Bright Lights, Small Cities: Why Talent Is Leaving the Industry’s Metro Hubs

These creatives provide brands a different perspective

Cost of living, work-life balance attract talent away from big cities. Getty Images
Headshot of Erik Oster

For generations, the prevailing view in advertising held that a world outside the major metro hubs of New York, Chicago and later Los Angeles didn’t exist—or at least didn’t matter.
But as the industry settles firmly into its digital age, a new generation is flocking to smaller cities like Austin, Texas, Omaha, Neb., and Knoxville, Tenn., offering greater opportunities for career advancement, work-life balance and a lower cost of living. With shrinking advertising budgets and clients questioning whether agencies in large cities can speak to the average American, agencies in smaller cities can often work for less while offering valuable perspective on consumers.
“I was previously a New Yorker who felt like New York was the center of the universe,” said Leeann Leahy, CEO of Portland, Maine-based The VIA Agency. “I think it’s a dated perception.”
Agencies in these midsize meccas said the trend has accelerated over the past several years.
Grow CEO Drew Ungvarsky said that his Norfolk, Va., shop has “relocated three times more people” from major markets over the past three years “than we had in the entire agency history prior to that.” Dooley Tombras, president of The Tombras Group in Knoxville, claimed the “exponential” trend has “ramped up dramatically” over the last 18 months. And PMG head of people and culture Chris Sinclair estimates around half of the Fort Worth and Austin, Texas-based agency’s recruits have come from major coastal cities since 2016.
“People are realizing that proximity and location aren’t the drivers of excellence anymore,” Sinclair said.

“What happened was brands started to migrate from coastal cities … and then the talent followed,” Tombras explained, noting that many smaller cities have their own vibrant cultures. He also said brands pivoting away from the AOR model (Budweiser recently moved to project-based assignments and Lowe’s adopted a regional model, for example) frees them up to work with more agencies in such locations rather than one large agency within a holding company.
“Part of the draw to a city like Omaha is that it’s a big small city,” said Greg Andersen, CEO of creative agency Bailey Lauerman. “It has enough interesting creative stimulus within it and affords people a quality of life that is increasingly difficult to have in other cities.”
These benefits can translate on the client side as well. “Because our cost of living is lower, our cost structure as a business is lower, which means that the client’s dollars go further,” Andersen explained.
A move outside the industry’s traditional hubs also affords a valuable change in perspective more closely reflecting the experiences of average Americans.
“Our clients appreciate that our world view isn’t simply [that of] a big city,” Travis York, CEO of GYK Antler in Manchester, N.H., said.
Peter Mayer chief strategy officer Michelle Edelman, who spent most of her career in Chicago before joining the New Orleans agency, said the ad community can feel isolated in New York. The VIA Agency’s Leahy echoed this opinion, recalling an automotive pitch during her time at a New York agency when she was the only person in the room who owned a car. Clients may find such a shift in perspective appealing at a time when, Tombras said, many brands question whether the work coming out of large coastal cities can resonate across their target audience.
For example, The VIA Agency worked with Lowe’s on a paint project earlier this year after winning a regional review.
“The members of the creative team all happened to have personal paint projects going on in their lives, which added valuable perspective to the creative,” said Derrick Wood, vp, brand content and advertising, Lowe’s. “To us, that was golden.”

This story first appeared in the September 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.