Greener Pastures

For decades, the rhetorical question has been raised, “Is there life outside of the large global agencies?” Or, along the same lines, “Is there life outside of New York?” It’s a query that’s usually muttered around that proverbial water cooler after a massive agency layoff or a particularly tedious commute on a sweltering, jam-packed train. And, until recently, it never really required an answer since it was self-evident that except for a few anomalies that we all know and lust to work at, the small shops outside of big cities were also-rans. But times have definitely changed. Every day, we read about major clients of big, global agencies deciding to bring in a smaller shop to offer up fresh ideas. The press routinely questions whether these global agencies can successfully make the transition to true integration even though they’ve talked about it for years, while noting that small shops are poised to take advantage of this newfound opportunity.

Seventeen years ago, I left Manhattan determined to find a better way. I took a job as creative director for a shop in New Jersey named Gilbert, Whitney & Johns. Less than two years later, I became president and, in 2000, bought the place and renamed it Brushfire to reflect the change and new energy. For the past few years, we’ve seen a 50 percent increase in revenue. But I’m not alone. Agencies like mine are also flourishing in Baltimore, Albuquerque, N.M., and Boise, Idaho.

Here’s my best advice for finding a fulfilling agency life outside Gotham: Pass on building your own agency. If you build from scratch, the start-up capital required will be enormous, and just figuring out how to manage health benefits, traffic a job and balance the books will be a full-time drain. Instead, find yourself a local agency, preferably close to home, where you can really make a difference. The place may not have any awards to its credit, but if it’s got a decent client base, a successful history and a respectable local reputation, it might be exactly what you’re looking for.

Here’s why—it’s much easier to start in a place that already has the infrastructure and mechanics to run relatively smoothly. As time goes by, you can suggest improvements or changes, but you don’t have to invent everything all at once. This allows time to get your feet wet, learn the lay of the land and even win some business. The talent and expertise you’re bringing from the “big” agency will make you a very valuable asset, and the immediate impact you can bring to the work will keep you feeling empowered and enthusiastic. Hopefully, this will give you the edge in getting a piece of the business, if you can’t buy in right from the start.

The relationships are really where you’ll find the change. Everyone in our business dreams of one day becoming true partners with their clients. Smaller shops can offer just that, as clients depend upon you in growing their business. One of my biggest accounts says that a significant difference with us over large agencies is that they know every morning when we’re looking in the mirror, we’re thinking about their business. You begin to feel like you owe it to each client to invest as much time and energy as you can. And once you’ve developed that loyalty and friendship, you’ll want to work even harder on the $5 million to $10 million piece of business than you ever did as part of a 30-member team on that $300 million account. That’s where the benefits of ownership come in—ownership of an account, an idea or a relationship.

Don’t expect to work less hours, however, because that’s one bubble I have to burst. You’re “on” all the time, but it’s a positive on. It’s because you want to be “on,” not because you’re afraid being “off” will result in pissing off the creative director or account management team.

A very positive factor is that things can and do turn on a dime. Your big insight today can be incorporated into an ad as quickly as tomorrow. That’s just one of the things that happens when you shed the layers of a big shop.

And integration, that still-elusive tool, is alive and well at smaller agencies. That’s because every department—from advertising to PR to Internet—has grown up as part of the whole. They’re all under one roof, brainstorming on business and adding expertise even when they aren’t an official part of the assignment. This works because they are not separate profit centers created in silos.

So, if you’ve ever dreamt about giving up big agency life for a chance to work at a small shop where you don’t have to spend half your day justifying your existence, where you work side by side in a team and where the commute could take less than 20 minutes, the time is now. Bringing big agency smarts into a local arena can not only make you a star, but also can bring you personal fulfillment.