The contortionists: how indie agencies are filling the gaps

Margins in adland are being squeezed, leaving very little wiggle room. But where some see hopelessness, others see opportunity. And as Fleur Herscott does the indie rounds, she discovers there are a few players flexible enough to slip into the nooks and crannies in this new world.

By Fleur Herscott | May 3, 2016 | features

Independent ad agencies might appear to have little more in common than their lack of a holding company. But from specialist to full-service and all the various flavours in between, one consistent theme is that indies are fulfilling client needs.  

Typically launched by those fed up with the status quo, most indies are born of the desire for change. That enterprising spirit has long attracted the kind of client that likes disruption or pushing category boundaries. But things have shifted up a gear and now indies are increasingly winning projects and accounts that would once have stayed within the fold of the traditional agencies.

“There’s no doubt the independent agency sector is growing its presence in New Zealand,” says Michael Redwood, the managing partner of Special Group, which was recently declared the number one emerging agency in Australia by AdNews after expanding into the country in 2014.    

“This has been partly driven by the rapidly changing advertising landscape where large clients run increasingly multi-faceted communications campaigns. Independent agencies tend to be newer start-ups, perhaps more nimble and unencumbered by legacy business models reliant on large-scale TV production. I also think more and more, large clients are briefing chunks of work out as projects to a roster of agencies … and independents are benefitting from this.”

Fair game

Redwood’s argument is certainly supported by the steady erosion of the Agency of Record (AOR) over the last few years, not least because financial pressures are driving clients to question weighty retainers. And at a time when every dollar spent matters so much more, Sugar & Partners managing partner Jeremy Johnston believes clients have been motivated to broaden their horizons.

“Where that traditional AOR model has stopped, clients have been freed to look around and find new, great partners. They’re treating independents as opportunity partners on a par with the big boys today and we’re definitely seeing much more acceptability and openness from marketing directors and CMOs within blue chip brands. They’re increasingly open to working with smart independents.”

The introduction of All-of-Government (AOG) Panels in 2013 has also evened-up the playing field between traditional agencies and the independents on the public sector side. GSL Promotus sits on all four AOG Advertising Services panels and enjoys a 50/50 split between government and commercial work. Joint managing directors Sigrun Grice and Leigh Graham have experienced a significant rise in work from both sectors.

“Under the AOG model, eligible government departments now have the opportunity to work with any agency on the panel. So if they like the look of an indie for a particular project, they can select it straight up,” says Graham. 

Grice has noticed the move towards a more project-focused approach on the commercial side too. “Many clients are awarding individual projects to an agency with a particular skillset, without necessarily appointing them as a new agency partner,” she says. “Our experience is that in recent years we’ve all become increasingly accountable – the days of one agency being given a big account and just running with it isn’t necessarily over – but it is becoming more fragmented.” 

Digital needs

The growing willingness of clients to seek out independent agencies is also driven by a fragmented media landscape changed almost beyond recognition. Faced with a new(ish) digital world, more marketers are recognising the need to find new ways to connect with people. 

Jose Alomajan, joint founder of digital specialists Us&Co believes traditional agencies are getting left behind. “Digital is ingrained in our lives now but traditional agencies haven’t caught up,” he says. “The mix of media should be radically different. If you look at time spent on media versus most media schedules, there’s absolutely no alignment in investment. Digital is often still just another line tacked on to the bottom of a schedule.”

Alomajan and his Us&Co co-founder James Polhill, both believe that the traditional agencies are facing hefty challenges in our current digital environment. 

Us&Co's work for Sky

“Everyone wants to create their own content now, and they don’t need a big agency to help them do it,” says Polhill. “The Cerebos Gregg’s brand, F. Whitlock & Sons came to us wanting to shift their marketing to a digital and activational approach. A traditional FMCG like that would once have done all the big magazine and TV ads - but now we’re helping them create content that can be shared and consumed online. We’re born out of that digital culture, we know how to make money in it –
and we know how to help clients succeed in it.”

So limber

These shifting conditions go some way to explaining how and why more marketers are seeking out independent agencies. But are these just one-off partnerships, or do indies have enough substance to establish ongoing partnerships with big clients? 

Almost counterintuitive, Goodfolk creative director Mark Easterbrook argues the fact that indies are comfortable working on a range of projects is part of the reason why they make good long-term partners in the current landscape. 

“At the early stages of an independent agency’s life you just have to take what’s on offer. So it’s in our nature to be adaptable and flexible. We can’t be rigid about the type of work we do – or the role that we play in that work.”

Easterbrook says another significant advantage of the indie model (in Goodfolk’s case) lies in its openness. “It’s easier to be disconnected in a big agency, especially as a creative,” Easterbrook says. “But at Goodfolk, clients are able to talk directly to the person who’s looking to bring their work to life. It’s a partnership and that’s very attractive to many clients. We’ve just completed a large project with Auckland Council, a portal aggregating all their news into one place. It’s not a traditional advertising or marketing piece, and might previously have gone to a big agency, but the way we worked with them, and talked and listen to them has now opened up other opportunities.”

That pragmatic non-hierarchical approach is common across the independent sector. For Ben Reid, owner and creative director of design agency Milk (the team behind the recent rebrand of The Edge), not having a tiered structure means clients benefit from the collective experience of a more stable and consistent team.

Milk's work for ATEED

“The entire team is closer to the market - we all study the insights and have input into every project,” he says. There are no silos - everything is shared. With a smaller agency, clients can see things are really considered and explored. It’s never ‘another’ project, because every project really matters. And talent tends to stay where they can have an influence too, so there’s less attrition or transfer of people than in larger agencies.”

Ideas, ideas, ideas

Over the last year, some of the most memorable ideas of the year came from indie shops. Here’s a rundown of the some of the standouts. 

Safety keyring

Bcg2 gave parents a tangible reminder to check before reversing with this campaign developed for Safekids Aoteroa. 

Play the bridge

Special Group turned the Auckland Harbour Bridge into a giant social toy that Kiwis could play with in this campaign for 2degrees.

Good-bye doorknockers 

Contagion teamed up with Energy Online to develop one of the most popular viral videos produced last year—and in the process scared the hell out of a few unsuspecting doorknockers.  

Mo Dollar 

During last year’s Movember celebrations, Us & Co had the noggins of high profile participants minted onto a series of special edition coins

Air New Zealand Safety Defenders 

True’s partnership with Air New Zealand once again produced a bit of viral magic in another reworking of the always-popular safety video platform.  

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No overlords

An agency’s internal business structure might not seem like an obvious client draw, but at GSL Promotus, Grice sees their structure as being a big part of their success.

“Owning our own business and not being answerable to overseas masters means we can be flexible in how we work with clients. For example, we’re both strategists and joint managing directors and having two people at that level means either Leigh or myself will be working across every project. We don’t just appear at the odd meeting or at big pitches, we’re vitally involved throughout.”

This is not to say that big agency executives don’t care about their clients. Of course they do. However, running your own business and having every client relationship impact your bottom line can be a strong motivating factor to get more involved and ensure that everything runs smoothly.   

And Gaylene Anderson, the managing director of Work Communications, believes this type of senior input on the agency side, motivates clients to follow suit.

“In the traditional model, accounts still tend to be driven by an account director. Whereas an independent agency can bring all the right people around the table no matter the size of the job. So as an indie, you typically work with the client at a much higher level on both sides - their GM or MD gets actively involved in the communication process.”

Skin in the game

The myriad approaches and structures evident across agencies in New Zealand reflect that there’s no right or wrong way to do things. As long as it makes money and drives effective results for clients, it has a right to exist. 

One of the clearest examples of this is Shine, which in addition to producing traditional advertising campaigns has also started a range of businesses with its clients. This unique approach has led many in the industry to question whether or not Shine is in fact an agency or something else entirely. However, Shine managing director Simon Curran doesn’t is not one to let agency chatter detract from what he’s focused on. 

“We try to keep out of the debate of how to classify us. The best thing we can do is find the best ways to truly add value to our clients.”

Curran says that agencies should always take a business-centric approach.  

“We often use this soundbyte: ‘if it was your money, how would you spend it?’ And this is part of the reason why, through our partnership with Lion, we started investing in our own ideas. Because ultimately, if you’re only as good as the idea you sell for a fee, you’re not really demonstrating the type of courage you’re asking your clients to trust you with every time you recommend something to them.”

In addition to entering the hospitality business with Lion, Shine has also signed a joint venture with another client and is currently in due diligence with two others. And Curran says having skin in the game has drastically changed the way he talks about the business.   

“Your language starts to change. It becomes more about due diligence and what the business requirement is and how we solve that through creativity rather than questioning whether they want a TV campaign or a digital idea.”

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And you don’t have to look far in indie adland to find another proponent of this type of approach, which sees executives working closely with clients. Sugar & Partners creative director Dave Nash originally teamed up with fellow creative director Damon O’Leary to reflect this shift towards senior level engagement. Working collaboratively, they regularly front meetings with CMOs and CEOs.

“This collective partnership really reflects the way we work agency wide with clients, there is no rigid hierarchy and strict process,” he says. “This is probably reflected in our recent wins of NZ Rugby, PwC and Hubbard’s Cereal. They all have super savvy senior marketers who want to get straight to the source of strategic and creative thinking. I guess that’s what the best indie agencies are doing at the moment, allowing senior clients direct access to senior strategic and creative people - that was unheard of a few years ago and is probably still unheard of in most bigger agencies.”

Mutual trust and respect

Conditions have undoubtedly changed in the indies’ favour. But it’s their pragmatism, flexibility and willingness to bring their ‘all’ to the table that’s earning the long-term trust and respect of more and more clients. And for Goodfolk’s Easterbrook, that feeling has to be mutual.

“We want mutual support and trust to be part of our DNA - where we can help each other do what we do. And that’s not restricted to our teams and our clients. We hate the rivalry that often exists between bigger agencies and would like to see a much more mutually supportive industry all round.” 

Sugar & Partners’ Johnston points out that the answer is as simple as the basics of good sharing.

“You don’t have a chance at a halfway decent strategy much less decent creative, unless you have a partnership of trust and integrity and mutual admiration – and that’s what indies allow. Whatever you can do to nurture genuine partnerships is your only chance to deliver great work, and indies just seem to be set up and able to do that better. Fewer impediments and more ability to structure those partnerships, that’s what indies have in common. It’s as simple as that.”

Client love

Unrestricted by legacy models and systems, independent agencies are innately fast and flexible, qualities that more and more clients are coming to appreciate. Even when a brand is globally aligned, that flexible, can-do approach can be tempting enough for them to make an exception. 

20 years ago, Suzuki New Zealand stepped outside the brand’s global alignment model, to partner up with a well-known Wellington independent.

“We’ve found dealing with an independent like GSL Promotus gives us more flexibility than we had previously from big agencies,” says Tom Peck, the chief executive of Suzuki New Zealand. “Just about everyone at the agency is engaged in our business and at every level. Having that breadth of knowledge and experience is great – we can trust them to get things right first time, and it certainly shortens and saves time on meetings! They just understand us very well.” 

With their speed and flexibility, and a readiness to embrace the new, independents are perfectly placed to navigate brands through a fragmented media environment. Savvy clients are increasingly seeking out indie agencies that are born out of – and built for - the digital world, and know how to keep pace with consumers wherever they are.

“The team at Us&Co have been integral to the digital marketing transformation of the Sky TV business,” says Kristy Simpson the head of digital & online Sky TV. “They’ve helped drive double-digit year on year online growth, streamlined customer experience across our digital platforms and along with developing our long-term social media strategy they’ve been critical to building internal capability within the business.”

Comments like these illustrate the real strength of indie agencies lies in the fact that they don’t try to fit a clients’ comms plan into a legacy structure. Instead, they twist and turn what they offer to suit the needs of a modern business. And at a time when the nooks and crannies of adland are becoming tighter, this is a valuable skill to have.

  • This story first appeared in the March/April edition of NZ Marketing magazine.

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