By Egotist / /
Give us a brief overview of your agency – when you were founded; how many employees (full-time and average number of freelancers you use at any given time); major clients; where you’re located, etc.
We were founded in April of 2002, headquartered in Fidi, San Francisco. We have five full time professionals, and regularly contract additional strategists and resources as needed, dependent on the nature of the client projects we take on. For example, we frequently partner with design firms, ad agencies, PR firms, research firms, IT firms and talented freelancers to marshal the right resources for our projects. Currently we’re working with several tech clients including Salesforce, AppDynamics, Vmware and IBM along with higher ed clients University at Buffalo and UCSB, but on average we also have health, real estate & hospitality, and consumer clients in the mix.
Why did the world need your agency? Why did you start it?
We believe in the value of thinking strategically about an organization’s identity – in other words, who they are, what they do, and why they matter to their critical audiences. It happens too often that creative “branding” projects begin without doing this thinking upfront. We saw that many of our clients needed these strategic insights into identity, but that not every design firm or ad agency was capable of providing them.
We started our firm to partner with design firms and agencies in this strategic capacity. Working as a partner or an independent contractor, we enable agencies to win accounts they might not win otherwise. We deliberately did not build design or advertising capabilities, because we didn’t want to compete with these firms. We reciprocate by recommending our design and advertising partners to our strategy clients.
What benefits do you think a small shop has over medium-sized or large agencies?
As a small agency, we enjoy low overhead, flexibility, and speed of response. Our principals lead every engagement from beginning to end. Being a small agency enables a free flow of ideas between our people, helping us get to thoughtful answers quicker. Because we don’t require constant volume to feed our overhead, we are able to choose projects that matter to us, and to which we can make major contributions.
We didn’t expect large clients would hire us directly, but we’ve been surprised that they often do, for the reasons stated above.
What keeps you up at night when running a small agency?
Agencies of all sizes, who work on projects vs. retainers worry about where the next client will come from. We’ve been able to manage this by achieving “survivability” – we stay small and focus on partnerships.
We also worry about building the highest quality team we can for every assignment. Since we don’t have in-house design or advertising capabilities, we marshal them from high quality partners. We work hard to ensure we have the right team to fulfill our client commitments.
Network agencies dominate so much of our profession – from news to awards to how clients think about advertising. How does a small agency like yours make its mark?
Rather than focusing on winning awards (we don’t know of any awards for strategy, anyway), we help our partner agencies win awards. Many of our clients and partners are referrals, or returning clients, because of the high value we’ve been able to produce for clients, and the credibility we build for our partners. In essence, we make our mark through credibility rather than volume, which is a stealthier way, but it builds momentum.
Do you find that clients care that you’re small? And if so, how do you address that with them in pitches or meetings?
We have had only one large multinational tell us they needed a larger firm, and the truth was they did. We’ve been hired by many other large clients, because they can see that we have the specialized experience required, that a nimble senior team will be working on their project, and that the work we do does not require legions of employees.
How does your size affect the quality of the work you turn out?
Having a small team that works together seamlessly enables us to work quickly and effectively, and to share ideas in an open environment. This, combined with the experience of our people, results in bigger ideas, and getting the job done right the first time.
The only limitation our size presents is the number of engagements we choose to accept.
When it comes to your vision and culture, what do small agencies offer that the big guys just can’t?
Vision: we believe in the value of specialization. The specialized identity-driven business strategies that we develop require expertise and skills that would not be justified in most agencies, because these programs are not an on-going need for most clients. Even the largest companies, firms and agencies couldn’t justify the overhead of putting these specialized professionals on staff.
Culture: we are curious, open minded, and interested in new ideas and industries. This gives us valuable cross-industry exposure. Because we work on projects rather than retainers, we also have no conflicts of interest, so we can go deep into industries. Our structure is horizontal – without layers and departments, information and ideas flow freely, and anyone in the office can make a contribution.
What’s the biggest surprise you learned from running a small shop?
We’ve been surprised that being small, with focused expertise, has not limited the size or complexity of the assignment we can take on. We often get more done, faster, than agencies several times our size.
We’ve also been surprised that we don’t have to work very hard to defend our size. Most clients and prospects see us as what we are, people who come to do a clearly defined job well.
What do you love most about keeping things small?
Everyone in the firm knows what’s going on and can contribute easily as necessary or desired. Also, we are able to choose our future without answering to a holding company. It’s our prerogative to take on complex assignments for blue chip clients, or passion projects for cultural non-profits, and we do it all.
How big do you want to get?
Big enough to meet the growth and financial aspirations of our people, but not so big, that we all become managers instead of idea generators.