Over the Edge

Sure, size matters. But it’s especially tough for midsized regional agencies today to grow big enough to compete for national accounts.

Case in point: the now-defunct Holland Mark. The Boston agency strove for more than half a decade to dance on a bigger stage. Ultimately, however, it was doomed by an inability to shore up its client base, stay aggressive in new business and devise contingencies for bad times.

Now it’s Partners & Simons’ turn. With some Holland clients and staff moving in, P&S steps up as New England’s largest independent. Can it avoid making the same mistakes?

Holland Mark made its push in the late ’90s. As holding companies gobbled up agencies, CEO Bill Davis knew that a regional $70 million player stood little chance of getting to the next level without adding heft—and fast. So, in late 1999, Holland Mark bought Ingalls, a larger Boston shop. At its zenith, the merged agency had more than $200 million in billings, with clients including The Boston Globe, Citizens Bank, Dreyfus, Pola roid, Radisson Hotels, TJX Cos. and Universal Studios.

It quickly looked to establish itself nationally. But that never happened. Holland Mark was bigger, but it never found a formula for getting better. In fact, the Ingalls deal seemed to hamstring the agency from the start.

As Web clients filled competitors’ rosters, Holland Mark was bogged down in staffing and real estate issues and struggled to keep clients from Ingalls on board. Ingalls’ conservative, service-oriented culture clashed with the creative, entrepreneurial bent of Holland Mark. And a new-business moratorium, meant to buy time to work out the kinks, was, in retrospect, a strategic error. By the time the agency got moving again, prospects were already scarce.

Last fall, Holland Mark chose not to defend TJX’s $25 million business. At the time, insiders said the agency had neither the patience and temperament nor the account-service acumen to keep it. Citizens Bank and Radisson left, layoffs followed, and the shop’s tarnished reputation rendered it virtually impotent in pitches.

Then, last month, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection. Holland Mark closed three days later. (Davis claimed Polaroid’s $2.5 million debt to the shop was a key factor.)

P&S hopes have a brighter future. Absorbing the Holland Mark assets shouldn’t be too difficult—the shops had similar philosophies, and only a handful of staffers are coming over. There are no dual-office problems. And under CEO Tom Simons’ “Hollywood model”—low overhead and a reliance on freelancers and contract workers—P&S thinks it can avoid deep layoffs if clients bolt or slash budgets. Should the economy worsen, it thinks it can survive.

Figuring to claim some $120 million in billings, P&S will strive to be “brand stewards for major clients,” says Gib Trub, account services and strategic planning director. It plans to be aggressive in new business while cautiously optimistic of its chances to play on a larger stage. “You can have aspirations,” Trub says. “But in the end, be prepared to be competitive and do what the market lets you do.”

Sounds like a mantra Holland Mark should have embraced.