• 03.01.10

How One Ad Agency Boosted Productivity After Cutting Costs

As the ad business carps about cost controls, one agency embraces them and thrives.

How One Ad Agency Boosted Productivity After Cutting Costs
EFFICIENCY EXPERTS: Sharon Napier and Jeff Gabel embraced ISO 9000 and reaped big gains. | Photograph by João Canziani

Close your eyes and listen to the fight. One side says we have to change the way we do things now and the other warns grimly that if we do, the end result will be the Dark Ages. This isn’t Washington, D.C., but the Madison Avenue echo chamber, with corporate America pushing for cost consciousness and efficiency from its ad agencies and those agencies railing against companies’ bean counters being sicced on them. With each soul-crushing Ad Age item about the rising influence of procurement departments, creatives’ agita rises.


Those creatives are not going to like this story.

Partners & Napier, a midsize shop in Rochester, New York, has not only streamlined its processes at the request of a client (Kodak) but also went all in, applying for and earning certification in ISO 9000, a quality-management system akin to Six Sigma that’s normally used by manufacturing companies. What’s more, its creative output seems to have blossomed as a result, as the agency is increasingly turning out higher-quality work, it says, in significantly less time. A creative embracing quality management may be unusual, but it also may be the model for how to handle clients’ increasingly stringent ROI demands.

“When Kodak first asked us to do this, people worried that no one understood how long it takes to get to a great idea,” concedes Partners’ CEO Sharon Napier. Chief creative officer Jeff Gabel says the opposite has happened. More often than not, Gabel says, creative work resembles a “giant hair ball.” And that’s fine with him. “You don’t want to straighten it out,” he says. “It’s nonlinear, illogical, and often occurs at unpredictable hours.” But, he says, if the time allotted to a project could be rejiggered so more time went to creating great ideas — and less against the job’s ancillary grunt work — then he was game to try.

The certification process took six months and required each step of an assignment, from developing a brief to reviewing final work with the client, to be documented. It cost roughly $20,000 out of Partners’ pocket, but it revealed some surprising inefficiencies, including a lot of time wasted in back-and-forths for approvals of briefs, concepts, ideas, and directors. Partners was able to trim the time on a job from eight weeks to three, save the client approximately 40%, and boost productivity by 3.5%.

Kodak has played an essential role as well because it understands the ad-agency business and realized that it, too, had a part to play. “It requires a team on both sides,” says Leslie Dance, Kodak’s director of worldwide brand marketing. “You have to respect the fact that they’re in business as well.” Kodak’s procurement department has been able to measure precisely how much revision activity has decreased. “In the ad world, revisions are an indicator of how efficient an agency and client are in achieving a specific goal,” says Jack Stout, Kodak’s worldwide sourcing manager. “Every time we aren’t communicating effectively, it costs Kodak money.”

Partners has been so happy with the results that it now uses the same approach with other clients. It’s winning more business because it can jump on opportunities once dismissed due to time constraints. Its billings have grown 300% in the past five years.


Still, the process is not without its flaws. All that hyper-efficiency can be exhausting, Gabel admits: “You’ve removed your slop factor.”

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.