The Next (Re)Generation

Every once in a while, one of the few remaining independents sells out, or a cool creative shop does something really dumb in the interest of achieving critical mass, and I end up lamenting the demise of the agency business.

It usually doesn’t take much. I was nearly apoplectic when I heard that Crispin Porter + Bogusky took on Burger King. I was sure they would buckle under the weight of a retail account that size. Well, so far, the work is the best the client has done in ages, so OK, things aren’t always how they seem on first blush.

A few months back, I was boring my sources to tears complaining about the state of the business. How agency guys aren’t having as much fun and how, by extension, it’s not as much fun to cover them. How global consolidation and the focus on finance are stifling advertising’s collective soul. How, when you’re answering to shareholders and CFOs and the SEC, something has to give, and it’s usually creativity.

Then Cliff Freeman and Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners sold to MDC, and I had even more fodder for my “end of an era” rant.

But then something happened. Maybe because it’s finally starting to seem like springtime here in New York, I began to think about seasons and cycles and how this might be just another phase of the business, not the end of one of the only eras that mattered.

So a couple of shops sold out and some clients are beating the crap out of their agencies, looking for another 2 percent. Other shops are doing great work, and there are even a few talented creatives in new and exciting jobs. And just as some agencies find new homes at holding companies, others are just now sprouting up.

The business regenerates itself.

Case in point: London’s Mother and Amsterdam’s StrawberryFrog both recently arrived in New York, and Toronto’s Taxi may also take the plunge. I don’t know if any of them is the next Wieden + Kennedy, but it’s going to be fun to watch them make a go of it.

“It’s like we’ve been through the cold, hard winter, and now it’s spring and the bulbs are starting to blossom,” says Richard Kirshenbaum. “The next generation [of agencies] is only starting to happen now, because we lost an entire generation during the dot-com thing. And you want to see a next wave. It’s good for the industry. It means it’s growing.”

Mother, which opened in New York three months ago, is one to watch. The founding partners—Linus Karlsson, Paul Malmstrom, Andrew Deitchman and Rob DeFlorio—see opportunities in new realities like the mega-consolidations of the ’90s. “It’s a good time to be an independent,” Karlsson says. “We’re not tied to any models or ulterior motives, and that’s particularly attractive to clients right now. Also, with the industry in such flux, being independent allows us to be more nimble.”

Scott Goodson, co-founder of StrawberryFrog, which opened here in February, makes a similar case. “Both clients and talent seem to be bored,” he says. “That’s a great recipe for change.” The shop chose New York over cities like Miami, Goodson says, because “our whole business idea is challenging huge conglomerates.”

Goodson also feels the creative revival and rejuvenation. “In the U.S. at this particular time, there is a creative renaissance starting to bubble up,” he says. “Creative boutiques want to be part of that creative renaissance. Several agencies are part of that new wave.”

Perhaps the most admired independent, Dan Wieden, is still standing. In an upcoming issue of Inc., Wieden is honored as one of “25 Entrepreneurs We Love.” In the article, he talks about the benefits of being independent. Of being able to do what is right—of telling a client to screw off. He makes it sound heroic.

But then he says something about globalization, the same phenomenon that the folks at Mother and StrawberryFrog are counting on to make room for themselves. “[It’s] made it more difficult. If we hadn’t started out when we did, you never would have heard of Wieden + Kennedy,” Wieden says of his 22-year-old shop.

OK, maybe he’s right. Maybe these shops will never get to be as famous or as good or as big as Wieden. Maybe things are forever changed. But for the first time in a while, I’m thinking the next era could be just as interesting as the last one.

Hope springs eternal.