Small Agencies Offer Big Benefits

A new generation of independent, locally owned communication agencies is rapidly rewriting the rules of the game as brands increasingly look for more personal attention, quicker work turnaround times and added value that goes beyond rigid time sheets.

Retroviral, which counts among its clients the feminine hygiene brand Lil-Lets, Blue Ribbon bread and Ryobi power tools, says its success can be attributed to an “unwavering obsession with client finance”.

Founder and chief creative officer Mike Sharman tells the FM: “Unlike many conventional agencies that are focused solely on creative output, we believe understanding our clients’ business objectives is crucial. By meticulously overlaying sales data with communications data, we deliver campaigns aligned with our clients’ financial goals.” This approach, he says, empowers clients to witness an always-on direct correlation between advertising investment and revenue growth, fostering a tangible return on investment.

Andrew Kirkby, executive creative director at Iconic Agency, has a similar mindset: “Make yourself indispensable to your clients. Advertising isn’t just about agency profit margins. We must focus more on strategic and integrated approaches that deliver return on investment, even if they aren’t always glamorous. Clients are expecting more for their budgets across multiple channels and formats, especially with a potential recession looming.”

Tom Cullinan, founder and creative partner at the small Cullinan agency, says: “Being big doesn’t mean you have the best people in the business working for you. It’s less about having full-time employees than about assuring the right talent is on the right brief. Smaller agencies are tapping into leading specialists in agency disciplines who have done the big-tent circus and would rather focus on the work than on the politics. This environment allows for client-agency relationships to bloom, as the client is instrumental in being part of the team.”

Tara Turkington, founder of Flow Communications, believes in a flat operating structure, which she says provides a more conducive environment to be responsive to clients’ needs and opportunities. “Pulling together a small team of top experts to solve a client’s needs overnight is more possible and more cost-effective than trying to work across large silos, and allows our clients to be quicker on the button when it comes to their brand communications.”

Sharman tells the FM the fusion of finance and creativity extends beyond client objectives. He says it’s critical that his staff also stay abreast of pop culture trends. Retroviral constantly taps into the pulse of society, delivering campaigns that resonate deeply with target audiences; he says.  On that point, days before the movie The Little Mermaid was released his agency conceptualised a quick-hit campaign for pool chemical brand HTH called “The Little Pool-Aid”.

Sharman says that by being nimble, idea generation can come from any member of the team. “By actively pairing individuals with diverse skill sets and backgrounds, the agency encourages collaboration and creative problem-solving. This unique approach fosters an inclusive environment where every team member feels empowered to contribute their unique insights and perspectives.”

Turkington’s Flow agency is one of the few in the country that has no head office. She says: “The marketing industry is being squeezed to produce more in less time, with smaller budgets. The need for agility and innovation is fast becoming a differentiating factor for smaller agencies. At Flow, we made the call early to go completely remote. We have seen our productivity improve and the percentage of our international work rise as our mindset has changed from being a Joburg-based company to one that works everywhere.”

Turkington believes the communications and marketing industry, as natural first adopters, should be at the forefront of the artificial intelligence (AI) debate even though some would argue that content generation will be one of the first things to be taken over by ChatGPT.

“Those that will prove this wrong will be the agencies that are able to harness this powerful tool to increase volume of output, quality, and creativity. Every writer now has the equivalent of an army of interns, providing endless rough drafts and ideas to pick apart and turn into something compelling. The role of the writer is to sift the wheat from the chaff and use the time left over to spin gold.”

Sharman says his agency is at the forefront of using cutting-edge tools to enhance campaign strategies. “By leveraging AI for data analysis, trend forecasting and personalised targeting, we are ensuring that financial-focused campaigns are tailored to reach the right audience at the right time.”

Kirkby is of a similar mind: “We have already seen the impact of AI on certain agency and production functions. Our team is using AI tools such as Midjourney for mood boards and concept art for pitches. It uses ChatGPT for copy and Adobe Firefly for storyboarding ads. Embrace this rule or get left behind.

“While not perfect, these tools can save a lot of time. I expect the trend only to accelerate over the next couple of years, and we’re focused on getting ahead of the curve.”

This piece originally appeared in the Financial Mail.