For most startups, making payroll is the toughest part of launching an agency. For Amalgamated, however, that hasn't been the case. Founded last June by three expatriates from Cliff Freeman and Partners, the shop garnered enough business in its first year to build a staff of 15. The devil, the founders discovered, has been in the details.
"Financially, it's been easy in that we're profitable," said co-founder and account strategist Doug Cameron, 33, who declined to elaborate on the shop's financial state. "The hard part is the microdetails of running an agency, like having the windows cleaned."
Cameron, who was an account planner at Cliff Freeman in New York, opened the shop with partners Charles Rosen and Jason Gaboriau. It launched with three clients: digital music channel Fuse; the Freelancers' Union, which provides health benefits to freelancers; and Ben & Jerry's Homemade, which followed the partners from Cliff Freeman. Sources pegged first-year revenue at about $2 million.
The portfolio has grown with the addition in May of two new clients, New Belgium Brewing Co., which sells Fat Tire ale in 13 Western states, and the Student Conservation Association, which places college students into paid internships with environmental groups. Both clients were introduced to the agency by Harvard Business School professor Doug Holt, with whom Cameron is writing a book on how campaigns made icons out of various brands. The agency had worked on a project basis for both, said shop president Rosen, 37, who was director of business development at Cliff Freeman. "The less we needed to pitch year one, the better," he said. "We were very disciplined in that regard. We said to both clients, if we don't crack it, we'll move along."
Measured media spending in 2003 from all five clients combined was less than $3 million, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR. But the bulk of the agency's revenue has come from below-the-line work like event and guerrilla marketing for Fuse and Ben & Jerry's.
Hiring staffers has been eye-opening. "Once they're here, there's no problem," said creative director Gaboriau, 32, who was an art director at Cliff Freeman. "But assessing whether they share our sensibilities is hard."
Among the latest hires is senior account manager Austin McKenna, who will oversee the two newest accounts. McKenna, who becomes Amalgamated's third account executive, worked on AT&T as vp, management director at Foote Cone & Belding in New York until 2002, when he left to work on a documentary about hog cookers in the Carolinas.
The shop initially intended to do away with account-executive posts and allow strategists and creatives to oversee accounts. "We realized that was a mistake," said Rosen, adding that the partners saw the need for a point person on all aspects of a client's business.
Running an agency has not distracted the principals from their clients, said Ben & Jerry's CMO Walt Freese. "Happily, we have not been disappointed," he said, noting the shop convinced him to broaden his media plan. "They've done some non-traditional placement, festivals and in some cases, new product ideas."
The agency's work for Fuse was a finalist at The One Show for best integrated campaign. "These guys did a really good job in identifying talent to work on our account," said Mary Corigliano, vp of marketing at Fuse. "We're re-upping [with them] for a second year."