar you set for yourself — this is far more compelling than bonus structures or performance reviews.

Second, you can say no. The ability to risk income because a client is simply not right is not usually discussed as an option when you aren’t independent. Those agencies will find some team that will say yes and keep the income–but at the risk of their soul. If you want to continue to drive passion in an organization, you want everyone to work harder than ever because they like what they do and you have to have the ability to say no.

Third, is the priority is on the work, not the economics. We have derived more satisfaction from work that moves business and thrills clients than from the income generated. I assure you that this priority generate significant income.

- Ellis Verdi | President, DeVito/Verdi

Empower Everyone to be Creative

Being independent and having no legacy infrastructure allows Giant Spoon to change our model to match the way the world works. We are not beholden to the economics of television advertising or in silos of a particular platform. Breaking down this legacy allows our strategies to have no bias and to think in any medium. And with a flatter hierarchy, junior staff — who are native to the new world order — are more empowered to contribute in meaningful ways.

We can take a strategist who would normally only be creating insights for creatives and enable them to build content off of and figure out how their cultural insights can turn into ideas everywhere and anywhere.  Agencies need people to poke, prod, and pull at these insights and architect a creative solution across everything. We need our teams to think this way because we believe in the new world order anything a consumer touches is media.

As an independent, everyone’s job is creative, and we can empower new types of creativity that go beyond traditional walls.

Don’t underestimate how important being nimble can be even when serving big clients. The more nimble a shop, the better it can pinpoint a challenge and architect a creative solution.

- Trevor Guthrie | Co-founder of Giant Spoon

The “Mad Men” Days Are Behind Us

The glory days of large agencies are still living in the “Mad Men” days of the ’60s. To compete in today’s world. you have to be a small, smart, and efficient agency. Today, companies want capable and smart marketing partners who function more as consultants in guiding them through the marketing problems they encounter on a daily basis. Yet, you still have to offer your clients all of the capability of the larger agency without the overhead.

You do this by surrounding the core group of great people you have in the agency with freelancers, contractors, and specialty vendors who can cover any of the needs and wants of your clients. You need great account people who handle your clients with ease and understanding of their problems. The agency needs great creative leaders who can not only design but guide others in the outsourcing of work. Learn to be competitive in not only your pricing but your overhead and costs as well. Strive to manage your agency with low overhead but maintain high quality and outstanding work. This is the agency of the future.

- Hal Collins | Co-owner, AcrobatAnt

Data and Reporting Are Your Friends

Agencies of the future will need a strong understanding of the digital landscape and how to specifically show their clients solid ROI. At Overit, we have been working on how to be extremely agile and organic in our approach to campaigns and launches. Data and reporting are our friends and there is a lot of useful information to take advantage of. A true understanding of how to use and present the data will result in great success for the agency and its clients. Gone are the days where an analytics report sent out once a month will suffice. Agencies need to harness data by melding proven creative and traditional techniques to see big wins.

- Dan Dinsmore | Founder & CEO, Overit

Embrace the Art of the Two Way Conversation

It’s becoming very apparent in the current landscape that the agency of the future will need to:

1. Be excellent creative story-tellers: Brands have mastered the art of a two way conversation through the advent of social media, but tend to fail to ‘close the loop’. The consumer journey needs a more deeply contextual experience to make an emotional connection.

2. The omni-channel experience includes experience: Every day new social platforms are popping up, and brands have to react to how they make an impact, and tell their brand story in a unique way that sets themselves apart from competitors. However, the omni channel experience is ultimately an interpersonal connection that fails to make its way to off-line experience through: brand experience, customer service and in-store promotion. A merge of high-level advertising and ‘ground floor’ interaction need to be better melded to tell a greater brand story.

3. Show don’t tell: Independent agencies are constantly questioned for the value of the work. In order to back up the work, agencies need to work more closely with clients to have sales figures, customer feedback, and client employee testimonials to provide value of the work.

- Micah Paldino | CEO, Peanut Butter & Jelly

Speed and Innovation Through Freedom

A major advantage of being an independent agency is speed and innovation. We’re able to get four or five smart people in a room, make a decision and move on it immediately. Creatively, because we are independent, our clients expect us to show them an idea or two that pushes them to the edge of their comfort zone. So the perception of being independent gives use more strategic and creative freedom, which motivates everyone internally.”

- Mike Zlatoper | Managing Director, Mekanism

Social Responsibility & Collaboration

Being independent means that we can be guided by ethics, not just a P&L. We want to create meaningful work, and we endeavor to add a layer of social responsibility as well. As an independent agency, we give all of our clients access to senior leadership on a regular basis. We involve senior leadership throughout the entire process, whether it is a new business pitch or ongoing client service. We are a member of an independent agency network called Advertising Marketing International Network (AMIN).

The group’s mantra, “Global Access, Local Know How” takes on a real meaning at The Dalton Agency. The decision-making process is guided by agency leadership who intimately know the market as well as the client, employee, or prospect. At the same time, we have access to a global network of agencies, which allows us to be nimble and expand our reach when needed. As an independent agency, we foster an atmosphere of cooperation, not competition. We don’t fight over projects, as some large holding company agencies might.

- Bill Coontz | President, The Dalton Agency

Momentum & Attitude

Ever created a startup? We did, because we knew we had a better way to serve clients with strategic marketing, advertising, and technology. We’d seen agencies internally focused and bogged down by politics. But were they focused on the creative product or the customer? Not really. We never wanted to play by those “rules.” And 21 years later, we’re still at it. We’re an independent lot. Independence gives us our head start. It gives us our momentum. We’re free to do great work. Discover faster. Innovate more often.

In our view, we have four customers: our employees, our vendors, our clients, and our clients’ customers. Nothing stands in the way of listening to them, understanding them, and figuring out a way to solve it or to serve it. We listen. We move. We win. Culture is extremely important here. People are our No. 1 asset. As a result, our folks are empowered to do great things, and they do. Collectively, we’re entrepreneurs who see opportunities and pounce. We’re the innovators who create. As the marketing transformation continues, our independence and “screw it; let’s just go for it” attitude is the key advantage for us at GLG and for our clients.

- Tim Garrigan | Principal, The Garrigan Lyman Group (GLG)

A Broader View

At R2C Group, we believe there are three key attributes that agencies will need to be successful in the future:

Accountability, Measurement, and Focus.  Data and proof of results derived from marketing investments will continue to be red hot and incredibly valuable to marketers.  We must stay ahead of the curve and not only create tools that drive measurability, but we also need to train and develop people who are experts at understanding how to use these key insights to drive results.   This should include not only the data analytics teams, but also the “creatives” who will need to adapt the message based on insights and marketing results.

A 20,000 foot Multichannel View. Clients look at marketing in a broad way and an agency needs to do the exact same thing. In this multichannel world, the agencies that will thrive will take a holistic view of a client’s business challenges. We need people who “lift their heads up” from their individual channel expertise to understand key marketing issues in a broad way.

Flexibility.  We believe a key differentiator for R2C Group IS our independence. That freedom to be adaptable is key to allowing us speed to market, because we don’t have layers and financial obligations to shareholders that stop us from making quick, important decisions on behalf of our clients.  This is a key contrast with our competitors on “Madison Avenue” who can’t move with the same agility.

- Jane Crisan | COO, R2C Group

Calculated Flexibility

Successful independent agencies — boutique, marketing, advertising, promotions, PR, media rep, social, digital and creative firms — need to know theoretically we should fit into ‘one’ of the agency segments, but in reality, most often we need to be all of the above.

Simply stated, the attributes and skills for the future are focused on being flexible to sustain. Let’s brand that as ‘calculated flexibility.’ Being flexible in a calculated, strategic manner resulting in the highest standard of client outcomes.This means aligning with other niche agencies and partnering on initiatives for the greatest amount of knowledge share, bringing in house some otherwise outsourced talent in order to maintain project continuity, or in contrast, being flexible enough to entertain freelance talent and part-time management level staff verses the traditional environment. Biz dev flexibility might include seeking out clients specific to a unique internal expertise versus the RFP of the month. Finance flexibility is also important, customized billing and methods for receiving payment. And finally, flexibility will continue to include integrating various business modeling within the firm, i.e., securing start up clients and becoming a shareholder or creating alliances with other professional firms.

- Debbi Shapiro | President & CEO, Henderson Shapiro Peck

Concentrate on Brand Stories

Brands play a more complicated role than ever before in a world of media and audience fragmentation. The brand story is no longer told in 30-second spots – the brand story lives as a tapestry woven throughout the lives of consumers.

Agencies need to be adept at communicating brand story through a wide range of modes:

  • Brand design is more important than ever – designers are creating brands today
  • Brands are dynamic and organic to our world – they live as interactive experiences, sonic branding, iconic logo animations
  • Brands are symbols within our culture – cultural relevance is essential, connections within popular culture
  • Brands need to engage through content v. as content disruption – brands are once again show runners, as they were at the infancy of television
  • Brands need to align with values and lifestyle – cultural anthropology is key to understanding
  • people
  • Brands are shared, have communities and ambassadors – understanding the dynamics social media and managing the brand within it is important

To be successful in the future, agencies will need to acquire a range of talented strategic partners and a collaborative mentality. Agencies need to be multifaceted and nimble.

- Dan Pappalardo | Founder & CEO, Troika

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Jami Oetting is the Editor of The Agency Post. She is an advertising nerd who's big on creativity, quick wit and good conversation. Interact with her on Twitter @jamioetting or connect on LinkedIn or Google+.

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