3 Key Takeaways from the 2018 Ad Age Small Agency Conference

This year was my 5th consecutive year attending the Ad Age Small Agency Awards. Since my first experience in 2014 in Austin, it’s consistently been one of my favorite conferences of the year. Part of the draw is the intimacy, like when I joined the Small Agency of the Year Silver Winner, Proof, at their private bar in downtown Austin. (Isn’t that part of every founder’s dream in starting an agency?!)

Each year, I genuinely enjoy celebrating those that take a risk, build a team, and create phenomenal work. Additionally, the curated perspective and insights with which I walk away make the conference an even more valuable investment.

The Three Most Important Takeaways From the 2018 Ad Age Small Agency Conference and Awards:

1. Making it to that stage requires years of hard work:

This year’s conference award recipients were refreshingly honest about the work involved in building a small agency. Not a single speaker, panelist, or awarded principal made their journey sound easy. It’s a big risk venturing out, being “small”, and remaining independent. Brands likely aren’t beating down your door, there are challenges in retaining top talent, and, ultimately, you’re responsible for closing the clients that will move you forward. But the Small Agency Awards is a reminder of the incredible success stories! When strategic planning, passion, and perseverance collide, great things happen.

2. Get off your island and begin to congregate:

The Small Agency Awards especially showcased the importance of congregating. It’s not about commiserating together, but instead, getting off your “island” and finding inspiration and leadership insights. It’s invaluable to spend time connecting with other agency principals that are wearing the same shoes as you. Additionally, the Ad Age team develops relevant content and programming to facilitate growth, learning conversations, and insight that will bring a new dynamic to your agency.

3. Winning the right client is everything:  

What I recognized during the award ceremony is that agencies don’t win awards on their own; it takes the right kind of client to “win.” That doesn’t mean you have to be awarded, but winning is a successful engagement with the client. You can’t innovate with a conservative client. It’s hard to go viral with a client that wants to do it the way it’s always been done. Ambitious agencies require ambitious clients – in order to facilitate effective work, to challenge your team, and to maintain a healthy client/agency relationship.

What It Really Takes to Win The Right Clients: An Ad Age Small Agency Conference Case Study

This year, Erica Fite and Katie Keating of Fancy NYC not only talked about sex from the stage, they also shared their tenacious journey of pursuing (including a ride-along to sex shops in the midwest) and ultimately winning their dream client. I had the opportunity to sit down with them the next day and pick their brains regarding how they want to grow the agency. They conveyed that managing new client growth themselves is not sustainable. In order to grow, the way they want to grow, with the clients they know they need to take them there, it requires dedicated strategy and resources committed to finding, courting, and winning new clients.

If you’re a small agency owner or executive, cheers to you. When it’s hard, remember why you started your shop and what you chose to leave. Build your network. Even if you can’t attend conferences, find a network of agency principals with whom you can grow. And make the investment in your agency’s success. Don’t hope that the client that will put you on the podium will walk into your office. Proactively commit to the strategy and resources that will expose your talent to the brands you set out to work with.

Be your best, invest where it matters, and the work will follow.   

Eric Brown

Eric is the Vice President of Catapult. As an expert in agency new business, Eric consults marketing services companies with a focus on optimizing new business strategy and execution. He is responsible for gaining an understanding of each organization’s core capabilities and unique culture to craft compelling positioning and go-to-market strategy in order to impact incremental growth.