Shops Innovate to Survive Tough Times

LOS ANGELES When independent Knoodle finally conceded this summer that the Phoenix ad market wasn’t going to rise from the ashes, it fashioned a unique pay-for-play scheme to rekindle its spirits and ignite its creative drive.

At the time, an agency client, the Arizona Kidney Foundation, was attempting an ambitious educational project but had become stalled.

“They were looking for a campaign, and we were in a downtime, in a unique position where we had time and manpower,” said Rosaria Glasco-Cain, CEO and media director at Knoodle.

Agency creatives were smitten with an AKF campaign they had been working on for months and “wanted to see it through for the client. To let it not happen as a result of a bad economy was unacceptable, so we jump-started the campaign,” she said.

The agency wrote the foundation a check for $90,000 — the largest single contribution in the AKF’s history — under the express condition that it would use its matching-funds program to buy the shop’s $200,000, three-spot campaign.

The spots started running as PSAs, and now the foundation is raising money to support a paid-media push. “Knoodle came to convince us over time that this type of campaign would grab attention with today’s modern audience,” said AKF CEO Jeffrey Neff. He said the board enthusiastically backed the campaign and would follow it with a PR blitz.

Elsewhere in the country, scrappy agencies are using moxie to drive business in a down economy.

Independent agency North was established as the relaunched version of the former Johnson Sheen last August. Though he concedes he “wouldn’t have chosen” the timing, Mark Ray, founding partner and ecd, said that the Portland, Ore., independent sees hope ahead nonetheless.

Ray added that the nascent agency has taken advantage of lulls this year to “incubate” ideas with new prospects. North has been reaching out to unrelated corporations about co-funding projects they might consider “without interrupting the AOR relationships they currently have.” Ray said the experiment, which he would likely have had no time for otherwise, bore at least one undisclosed project currently in the works.

In San Francisco, WPP Group’s Grey West managing director Betsy Sperry saw diminishing work with the exit of Sandisk and a slowdown with some other clients, which include BMW West regional creative. Sperry said she favors the idea of pursuing project work and pro bono during slow periods. “There’s a danger in papering over economic challenges with parties and picnics,” Sperry said. “You have to respect the staff by telling them the truth, because what motivates them is the work — doing what we do.”

Between the time the Marina del Rey, Calif., agency lost Round Table Pizza and won Suzuki, independent Siltanen & Partners experienced a quiet time when, according to president Tim Murphy, the shop did the “typical things, like searching out new business pitches to keep people focused on the business” and atypical things. For example, it allowed personnel to “wear multiple hats” and experiment outside their disciplinary niches. For example, a print production person tried working as an account executive. “It was a great experience for her, the client loved her, and she ended up with the job,” Murphy said.

Siltanen also added more project work — launching Trumpet mobile with everything from point of sale at Radio Shack and Walgreens to radio, outdoor and package design — and pro bono, handling direct mail and point-of-purchase for the fundraiser of the downtown Los Angeles YMCA.

“The idea is, let’s not take time off but focus on things that keep you active,” Murphy said. “And did I mention we opened a taco stand?”