From Talent to Scale, These Are Some of the Challenges and Opportunities for Indie Agencies

WPI members share thoughts at annual global meeting

Board members of indie network Worldwide Partners Inc. met in Santa Monica, Calif. WPI

There’s great freedom in being independent, yet agencies across the globe that don’t have holding companies hanging over them still wrestle with an ever-changing advertising world. While the major players continue to see their models getting flipped upside down, smaller, more agile shops, while having obvious significant upside, can be just as susceptible to change.

Talent, economic changes and budgets are issues many are struggling with. Yet, for an indie, the story is one of optimism, where brands can get a higher touch from agency owners, the culture feels more like family and, most importantly, there is still an opportunity to work with some of the world’s biggest brands.

Last week, Worldwide Partners Inc. (WPI), an independent global agency collective with more than 70 agencies in over 40 countries, held its annual global meeting in Santa Monica, Calif. Focusing on the theme “Currency of Ideas,” attendees worked together to determine where they fit in the global brand ecosystem.

Adweek asked a selection of agency leaders about the most significant challenges and opportunities for indies, and here’s what they had to say:

Fletcher Whitwell, svp, group managing director, R&R Partners, Las Vegas
Clients: Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, NHL, MGM Resorts International, Boeing

Challenges: “Scale and showing that we have the chops that all of the holding companies do. We actually do, and we probably have more creativity, but being able to show that we can do it on a global scale to clients is a challenge.”

Opportunities: “Clients want to feel that their agencies are extended partners of their team, and I feel like that’s something independent agencies can deliver on.”

Viveca Chen, chairman and CEO, WE Marketing Group, China
Clients: Estée Lauder, Panasonic, Luckin Coffee, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Visit California

Challenges: “There’s not enough money. We’re not a big group, but we like to develop things from scratch, and that takes a lot of time, and our limitation is getting more investment.”

Opportunities: “To innovate in business models, especially retail, because we can be more agile … and that’s how we have been able to thrive all these years. Also being more embedded into brands to become their marketing team.”

John Keane, CEO, Ardmore Advertising, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Clients: Jameson, Subway, Visit Belfast

Challenges: “It’s always been about finding talent that can exceed the expectations of our clients. It’s also about convincing them to avoid the lure of the holding companies and showing them that the independent environment is where they should be.”

Opportunities: “When we congregate globally but deliver locally to create bespoke solutions better than anyone else because we come from those local environments.”

Ian McAteer, chairman, The Union, Edinburgh, Scotland
Clients: Scottish Developmental International, Heineken, Visit Scotland, Seychelles Tourism Board

Challenges: “The major multinationals have resources—in terms of data, research and proprietary systems—which they’ve clearly invested in. That’s something that independent agencies struggle with.”

Opportunities: “Culture and ethos. I think that an independent agency, when it’s on fire, creates a very special dynamic and people have a much stronger bond. It’s much more of a family.”

Ana Cravioto, founding partner, ActivaMente, Mexico City
Clients: Campbell Soup Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Procter & Gamble, Mexico Tourism, Hamilton Beach

Challenges: “To keep up with the advances in technology and implement at scale as the corporate agencies do. They can share infrastructure in terms of platforms and it’s a challenge to keep pace with that.”

Opportunities: “We have noticed clients shifting to fresher, more committed work from their independent agencies. Large agencies have more layers, and we can really commit to clients, especially when the agency owners are directly involved.”

Norty Cohen, CEO, Moosylvania, St. Louis
Clients: PayPal, Disney/ABC, Purina, Dannon, eBay, Sapporo Beer

Challenges: “Motivating great talent to do great work. All of my energy is spent creating a great environment for great clients … and once those pieces come together, everything else seems to fall in place.”

Opportunities: “Brands want new ideas and resources. The project world has actually helped us because everybody feels like it’s OK to try something new.”

Mary Knight, partner and ecd, Hydrogen, Seattle
Clients: Agilent Technologies, Accoya Wood, NanoString Technologies

Challenges: “It’s the luxury and challenge that with all of the decisions, the buck stops here. I appreciate this [WPI] network because it gives me a sounding board if I need it.”

Opportunities: “We don’t have the layers. We’re able to make decisions that are in our client’s best interest without having to worry about what boss’s, boss’s boss thinks. We can invest when we need, and we can take a risk if it’s the right thing to do for clients.”

Cairo Marsh, managing partner, relativ*, Tokyo
Clients: BMP, Philip Morris

Challenges: “Scale. Because we’re not big enough to do everything, there’s always another partner, which introduces competition with a bigger player.”

Opportunities: “Who we are. I think we give people the truth and honesty. Being smaller, we don’t have a political or holding company agenda. There’s nothing that we’re trying to do except the best work possible, which creates a different level of engagement with clients.”

Stephen Brown, president, Fuse Marketing Group, Toronto
Clients: CIBC, Hyundai, Scotties

Challenges: “To not lose sight from the focus of the true craft of marketing, communications and advertising.”

Opportunities: “Controlling your destiny in a very turbulent world. As business and markets change, you have to learn how to pivot … and we’ve been doing that successfully for 16 years.”

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.