Independent agencies need to get on board with the Evergreen Movement

Credit: JJ Moran/Big Brick Productions

To work in today’s advertising industry is to know uncertainty. Studies show that 58% of marketers plan to review their agencies in the next year. The endless cycle of reviews and the need to constantly churn out pitches has left agencies struggling to keep up with the short term and failing to think strategically about the long term. In some ways, it’s hard to blame them. In these circumstances, long-term thinking can seem like a waste of time. Who knows what new technology, industry or cultural shift will pop up next to render all our best-laid plans null and void?

This problem is especially prevalent at independent agencies. While many of our holding company counterparts have reacted to changing conditions by beefing up their agencies’ capabilities and offering flexible working models to their clients, too many independents are still hanging on to the coattails of one or two star creatives, leaving themselves one personnel change away from total irrelevance. Even when this model works, the result is usually a 15 - 20 year run of success that culminates in a sale to a larger entity, turning the business into just another commodity.

Should that kind of exit be our goal as creatives and as business people? Should we pour our souls into a business just so we can sell it off later? There’s a better way for independent agencies to stay ahead of change as we plan for the future and maintain our independence at the same time.

Some in the business community are starting to become familiar with The Tugboat Institute, a collection of purpose-driven entrepreneurs who are interested in building companies to last, not sell. Each year, members gather in Sun Valley to share experiences as they work to future-proof their businesses - and keep them independent. As an attendee this summer, I met and exchanged ideas with business leaders from a wide variety of industries and stages of the business lifecycle. But for all the diversity I saw there, I didn’t run into another advertising CEO.

That’s a shame, and hopefully, it changes, because the Tugboat philosophy, called Evergreen, is particularly relevant to the challenges independent advertising agencies face. Frankly, it could turn into a competitive advantage. Evergreen is built around defining characteristics called The 7Ps. Here’s how they can be built into the foundation of a strong, forward thinking independent agency that’s an asset to marketers.

Purpose: Every business needs a vision and a mission beyond profits or a potential sale. For an agency, this is critical for helping marketers feel connected to our business. Agencies looking to sell out may partner with a client for the wrong reasons, such as quick money or to beef up a roster - and marketers can sniff out that lack of authenticity immediately. If we fundamentally exist to fulfill our own passions, and part of that passion is helping like-minded businesses grow, marketers will enter into the relationship with a stronger sense of trust that will result in a longer and more profitable relationship.

Perseverance: Everyday our industry strives to come to terms with change as we learn new skills, new platforms, and new ways of working with our clients. It’s not hard for independent agencies to feel the pressure to either hop on a trend too quickly or to forgo innovation and ride on old models of success. Instead, indie shops must persevere in the face of this change. This could mean taking a page out of DDB’s book and implementing a flexible working model - something that the agency is doing right now in its new relationship with McDonald’s. In our case at GYK Antler, this means putting our clients and our capabilities into different tiers that we constantly reevaluate based on market needs. It allows us to respond to clients with a different SWAT team, no matter the brief.

People First: This is a no-brainer for creative businesses. But it’s not just about creating a fun environment. Instead, invest in the capabilities that bring out your employees’ strengths and interests - be it production, content creation, or audio branding. Also, proactively seek out clients that align with the teams’ interests. It’ll bring out the best work in your people and instill confidence in clients that with the right combination of skillsets, we can find a way to solve their problem in the most effective and engaged way possible.

Profit: Profit is an essential component of our survival and independence. But it’s not a means to an end - rather, agencies should view profit as a way to benchmark and ensure that they are on the right track and making thoughtful decisions. And share it with your team!

Private: As creatives, we need to place more value on our independence. That’s not to say that all holding companies are bad - on the contrary, at their best, they exist to provide marketers with the bevvy of resources needed to make smart, modern marketing decisions. We need to emulate that model to an extent. But at their worst, they can squash creative vision completely. By staying privately-held, creative talent becomes free from the fear that their vision won’t live up to its potential; it also allows agencies to apply creativity towards other things, like building and adjusting strategies in the way we feel is best for our clients and that will set them up for long-term success.

Paced Growth: When you aren’t beholden to investors, you can set your own benchmarks in the long- and short-term, and focus on steady, attainable growth. Clients these days have major trust issues, and when they feel that you’ve put your own growth into careful consideration as an agency, they’re much more likely to feel that you’re building a safety net for their longevity, as well.

Pragmatic Innovation: In advertising, you must innovate, or die (or become bored). But with innovation comes risk. Evergreen encourages businesses to build their innovation strategy around calculated, capital-efficient risks. In this way, innovation can be specific and purpose-built, instead of in the interest of impressing investors or as an overarching strategy of a holding company. It’s yet another mindset that will bring relief to skeptical marketers. We have spun out offerings, acquired talent, and even launched our own products to freely practice our craft and diversify our revenue models.

The beauty of the 7Ps is that they are truly philosophical and summarize the business practices of select independent shops. However, their simplicity and flexibility means that they can be applied to almost any business, and unlike so many business trends they’ll still be relevant for years to come. In our fast-changing world of advertising, it’s time more agencies got on board for the long haul.

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