‘We challenge each other to think bigger’: Independent Insights featuring AgileCat’s Peter Madden

Peter Madden, president and chief executive of Philadelphia-based AgileCat

Welcome to Independent Insights, a regular series that features interviews with independent agency leaders across the country. This week we’re featuring a Q&A with Peter Madden, president and chief executive of AgileCat.

In 2001, Peter Madden decided to open up his own scrappy shop in his hometown of Philadelphia after finding himself disillusioned with the layers and processes found at larger agencies.

He settled on the name AgileCat for his new venture, hoping the moniker would relay its ability to nimbly create and execute work for clients both big and small.

16 years later, AgileCat has made a name for itself as one of the top creative agencies in Philadelphia, working with local clients like the King of Prussia District as well as big-name ones like GlaxoSmithKline.

In addition to campaign work, AgileCat specializes in naming and branding corporate headquarters for companies. The agency is currently handling positioning, naming, logo design, interior design and installations for Five Below’s new global headquarters in Philadelphia, which is set to open its doors sometime next year.

The small shop has also garnered a reputation for its culture: it was voted one of the city’s ‘Best Places to Work’ by the Philadelphia Business Journal earlier this year, just two years after the publication named Madden one of its ‘Most Admired CEOs.’

The Drum caught up with Madden to find out more about why he started AgileCat and how he keeps his team motivated each day (post-weekend Sweetgreen salads is one way). See what he had to say below.

Why did you start AgileCat?

It was a crazy beginning. I didn’t jump from some agency with a client to help me pad the beginning of it, so it was truly a bootstrap operation at first.

I started it because what I saw coming out of larger agencies was a lot of sluggishness. Just not enough efficiency in terms of operations. I’ve seen people get burned out, so what I wanted to do was create something which was based on a high level of creativity that delivered with a lot of speed, hence the name AgileCat. I think “agile” kind of says it all in terms of not just the speed at which we can deliver high level creative, but also how efficiently we can move from radically different clients. Our range is crazy in terms of what our clients do and also the depth of what we provide. So that was really the model, and if anything we’ve only become more efficient since time has gone on, which is great.

What role does independence play at the agency?

We’re proudly independent. We’ve been approached by agencies to be acquired and I’ve always had a quick 'no' in that department, even when things for the whole industry were hitting more challenging times back in ’08. It plays a major role.

I think when you’re independent, you can just be more efficient. The culture can be really strong. We’re always adding to the culture and making it better day by day. That kind of freedom lends itself to more robust growth, better ideas, [and] more campaigns. It’s the kind of place where people aren’t scared to speak up, and that’s from the newest person all the way up. Even with me – I play a chief creative and a CEO role here – they’ll have no problem saying, ‘Peter, I know there’s a better idea than what you just presented.’ And it’s cool, it’s all good. ‘No’ is the most powerful word in advertising, and we challenge each other here to think bigger. I think when you’re independent and have the freedom to do that, the result is always going to be better.

What are some of the ways you keep employees motivated and inspired?

It’s a combination of things. Internally, little surprises go a long way. I’ll just come out of nowhere and say, ‘hey, lunch on me today.’ I’ll do that a few times a week. At least every three to four weeks we go out as a group. More and more I find that when we get outside the office together and just start talking, new ideas and fresh ideas come out. Having these get-togethers is how we developed our mascot, which is a six-foot-tall Siberian tiger.

I heard a long time ago that the sound of laughter is innovation – a client of mine said that – and I really believe that. I think when people are laughing and having fun, they’re more free to come up with bigger and better ideas, and the results speak for themselves.

What's one of your favorite campaigns or pieces of work that AgileCat has done?

We’re loving the Academy of Natural Sciences work that we’ve been doing. It’s the oldest natural science museum in North America. They have internal designers and all that, but they really needed to have some more consistency in terms of what they're presenting. So we’ve reworked their entire image. We just presented – and now it’s up on the building itself – their new logo. That for us has been really cool. It’s been a combination of just hardcore brand design and also some really fun advertising.

What is the biggest challenge you face on a day-to-day basis as an agency head?

It’s probably the consistent need to be able to shift and pivot really quickly from one thing to another. I’m heading everything here, from working with employees to help motivate their work to our space itself now that we’ve signed a new lease, [and] working with the interior designers and architects in terms of what we’re going to do to this space. I learned a long time ago that you’re either in the business or on the business, so that is a careful balance for me. I love playing that creative role and having those big ideas, but then getting out of everyone's way to get back on the business itself: the vision here, how we’re pursuing new business and developing the agency on the whole.

Independent Insights is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

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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.

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