iMedia Connection

4 small agencies that scored big clients

Tricia Despres

Some might call them the underdogs. They are the ones that are passed over due to their size or lack of name recognition. They are the shops that show up at a pitch and find that they must scale a mountain of doubt.

But they are often also the ones that have the sheer fire to get the job done.

4 small agencies that scored big clients

iMedia recently sat down with four "underdog" boutique agencies to get the scoop on how they landed huge clients in 2012, how they plan to do it again in 2013, and their thoughts on the age-old question: Does size really matter?

Mekanism and Method Home

The agency and the brand had a ton in common. Their proximity to one another was a plus. They both liked to take a risk. And they certainly didn't like to follow some sort of pre-determined map on the way to success.

"Method redefined the consumer packaged goods industry, and we like to think that we are helping redefine the new agency model," says Jason Harris, Mekanism president and CEO. "Method is an innovative brand that likes to take risks, and there are few things that Mekanism respects more than that."

Indeed, the early 2012 agency of record win of Method energized the San Francisco shop of Mekanism, which approached the pitch drastically differently than it had done in the past. "The typical pitch is get a brief, go away, and come back with a massive dog and pony razzle-dazzle show," says Harris, who was up against three other agencies during the review. "We started this pitch as if we were already working together. We collaborated with the brand team every step of the way. We shared early strategic frameworks and rough creative concepts. By the time we got to the 'official' pitch, the ideas were as much theirs as ours. We won, and then we just kept working together."

Harris says, in his eyes, the "deal was sealed" during the pitch when Method executives began picking different concepts as their favorites. They were basically giving Mekanism a road map of the concepts with which they planned to move forward. And yes, once again, the little agency that could came out on top.

"We like being called the underdog because it connotes innovative and creative thinking," Harris says. "The size of an agency certainly does not correlate to the size and possibilities of those agencies ideas."

Rokkan and Sharp Electronics

The days of calling full-service digital agency Rokkan a "boutique agency" might be numbered. Acquired by Publicis Group in late December, Rokkan and its 70 New York-based employees are currently in a state of transition. Yet, its size might continue to play in its favor.

"I hate to call us a small agency, because by definition we are, but I think sometimes people get the wrong idea of what that means," says Harley Block, Rokkan's executive director of brand development and marketing. "I like to say that our size has been an advantage thus far. If you look around the industry, larger agencies are starting to re-operationalize themselves to be more reflective of smaller shops. There are lots of things you lose when you become too big. I definitely feel we are in a sweet spot in our lifecycle."

Indeed, Rokkan's nimble nature seemed to be a determining factor when awarded the title of social agency of record for Sharp Electronics in November. "It was about making sure the fit was there," Block says of the pitch that began in summer 2012. "Were they willing to work in partnership with us? We didn't want a client who was just looking for an agency to manage their Facebook and Twitter profile. We felt that they were looking for a strategic partner vs. a production shop, and those types of opportunities are not only where we flourish, but where we can create the most value for our clients."

Questus and Martha Stewart Home Office with Avery

When San Francisco advertising agency Questus launched the national advertising campaign for the Martha Stewart Home Office with Avery line of home organization products back in October 2012, its team members were ready to do a little showing off to its bigger agency competitors. "This partnership allowed us to prove our creative mettle in both broadcast and digital, as well as affirm our expertise in consumer insights and strategy," says Joseph Dumont, partner at Questus. "This opportunity allowed our entire creative team to shine alongside some of the best and brightest in the brand world."

Claiming "true serendipity" as the reason for the seamless connection between brand and agency, Dumont says the pitch relied heavily on creative treatment, consumer insights, and the boutique agency's media strategy. "As with all client pitches, you hope to see nodding heads and smiles during your presentation, as opposed to the BlackBerry Heisman of disinterest," chuckles Dumont. "Fortunately, we received smiles."

Questus' execs agree that the competition in this particular pitch was fierce. "We were up against industry rock stars in the agency world. Period," Dumont says. "In any RFP exercise with big brands, you are up against the best and the brightest agencies in the industry, so you never know what they're going to bring to the table. The competition to be an agency partner for any big brand is brutal, and in this case, not only did they bring something additional to the table, they brought the entire table."

Sub Rosa and Target

2012 was an amazing year for Sub Rosa, which houses only 30 employees in its New York office on a busy day. The agency brought three of its biggest clients (General Electric, Nike, and 2012 business win Target) to the 2012 London Olympics, which Sub Rosa founder and CEO Michael Ventura called "one of the most salient memories of 2012."

"Unlike many traditional agencies, we operate at the intersection of strategic advisory services, solution design, and actual implementation," Ventura says. "Our work at the Olympics allowed us to utilize all our skill sets in providing each of our clients a holistic point of view and an ability to partner with them across research, design, prototyping, testing, and final project outcomes. It was truly a humbling experience to be on the world's stage with such fantastic brands, and we were very proud of the work we put out during that time."

Cutting through the noise at the Olympics while remaining true to your brand is no easy task. Working within the local laws and parameters of the International Olympic Committee, Sub Rosa was effectively able to create bespoke experiences for each brand. "Being able to do this on the world's stage, during one of the most highly internationally attended events in the world, was certainly something of which we can be proud," Ventura says.

Unlike Harris at Mekanism, Ventura doesn't consider it appropriate to lump Sub Rosa into the category of underdog. "'Underdog' is a term typically applied to unlikely winners," Ventura says. "We don't view ourselves in that light. We are confident in our capabilities and our approach, and we compete with some of the biggest agencies and consultancies in the world on projects. That said, we're not the kind of firm that's looking to eat the competition's lunch. We know what we do well, and we know what we don't want to do."

Tricia Despres is a freelance writer.

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