Is Bigger Always Best?

The pros and cons of moving to a smaller market

Four years ago, agency veteran Dave Sollitt traded the bustle of New York for the tranquility of Jackson Hole, Wyo. Instead of navigating crowded sidewalks on Friday afternoons, the owner of Riddell, Sollitt & Partners now heads to nearby Yellowstone with his kids.

“The whole corporatization of advertising was losing its appeal for me,” says Sollitt, 48, who was at Young & Rubicam when WPP was negotiating for the shop. “The people who are at my management level get farther and farther from the agency business. I like the process of creative advertising.” His wife, Kate, his agency’s director of business development, grew up in Jackson Hole, and the idea of raising kids there was especially appealing.

Scaling back to a small market, however, has its downsides. Potential clients often dismiss the notion that a 10-person Wyoming shop can produce good work; even the state government, for example, sends most of its ad business to Denver shops. “I’ve done 397 commercials, and we get, ‘You’re a small agency, and you don’t know how to do commercials,’ and that gets a little frustrating,” says Sollitt, who spent 13 years at Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago before his three-year stint at Y&R, working on accounts including Molson and MetLife.

A willingness to veer off the beaten path in favor of a job opportunity, a lower cost of living and even a diminished threat of terrorism is increasingly common, says Amy Hoover, vp at recruiter Talent Zoo in Atlanta. “It’s something that almost anyone we encounter will now consider,” she says. “There are a lot of people who want to leave a big city and upgrade their quality of life in a market that may not be the hotbed of advertising but that gives peace of mind.”

“The coolest thing about being in a small market is being a little closer to your clients,” says Carol Henderson, 43, who has worked with BMW, Jim Beam Brands and Northwest Airlines as an acd at Bozell in Minneapolis and, before that, Fallon McElligott. In 1998, in search of better weather and the opportunity to co-own a shop, she joined what is now McKee Wallwork Henderson in Albuquerque, N.M. Henderson says the best client experience she’s had is with the local convention and visitors bureau. After presenting a campaign to its 300 members recently, she got a standing ovation. “You’re usually not going to experience that too often [in larger markets],” Henderson says.

Robert Shaw West says he left New York, where he was a senior art director at the former Ammirati & Puris, because “the egos and personalities became very frustrating, and it wasn’t who I was as a person.” Now he finds that one of the biggest advantages of running a shop in Durham, N.C., is financial. “Appearing successful is much easier in North Carolina than it is in New York because of the sheer cost—we have a whole building,” says West, 34, who was a partner and cd at West & Vaughan in Raleigh before co-founding The Republik two years ago.

But while Sollitt says he gets many unsolicited résumés, he also gets plenty of candidates who ultimately decide against downsizing. Henderson also says finding talent can be difficult. “If you come here and it doesn’t work out, you’re going to have to go someplace else for a job,” she notes.

After all, a small market will likely support only one or two strong shops. “There were some [markets] where I thought, ‘This is definitely a step down in terms of sophistication level, quality of work and quality of thinking,’ ” says Missy Altergott, 34, a former account director at Deutsch/LA in Marina del Rey, Calif., who found a satisfying fit last month at Denver’s McClain Finlon, where she is brand director on Qwest.

Morris Pittle, 31, who started Two Ton Creativity in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, last year says he sometimes feels like a “creative missionary” when selling campaigns to local clients. “I’m stepping back 30 years, saying why creativity will ultimately help your brand,” says Pittle, whose last agency job was as a senior copywriter at Arnold in Washington, D.C., in 2000.

But Altergott has found that segueing from Deutsch’s high-profile, big-budget Mitsubishi account has been fairly easy. “Ultimately the job we’re doing is the same,” she says. “You just apply it to different clients and their different marketing issues.”