Independent Influence: Paul Venables talks creativity, inspiration and ‘leading with values’

Welcome to Independent Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we feature Venables Bell & Partners.

Venables Bell & Partners has created some of the most talked about work of the past few years.

The San Francisco agency’s 2015 #OptOutside campaign for REI has become the go-to example of what brand purpose should like, and its 2017 Super Bowl ad for Audi quickly became one of the most buzz-worthy spots of the game, landing the automaker the number three spot on the USA Today Ad Meter.

Paul Venables, who founded VB&P in 2001, believes that much of the shop’s success can be credited to its independence. Venables has become one of the industry’s biggest advocates of independence, often citing it as one of the main reasons why his 16-year-old agency is able to create the caliber of work that it does.

At Cannes this year, he’ll be joining filmmaker Lee Daniels and musical duo Sofi Tukker on a panel called ‘Why Independence Is the Key to Creativity’ to discuss why they believe going it alone can help fuel and drive creativity. Ahead of the Cannes Lions, The Drum caught up with Venables to discuss his steadfast commitment to independence and how he thinks it shapes both company culture and client work. See what he had to say below.

Many independent agencies constantly talk about the value of independence, but at the end of the day, a lot them end up selling to holding companies. Why do you think they opt to sell and forgo the pros that independence brings?

I don’t know if I’m qualified to speak on behalf of formerly independent agencies that have sold themselves to holding companies, but I can tell you some things I’ve noticed and observed over the years.

One is, shifts in the business sometimes cause people to consider a strategic sale. So if they all of a sudden feel like they need global offices and they don’t want to open them up themselves, they might sell, hoping to tap into a network.

Or, if there’s four partners and two want to retire and get out, sometimes the only way that they can buy them out and create a new destiny is to sell. Or maybe an agency has been professing to be independent and the value of independence throughout its entire existence, but with its eye squarely on the goal of some big cashing out and selling to a holding company. And then that day comes and they change their tune.

So those are generic answers because I can’t specifically talk for anybody else, but you know, things do change in this business. People go through stages in life, and sometimes all of a sudden getting out of the business altogether sounds appealing and so that’s a time to sell. I think that can happen.

The shining example of independence over the decades is Wieden + Kennedy. They have professed it, they have lived it, they have walked the walk, and they have remained independent and will remain independent. So it does happen. They’re a true bearer of the torch for us independents.

What does independence mean for VB&P?

Independence means a lot of things, actually. I think it all starts with the basics. When you are independent, you are forced to focus on two things and two things only.

One is your clients, the other group is your employees. That’s your world, and you do everything like mad to deliver for them. We’re a creative strategic independent agency, so we are focused on our strategic and creative output, but it’s all through the lens of delivering for clients and creating a workplace that is a cool place to be for our employees.

When an independent sells and becomes a part of a holding company, a third party is introduced, which is actually the shareholders. It’s the fiduciary responsibility of a business to deliver for and do what’s in the best interest of shareholders. That is a legal obligation when you are a publicly held company. That changes things, and I don’t think it changes things negatively intentionally, I think it’s just a different lens to look through.

When you have to deliver for shareholders, you might make decisions that hurt employees or aren’t as generous with employees. When you are beholden to shareholders, you might not actually have your clients’ interest at the head of the food chain where they’re supposed to be. I’m not accusing any holding company of doing anything unethical or illegal, but it just is a different lens to look at business, and that has an effect on how you operate as an agency.

Is independence something that clients value?

I think there’s a range that exists. We currently have a very important client that has told us point blank they would not have considered us if we were not independent. So in some regards it is crucial and critical. When you look around at who you’re pitching against and you realize you’re pitching against three or four other holding companies, and you happen to win the pitch, clearly they were open to a holding company solution - you just happened to win the business.

I think in the cases of clients that didn’t necessarily expect it or demand it or require it, I feel like a funny thing happens on the way in our marketing journey together where they really do come to appreciate it, because we can do things just because it’s the right thing to do for them. We can over-invest. We can throw time, talent and bodies at problems to solve them. Our process makes us a little bit more nimble. We don’t have to get things checked through some bean counters at the headquarters that say yes or no to every hire or investment or every decision we make.

We are operating on a very human level with our clients. We are here, human to human, to deliver for them, to work for them, to create incredible ideas and put those in the world on their behalf to drive their business. There’s a personal responsibility and personal connection that happens when you’re in the trenches with someone working like that. I think that matters in the long run, and I think clients can feel that over time - that other gear that the client-agency relationship can hit because it’s human to human.

One of the most lauded campaigns of the past few years has been the #OptOutside campaign that VP&B created for REI. Do you think being independent had anything to do with the fact that the agency was able to actually bring that idea to life and make it a success?

I’m fairly confident OptOutside would never have happened if it wasn’t done by an independent agency. Due to the circumstances and the ‘never-been-done-before’ idea, we had to create a completely unique contract that could accommodate our needs as well as REI’s. It required us to take on a significant amount of risk, and most holding companies have fairly standard liability contracts that they don’t tend to operate outside of.

For independent agencies that may be having a tough time breaking through or attracting business, what advice would you give them?

Stay true to who you are. One thing we learned along the way is, when you pitch for instance, you can’t worry about what all of the other agencies are going to do. You can’t control it, you can’t worry about it. You have to bring something that you believe in. We always talk about the courage of our convictions. When you have that courage of your conviction in an idea, an approach, an execution, or a strategy, you’ve got to live and breathe it and bring it with passion.

Be who you are, and lead with your values. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Don’t try to pretend like you have 56 offices or that you can handle the direct mail portion of the business when you can’t.

Another little piece of advice would be to look at the pitch competition. If it’s four "ginormous" holding companies and one tiny independent, then they’re just inviting you in to act like the court jester to amuse them. So assess your competition to see if you belong in the group because if you don’t, then you’re just wasting time being brought in like a minstrel to entertain.

At Cannes, you’ll be on a panel called ‘Why Independence is the Key to Creativity.’ Why do you think that independence is the key to creativity?

I think there’s a bunch of factors, but I keep going back to the fact that you’re trying to do the right thing for the right reasons.

This is not a company that has to show a certain level of growth. We don’t have to worry about anything other than delivering something meaningful in the marketplace that works for the client.

We also go into these relationships leading with our values and leading with our heart, and I think that combination of being intent on doing the right thing and leading with values creates a trust with clients. And that’s the holy grail in this business, and every creative knows it. It’s that you have a client, and there’s a mutual respect and trust, and you get a chance to do the kind of creative work that makes a difference and truly has impact. And that’s a beautiful thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Minda Smiley

Minda Smiley is a reporter at The Drum covering creativity and advertising. Based in Philadelphia, she primarily covers independent agencies and B2B marketing. She also oversees The Drum’s “Independent Influence,” a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies. During her time at The Drum, she has covered industry events including SXSW, ANA Masters of Marketing, 4A’s Transformation and C2 Montréal. She is a graduate of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

All by Minda