Independent agencies - built to last or built to sell?

Some agency owners grow their businesses with the promise of a big pay day front of mind. Other, however, value creative freedom and individuality over money. Here, we speak to some of the agencies flying the flag of independence.

All too often the ‘independents vs networks’ debate is dumbed down to overly simplified caricatures, with networks cast as big and evil while independents play the role of small and trod upon.But just try telling that to Wieden + Kennedy. Or to Elmwood for that matter. Or to any one of the agencies currently challenging the concept that independent means small. Likewise, it can be dangerous to use independent as shorthand for good and network for bad. A quick look around at some of the best agencies in the world shows many networked players, while few of us would struggle to name an independent agency whose work isn’t up to scratch.So, with these complexities in mind, are there any specific benefits for a client in choosing an independent agency over a huge corporation or network? Does the ownership status of an agency really have a part to play in the quality of work being produced behind its doors, and what stops some of the more successful independents from cashing in on their success?Gary Holt of independent design consultancy SomeOne is ever mindful of the fact that he and cofounders David Law and Simon Manchipp all came from networked agencies. He explains that it would be naive to assume networks don’t have their merits, saying “we can hardly presume to criticise our former employers and their influence on our creative abilities today”.But with respects duly paid, Holt isn’t slow in extolling the virtues of independence for the agency and its clients, not least the fact that creatives and clients enjoy a much closer relationship at an independent agency that they would at a large network.“You work with the senior people,” he says, “not the ‘post-pitch’ team”. “We’re not big enough to have an A and a B team.”Having decision makers on the shop floor rather than in a separate office in a different city in another time zone can mean a world of difference in an agency’s output, giving more freedom for expression to “try new things and stand for something, not constrained by network pressures and the desire to ‘keep-it-in-the-network’,” says Holt.There is a creative bravery that comes from people in a business having a stake in the company and, with a recent poll by The Drum showing SomeOne to be the most respected design agency among its peers, this bravery definitely shows through to the agency’s work.Jonathan Sands, chairman of Elmwood, has been in the business long enough not to rely on outdated presumptions or be cajoled into accepting a predetermined role in the agency hierarchy.Under his tutelage the agency has grown from its base in Leeds to boast offices in London, Melbourne, New York, Singapore and Hong Kong, and he has seen the agency landscape change significantly in that time. He has also been approached many times over the years and considered a number of acquisitive offers, but has thus far managed to keep the agency independent and avoided turning any courtship into marriage. But that is not to say he doesn’t see the attraction of networks to clients.“Clients today are global more than national,” he says, “and in turn they need agencies with a global footprint.”He adds: “Procurement departments need to tick off, amongst other things, ISO standards, firewall protocols and levels of indemnity insurance cover. These are things that the networks play to. And so while clients may ‘like’ having an agency as a running mate that is built on passion and creativity first, the fundamentals are that the rational box counts ahead of the emotional one.”As clients have evolved into global entities, Sands has watched the agency landscape adapt, with “a large proportion of the ‘Top 100’ design businesses that entered this millennium having either been sold, shrunk or died”.“Only a handful have grown,” he explains.According to Sands, the fact that Elmwood has grown and remained independent is first and foremost down to his never having been particularly motivated by money. And, when he talks excitedly about the thrill of being surrounded by creativity on a daily basis, it is clear to see that there is ambition beyond a big payday.“The truth is that our job is a privilege,” he says. “Our remuneration is fair as opposed to handsome, but the real bonus is that everyday we get the opportunity to exercise our creative muscle on a whole variety of contrasting brand challenges, from independent farmers wanting to take their sausages to market to sexual wellbeing brands wanting to do the same with their battery operated equivalents.”Sands argues that the time is now for agencies who are both global in scale and independent: “They can tick procurement boxes and rational footprint and resource needs whilst retaining a passionate independence driven by an ability to stay focused on the work. It is certainly true of Elmwood. We are finding that we are winning work because of our independence, and not despite it.”One thing abundantly clear is that Elmwood is Sands’s passion and his lifetime’s work. It is hard to see why he would ever sell.“Elmwood wouldn’t be Elmwood as a small fish in a very big pond,” he says. “I believe we would lose freedom to try crazy things. I’d have to justify every financial decision as opposed to just doing what we felt was right. I think I’d lose the entrepreneurial culture that has driven us to where we are today – a position that our clients seem to like and respond to.”“Moreover how could I sell out on my colleagues and friends, the people I work with, people who have backed and supported me and bought into an Elmwood way, just for personal gain?”Sands does however steer clear of making promises, admitting that he’ll never say never.“Succession and life after Jonathan and others here is continually in the back of my mind. That may mean handing the business on to the next generation of leaders here, but likewise if the right partner came along tomorrow that fast-tracked our ambitions and embraced our values, then we may well take a different view. For now though, our ambition is to be ‘the best independent, never ending, brand story telling consultancy in the world’. You have to aim big, right?”One man with no such qualms about making big promises is Dan Wieden. Co-founder of Wieden + Kennedy, responsible for Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ tagline, and de facto spokesperson for the independent movement, Wieden leaves little room for interpretation when he proclaims: “We are never, ever gonna sell this fucker.”Neil Christie, managing director of the agency’s London office, is somewhat more pragmatic, but similarly finds it difficult to contain his passion for the agency and its status as a flag bearer for the independent movement as his reasoning turns into a rallying cry: “We don’t answer to the City, or to shareholders; we answer to our clients, ourselves and the demands of the work. We have the freedom to do what we feel is right. We have the power to say no.”One of the world’s biggest independent with eight offices and 1,220 creatives from 52 countries, Wieden + Kennedy has been named independent agency of the year the last three years running by Cannes Lions, and Christie is clear about why clients like to work with independents.“In today’s world, not every client needs or wants to pay for 150 offices around the world. Modern clients want to build a strong and disciplined global brand with smart local/regional execution to support their global effort.”It is with this in mind that Wieden + Kennedy has grown its very own global micro-network, with a small number of regional hubs that work together for the good of its clients.“By starting every office from scratch and not following the traditional model where you buy a local agency and slap your global logo on its front door, we ensure each Wieden + Kennedy office reflects the DNA of the Wieden + Kennedy brand.“We are one agency with eight offices. At big networks, it can be more like lots of different and ill assorted shops of varying quality, that all just happen to have the same name over the door. It is a set-up that makes it easier to ensure work is consistently excellent across the entire company.Additionally, Christie says, “people know we’re not going to sell out and become shit”.“That helps us to attract some of the best creative talent in the world.”While no one would advocate writing off networks completely, the sheer passion emanating from independents offers up a compelling argument. An agency driven by the simple desire to deliver amazing work represents a much more significant benefit to clients than one driven by external shareholders and demands for double-digit returns.This feature was first published in the The Drum's 5 July 2013 issue, which can be purchased through The Drum store.

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