Former Fallon president Steve Sjoblad is doing it. A number of former Fallon A-list creatives—consistent award winners like Rod Kilpatrick, Bob Brihn, Tom Lichtenheld and Rob Dalton—are doing it. John Stein is back to doing it. Ex-BBDO heavyweight Robert Chandler is doing it. Even a group of ex-Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and St. Luke's planning wizards are doing it under the name Juice Talent.
More people than I could ever list here are striking out from conven tional agency life to pursue the dream of professional independence. Is this a faddish artifact of a dreary economy or a tectonic shift that will change the way advertising is created?
I would argue the latter. Of course, I am doing it as well.
First, a caveat: The fact that so many high-profile stars are bailing out fast and furious does not portend the doom of the traditional agency. Despite the culling that follows every boom/bust cycle, the good and great will rebound stronger than ever. Always have. Always will.
Moreover, because so many shops have cut into muscle and bone, the availability of independent players will create an odd symbiosis between the newly emancipated and the agency community. If the right talent happens to be available only on a freelance basis, the benefits will far outweigh the CFO-irritating costs.
Free Agent Nation by Dan Pink, a former Gore speechwriter (which beats being a current Gore speechwriter), is the definitive manifesto for this development. Pink builds part of his case by looking at the model of the feature film. Movie productions employ no full-time people. Rather, teams of skilled independent specialists—writers, directors, photographers, gaffers, special-effects folks—are assembled to bring a concept to life. When the party's over, they ride into the sunset until the next project draws them together again.
Could this work for advertising, as well? Sure. There's both economic and creative method to what otherwise might seem ad hoc madness. In the words of top-gun writer Rod Kilpatrick, "A conventional agency works like a conventional car. It keeps idling and burning fuel even when it's standing still. This works more like an electric car. You press the pedal and off it goes, consuming resources only as they're needed."
If efficacy is the objective, the case is easily made for seasoned veterans working in teams precisely scaled to the mission. If creative impact is the goal, you could do worse than hiring people whose combined awards would give Goodby's lobby a run for its money.
One last point: These are creative minds at work, so there are plenty of variations on the theme. Dalton and Chandler are somewhere between total indies and traditional shops. Ex-executive creative directors Brihn and Kilpatrick are fierce freelancers. Sjoblad operates deep in the strategic world and is awesomely busy. Juice Talent is making it happen for others.
Even if the chances of noble failure are as good as those of success, I will venture a forecast. This is one evolution that will survive the test of time, simply because it will benefit clients, agencies and creatives in equal measure.