Creative Report Card 2020: Indies rise to the top

How independent agencies have tapped into their values and capabilities to thrive in today's business climate.

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You are reading a deep dive into what helped this year’s winners propel themselves to the top of the 2020 Creative Report Card. Be sure to check out other coverage of this year’s class, as well as the full rankings across brands, agencies, creatives and strategists.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of strategy.

It’s interesting to note that, of the top 20 agencies on the Creative Report Card, seven are independent agencies. And in a bit of landslide win, owner-operated Rethink was the most medaled advertising firm in Canada for 2019. The 180-person shop was all over the map, with 35 of its clients gracing almost every awards annual that strategy counts in its report card.

Could the agency’s impressive showing, combined with this year’s noticeable indie turnout, be a sign of a renaissance to come? Some pundits peg 2020 to be “the golden age for independent agencies,” while reports describe the current business climate – shrinking budgets, shifting models and rising project-based work – as fertile ground for nimble shops unchained by shareholders’ shackles.

“Without all the red tape, and this is generally speaking, independent agencies are better at adapting faster and better at providing certain specialized services,” says Stephen Argent, founder and CEO of marketing and agency search consultancy Listenmore. “That’s really the perceived value that independent agencies offer – they have fewer layers and a stronger interest in being hands on.”

Beyond being adaptable to an industry in flux, Rethink’s Tom Shepansky believes independents are also more aligned with a growing cultural force. For the last 20 years, he and co-founders Ian Grais and Chris Staples have governed the agency with a set of values that put people first, product second and profit third. From an all-employee profit-sharing model to sabbatical plans, Rethink practices “conscious capitalism” – a deliberate balance between doing what’s right and building a business, says Shepansky. It’s these type of principles and priorities that he believes the next gen of talent and client leaders are attracted to.

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“I think the workforce today has a real need for values that guide business,” he says. “I see it among anyone under 35, they’re looking for companies – and companies are looking for agencies – that are doing the right thing.” Whether you’re publicly or privately held, you can still have strong values, “it’s just a bit easier when you’re not beholden to the quarterly demands of shareholders,” says Shepansky.

Indeed, marketers like Interac’s Andrea Danovitch look at values, just as much as creative and chemistry, when choosing an agency. The CMO says she specifically sought out an independent shop to handle its business, selecting Zulu Alpha Kilo (the #6 CRC Agency) based on “its size, culture and values” which were a fit with the brand.

The agency nurtures a high performance culture, but it also pushes back on wasting hours pitching spec work, a stance that’s given the shop industry profile (and one that could only be possible in an independent structure). Meanwhile, in 2019, National Post featured Zulu as one of “Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures,” while Deloitte added the shop to its list of “Canada’s Best Managed Companies.”

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Jack Bensimon, partner and founder of Bensimon Byrne (#7 CRC Agency) believes another cultural force that could drive business to boutiques is “a shift to greater accountability.”

“I think that’s one of the biggest changes in advertising that I’ve seen over the last 30 years. You could argue that it’s driven and by digital marketing, data and measurement, with a bigger focus on ROI – but I think it’s having an interesting cultural impact on the marketing profession,” Bensimon adds. “As clients are focused on the way dollars are being spent, that culture of accountability becomes more prevalent in the way they look to their partners. I think that’s a competitive advantage that independent ownership offers.” As a business owner, there’s no safety net or room to become complacent or fail, says Bensimon, you have to earn the business every day.

All of this isn’t to say network agencies can’t walk like independents.

It would be unfair to re-categorize some agencies just because there’s been a change in ownership, says Bensimon. “I’m thinking about the Taxi’s, the John St.’s and the Mosaic’s – the most prominent formerly independent agencies, I would argue, have largely maintained their operational independence.”

Indeed, while Vision 7’s Cossette (#2 Agency) and its sister agencies were acquired by Blue Focus in 2014, it’s continued operating its “campus model” (where a lead agency is surrounded by other service offerings and areas of expertise). Led by Brett Marchand (currently CEO of Vision 7 and soon-to-be CEO of Blue Impact, a spin-off of Blue Focus’ global agencies), the model is now being tapped as the model pursued for the rest of the company.

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Independents also don’t have a lock on creativity. BBDO, for one, placed third on the report card and was also awarded an Agency of the Year title in 2019. BBDO’s co-ECD Denise Rossetto previously told strategy that maintaining the ethos of a “boutique network” is part of global CCO David Lubars’ vision; while BBDO Canada’s CEO Dom Caruso said inspiration is the lifeblood of the creative shop, which it nurtures though things like cross-departmental “Factory” workshops led by Rossetto and her partner Todd Mackie. During these bi-monthly meetings, creatives, strategists, account managers and technologists dissect the strategy and cultural insights behind creative campaigns.

Having “skin in the game,” says Zulu founder and CCO Zak Mroueh is something that some clients are attracted to – as an entrepreneur of an independent shop, says Mroueh, you’re a proven risk-taker. But even network shops, like FCB (#5 Agency), can embrace that entrepreneurial spirit. The four-time Digital AOY-winning agency has made pioneering moves with Tyler Turnbull at its helm. In recent years, the CEO turned the creative shop into a bit of an early adopter, investing in digital training that equips the entire agency with emerging software and tech know-how.

While an indie’s footprint is no match for a network’s scale, some global brands recently looked past this shortcoming to work with (comparatively) smaller independent shops.

In the U.S., McDonald’s named Wieden + Kennedy as its AOR after decades with holding co. agencies, most recently Omnicom’s DDB. Here in Canada, Rethink has been charged with leading the global strategy for Arc’teryx and WestJet, which Shepansky says is work that “probably would have gone to a multinational in the past.”

Shepansky says Rethink solved the reach riddle by joining global independent network ICOM in 2018. As a member of the group (which is signed with 80 shops in 60 countries) it tapped Golley Slater in England and Netco in France for their local insights when pitching WestJet on marketing its European routes. Rethink won the account and has since rolled out U.K and E.U.-specific work, again, in collaboration with the London and Paris boutiques.

Getting access to global insights so that it can help brands move into new territories was also a “weakness” for Lg2 (#4 CRC Agency), admits partner and CEO Claude Auchu. “It’s always been a struggle to convince our clients that we can help them on their international business, and we were always partnering with [research firms] and media companies to get the data and insights from markets outside of Canada,” says Auchu. So in November the shop joined another family of global boutiques, Worldwide Partners Inc. (WPI).

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John Harris, president and CEO of WPI, says being a part of the 82-year-old network allows Lg2 to collaborate with 70 agencies, sharing brand and market intelligence, as well as business best practices.

Harris says he’s witnessing more clients and search consultants reach out to the network directly, instead of the other way around. He’s optimistic about the traction and likes to think that independent agencies aren’t just experiencing a “moment” but rather a “movement.”

While time will only tell whether an indie renaissance grows from the current climate, Bensimon wonders if boutiques have ever truly been out of fashion. Looking back at strategy’s AOY Hall of Fame, there’s enough mention of agencies like Zig, Geoffrey B. Roche & Partners Advertising and John St. (before MDC, IPG and WPP respectively took ownership) to paint a picture of decades of flourishing independents.

As long as there have been holding companies, there have been acquisition waves. And while that may never end, Bensimon believes the value of independents has gone beyond “the networks buying stuff so they can get bigger” to “doubling down on equity.”

In the early days, for example, McKim Baker Lovick was purchased, only to be folded into BBDO. But then, in the 2000s, John St. stayed John St. and Taxi stayed Taxi when WPP took over. And now, giant consultancies are purchasing ad powerhouses to up the creative ante.

“If you look at Accenture’s acquisition of Droga5, I think that’s more an indication of what’s to come,” says Bensimon. “It’s no longer simply about adding scale… Today, it’s think, it’s about the bigger shop making the acquisition, looking strategically at what’s being purchased and asking themselves, ‘What does that do for us? What opportunities does it open?’”

So whether today’s business climate will translate into a golden age for indies, their abundance on the 2020 Creative Report Card certainly shows they’ve been basking in the rays.