5 Things I Learned While Speaking at the Ad Age Small Agency Conference

The Ad Age Small Agency Conference was excellent! Erica and I spent three days learning, laughing and generally having a great time with our fellow small agency folks. We also had a chance to share the crazy story of how we ended up in bed with adult retailer, Lion’s Den. We always thought it was pretty funny and it seemed as though we were right!

Beyond practical tips about selling vs. not, grooming the next generation of leaders, the importance of PR and how to get on the radar of large clients, I had a few more general takeaways from the event.

1. Being real matters

The best talks for me were the ones where I felt an instant connection to the speaker. Where I could feel what they were going through. Where I could imagine what it would be like to have their challenges in my own agency.

Anselmo Ramos, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of GUT, spoke very honestly about why he decided to go indie. The scary challenge of it. And the happy uncomfortableness of it, as well. I could totally relate. And I thought if this advertising legend, creative superstar, agency founder had some of the same fears and dreams I have… well, I can’t possibly be crazy for doing this.

Andrea Brimmer, Chief Marketing and PR Officer of Ally Financial, laid it on the line when she said she receives 200 unsolicited emails a day. If you want yours to stand out, offer something. I think about the virtual mountain of emails I receive from production companies, reps, and now LinkedIn lead generators, and unless there is something obvious and immediate that tells me life will be better with X, it’s deleted. It’s the golden rule again, treat your potential clients the way you’d like to be treated by potential vendors.

For our own speech, we wrote, we rewrote, we practiced, we memorized, we changed, and in the end, we just spoke from our hearts (see above about being real matters…). We spoke about how knowing ourselves, and what we stand for, what we believe in, led us to find a client who shared our values and our point of view, and how that was the recipe for us to do bold, interesting work. It’s easy advice, but it’s not always easy to commit to.

2. Getting out of our office and our heads matters

Did we have time to spend four days flying across the country to sit in a ballroom with a bunch of other ad folks? No. Did we have to rearrange client work, and new business meetings, and everything else that keeps us busy day-to-day? Yes. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

We all know, especially creative entrepreneurs, that it’s important to mix it up, to stop staring at the same four walls, to talk to new people, to hear different perspectives. Yet, it’s easy to find excuses to just operate in the same old, same old way. From dipping our toes in the Pacific to meeting music and media and technology peeps to just sitting and listening to sessions we weren’t even sure would apply to us, we found inspiration and insight we would never have discovered at 11 Broadway, NYC.

3. Community Matters

Everything is changing. It’s a terrible time to start an agency. Advertising is dead. Long live Marcel! When life feels unstable, it’s easy to hunker down, to pull inward, to act selfish—exactly the recipe for feeling alone, unsure and unmoored. And that would be a shame. The Small Agency community is one supportive group. There was such genuine camaraderie, sharing, and interest in each other. I met tons of people I’d love to share a meal with, that I’d enjoy getting to know more—and this is beyond the possibilities for collaboration that were everywhere.

4. Size matters

Small agencies are big time. We have the agility and nimbleness to adapt and react. Without layers and oppressive structure, we can ideate quickly, execute quickly, optimize quickly. So many of us grew up in the gigantic holding company world, and we don’t regret it. We’ve been able to bring that big agency background to our new endeavors but we’ve left all the big agency bullshit behind. We’re collaborative, we’re inventive, you guys, we’re the future.

5. We want a Small Agency Award

Not gonna lie here. It’d be pretty awesome.