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Why we’re witnessing a new golden age in advertising

A new wave of small agencies founded by experienced creatives are increasingly grabbing big brand attention.

Why we’re witnessing a new golden age in advertising
[Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash; RF._.studio/Pexels]
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For 13 years, Boulder, Colorado-based ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CPB) came up with creative ideas and advertising for Domino’s. It created the now-familiar Pizza Tracker and the DXP customized pizza delivery vehicle. It geofenced public parks to enable outdoor pizza delivery and challenged American cities to improve their roads in a cheeky, faux-PSA campaign that became very real in “Paving For Pizza.”

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In September 2007, when Domino’s first named CPB its agency, the company’s stock traded at about $17. Now it hovers around $385. By any measure, this has been one of the most successful advertising and marketing partnerships so far this century.

So why did it all come to an end?

In November, Domino’s announced that it was ending the 13-year partnership and would start 2021 by taking its creative advertising business to a small, independent agency called WorkInProgress. The move, to say the least, turned a lot of heads. Not least because here was a major American brand taking its creative account away from a major agency, owned by a public holding company, and handing it to a four-year-old, 23-person shop.

Although it’s true that the founders of WorkInProgress spent years working with Domino’s at Crispin before leaving to start their own independent agency, it’s also clear that the pizza company sees this as an opportunity to get the same caliber of creative and strategic talent from a much more streamlined business. Independent agencies don’t have the challenges of being part of a holding company that’s publicly traded and don’t have to meet Wall Street expectations. “I really feel that the independent agency model gives us more flexibility and less distractions,” Domino’s chief marketing officer Art D’Elia told AdAge.

The advertising industry’s creative revolution that started in the 1960s faded over the decades as independent agencies all over the country and the world rolled up into just five major holding companies: WPP, Omnicom, IPG, Dentsu, and Publicis. These companies were built on the idea that by putting all the capabilities of the marketing and advertising ecosystem under one roof—creative, research, PR, media buying and planning, digital production, and social media—they could act as a one-stop shop for the world’s largest marketers. Over time, though, the model created bloat, turf wars, an emphasis on media buying over creative, and putting the needs of Wall Street investors over great work. That’s what D’Elia meant by “distractions.”

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The Domino’s move points to a correction in the ad business, a rise in a new crop of small, independent creative agencies founded by vets of holding companies that are competing directly with their former employers and landing more work from major brands. It’s not wholly a new phenomenon, but the pandemic appears to have accelerated both the number of brands willing to go small, and the scale of work being produced by these relative newcomers. The vanguard of this trend is in the emergence of such small shops as Humanaut (2013), Preacher (2014), WorkInProgress (2016), Uncommon London (2017), Arts & Letters Creative (2017), Haymaker (2017), Callen (2018), Lupine Creative (2019), Mischief (2020), and Colossus (2021), among others.

Together, they represent advertising’s best hope to shake free the doldrums created by the industry’s oligarchy and the pressure from Facebook and Google.

A SIGN OF A NEW DAY

When USA Today‘s Super Bowl Ad Meter named Jeep’s “Groundhog Day” ad the top spot of the big game last February, it was hardly a surprise. Here we had Bill Murray reprising his role as Phil Connors from the 1993 classic film, hilariously weaving in a new Jeep. Touchdown.

What was unexpected was that the ad was created by 30-person independent shop Highdive. But much like WorkInProgress, while Highdive looks small to the outside eye, its four-person leadership team alone has about 50 Super Bowl ads under their collective belt.

Highdive managing partner Louis Slotkin says that the elimination of layers, red tape, and bureaucracy associated with larger holding company agencies frees everyone up to focus on the two things that matter most: the ideas and the performance of those ideas.

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“What’s happening over the last couple of years, and accelerating over the last year, is that more clients are realizing that working with an indie shop doesn’t present the risk they once thought it did,” says Slotkin, who has worked at legacy brand holding company agencies like Leo Burnett and Young & Rubicam. “Indie shops are now delivering the better ideas, the better relationships, and better outcomes that clients are on the hunt for. Brave brands jumped in early, and now other brands have seen their success, so we see that momentum picking up significantly.”

SPEED WINS

Greg Hahn was chief creative officer at BBDO New York for seven years. Soon after he was laid off by the Omnicom-owned global agency network in April 2020, Hahn launched Mischief, the first U.S. expansion office of the independent Toronto-based agency No Fixed Address. Joining him there was president Kerry McKibbin, who had been a senior VP at IPG-owned MullenLowe. Since launching in June, the shop has done work for Kraft, OKCupid, and most recently, a COVID-19 vaccine PSA campaign led by Pfizer.

Hahn says the biggest difference between his new job and old one is just the speed; all the decisions can be made in between one and three steps. Another is that the senior leadership who are meeting with clients are also the people doing the work. “That makes a big difference,” says Hahn. “Because you get to understand their true needs, they can hear directly from you, and that’s how a trust can be built between the creators and the client. I think all of those things—the agility, the flexibility, and just the closeness—is leading bigger clients to smaller agencies.”

Uncommon London, an indie agency founded in 2017 by WPP-owned Grey London vets Lucy Jameson, Nils Leonard, and Natalie Graeme, has landed projects with PepsiCo, H&M, Allbirds, and Bumble over the last year. Last March, it helped its client BrewDog become one of the first breweries to reorganize its production to make hand sanitizer in order to help deal with shortages from traditional suppliers.

Jameson says it took just three days. “One of our teams saw that breweries could make a switch to make hand sanitizer,” she tells me. “Nils quickly mocked up an image of what the product could look like, sent it by text to BrewDog’s founder on a Sunday evening, and less than 24 hours later, the brewery was making hand sanitizer to donate to the NHS (National Health Service). In a holding company, that would’ve been so difficult to do. But here, it was someone’s idea on a Friday night, and it was happening by Monday.”

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Another thing leading big brands to smaller agencies is that a lot of advertising work is now being parceled out on a project by project basis, as opposed to the legacy Agency of Record model. Historically, many top global ad agencies were built on the back of retainer business, where, say, Ford, McDonald’s, or Domino’s picks one agency for all its creative work. Now, with the amount of creative marketing required at an ever-increasing pace across so many different media, many brands are choosing to maintain a number of different relationships over monogamy.

When asked if the pandemic played any role in Domino’s decision to move its creative account to WorkInProgress, D’Elia told AdAge, “absolutely.” In the second quarter of 2020, Domino’s had to move faster than it ever had before, and he anticipated the need to move even more quickly in the post-pandemic era. “I want to be prepared to operate in that new environment,” he said.

ON ZOOM, NO ONE IS LOOKING AT HOW BIG YOUR COMPANY IS

Every independent agency founder I spoke with all said the pandemic has opened more brands up to the idea of taking creative projects to smaller, indie shops, and that the working realities have helped level the playing field in many ways.

Uncommon’s Jameson says that the remote work-from-home environment has been a boon to winning business. “When on Zoom, no one is looking at how big your agency building is. You’re just engaging with the people on that call, making size almost irrelevant,” says Jameson. “It has leveled the playing field. If everyone’s on Zoom, I can work with someone in Cornwall or somewhere in America. It may not have worked that well before, but it does now. That’s made things much easier.”

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It’s also enabled smaller shops to recruit and work with great creative talent wherever they may be, instead of just the folks who can commute into the office. “That allows us to pick some of the best talent in the world and give them a call about your brief, getting them to help out on a particular pitch or project,” Jameson adds.

Looking to the year ahead, Hahn says that now that more and more brands have had the experience of working with smaller independent shops, it will be difficult to slow down that momentum. “I don’t think brands want things to go back to ‘normal’ now that they’ve seen how things can work better,” says Hahn. “There’s always a need for the big global holding company. [But] I think it’s going to evolve from project-based to a year-long contract, to starting off with brands and growing with them. It’s not just a project but a relationship that you have for years with a piece of their business.”

For WorkInProgress cofounder and chief creative officer Matt Talbot, he doesn’t see the resurgence of small indies as a trend. “It’s here to stay, because it’s about the people working on your business,” he says. “What agency is giving me the team I want and I love? There are big agencies that can do that. It’s not exclusive to smaller shops. It’s about the relationships, and there are bigger agencies that do it well—that was us for a long time with Domino’s at CPB. I just think it’s a bit easier to do that in a smaller agency.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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