The Insights Blog

5 Strategies to Win: Small Agency of the Year

5 Strategies to Win: Small Agency of the Year

ad age small agency of the year awards

An agency can enjoy amazing benefits from winning Small Agency of the Year. The agency’s reputation grows! Team morale swells! The phone rings!

And many Small Agency of the Year winners have gone on to enjoy incredible success.

Given the importance of the award to building a small agency’s reputation, many small agency owners and leaders have asked us: “what do we need to do to win?” Over the past few years we’ve thought a great deal about this question and noticed something: there is no definitive guide about how an agency should go about the mission of wining Small Agency of the Year.

Until now.

So how does an agency approach the challenge of winning Small Agency of the Year?

We interviewed past winners and a plan for how to approach winning Small Agency of the Year came into focus. And we talked with some PR pros that have helped a number of agencies win. The following strategies should help any type of agency approach any of the award categories, from overall agency of the year to agency of the year in regions and in areas like media, experiential and international.

Agencies of all types will increase their odds of winning if they tackle these five strategies.

1. Have a plan and a story to tell

The agencies that win support their agency with the same zeal as they do their clients. These agencies are not the shoemaker’s children! They are creating great shoes for themselves and their clients. They have a sound plan. They develop a compelling narrative. They create and execute a plan that spreads that narrative.

“For DNA, winning SAOTY was a multi-year process that finally came down to having the best story. What is critical in the entry submission is to tell a story that speaks to challenges and how an agency overcame them and to show new ways to solve problems, new forms of revenue and an emphasis on how an agency meets changing social and cultural issues.”
– Toni Lee, Toni Lee Communications, an independent PR consultant to agencies

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: It’s a process to apply and you shouldn’t expect to win year one. Think about it like you would in any relationship you build. Your story develops over time. My advice, start to articulate your story before you enter. At Curiosity, we had a lot of work to do just to get ready to tell our story. Examine everything, your mission and purpose, how you hire, your process and your book of work. Once you have your story, then enter and prepare for it to take a few years. We had a five year strategy. Year one, introduce yourself and get the selection committee familiar with your story. Year two, show your growth and progress. Then build on your story year over year.

Lori Gaffney, BPN: Make sure you have a great story to tell; when you have an energized team, the work is great and your business is thriving.

Trey Harness, Curiosity: Yes, we had a five-year strategic plan and we enrolled the entire company in that plan. That’s the thing with awards like this, it involves and benefits everyone.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: We definitely have a way of doing it. Our leadership team selects the year’s work we want to feature. And the categories we want to enter. There’s some strategy to this as you can only submit a limited number of work examples. A way to get additional work in front of the judges is to enter an extra campaign in one of the work-specific categories. The added benefit is you might win one of those categories, as we did this year with best experiential campaign. Then we divide and conquer – an account person and our operations person oversee the gathering of materials and the actual submission. I personally write the submission – answering the questions with input from my partners. Backing up a step (and maybe this is more the intent of the question) we really don’t spend much time thinking about the award submission over the course of the year. Like we don’t think to ourselves “hmm, maybe we need to institute an innovative new org structure because it will be great fodder for our AOY entry.” But maybe we should.

The Opinionated team is proud of their winning streak…

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: Have a plan. Tell everyone. Enter. Repeat.

2. Focus on your clients’ success

You can’t win SAOTY without successful clients. Winning agencies focused on doing well by their clients.

Alan Brown, DNA: Don’t focus on winning SAOTY, but rather focus on creating great effective work, building an awesome culture and a solid business.

DNA is focused on the work that can help their fine clients succeed

Kate Higgins, Erich and Kallman: Do right by your clients by focusing on delivering great work that impacts and drives their business. When they thrive, you will too.

Frances Webster, Walrus: Identify what you do well and focus on that. We focus on delivering a great experience across the board for our clients, our staff, our partners, and the people who see our ideas out in the world every day. If we can do that well, crafting a winning entry becomes a lot easier, but it’s never the number one goal. That focus has guided us since day one.

Alan Browne, DNA: We have focused on things that have been good for our clients, business and culture. These things tend to be what stands out to Ad Age.

3. Get PR help

SAOTY winners often leveraged outside PR counsel to help tell their story.

“Winning SAOTY is probably more competitive than the Ad Age A-List because there are so many small agencies doing really innovative and creative things. PR can help build awareness of an agency’s success and wins during the year so that when an editor is reviewing a submission, they have familiarity and frame of reference for what the agency has accomplished beyond what is in the submission.”
– Toni Lee, Toni Lee Communications, an independent PR consultant to agencies

Alan Brown, DNA: We have worked with Toni Lee (out of NY) for many years. She has great contacts with the press and lots of experience working with agencies in our hero set (OKRP, Mojo Supermarket, etc.).

Frances Webster, Walrus: Walrus works with Alyssa Siegel, one of the best independent PR pros in the business and an amazing person to work with and know. She and her team read everything we wrote and edited it thoroughly before submitting it.

Kate Higgins, Erich and Kallman: We are big believers in PR. Self-promotion can feel gross and be well, hard. We’ve found having a PR pro at our side makes a difference.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: We have discussed adding PR support but haven’t yet pulled the trigger on. It is a big expense, but I see us going that route in the future. We’ve had initial discussions with a few folks. It is one of many decisions a small young agency must face as it becomes less small and young.

4. Get on the radar of the selection committee

Winners found a way to increase visibility with the selection committee.

“The Small Agency Awards entry process is a phenomenal way for an agency to get their full year’s story in front of Ad Age’s editorial staff — from the work, to new biz wins, to strides in DE&I, to overall workplace culture and philosophy, to innovative practices and more. This is something agencies rarely have the opportunity to do, so I always recommend submitting whether you feel it was your year or not.”
– Alyssa Siegel, founder, AJ Media Communications, an independent PR consultant for agencies

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: It’s important to understand the key decision makers and begin establishing relationships. Introduce them to your shop in whatever ways make the most sense for you (coffee, emails, social media). Bring them along the journey with you. Again, it’s a long-term commitment so build relationships.

David Selby, SCC: We did groundwork pre-covid, attending a lot of Ad Age events.

Alan Brown, DNA: We applied in prior years and we have always been in contact with Ad Age regarding news from the agency. I think over the past 3-4 years, we’ve done a good job of staying in front of Ad Age with relevant news from DNA, which has probably raised our profile with them in advance of the awards.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: How did we get on their radar? That’s a great question! I honestly don’t know. We just applied. But I personally have a relationship with Ann-Christine Diaz who did a profile piece when I founded the agency. I’m assuming that helped.

But regardless, it’s important to be able to connect with them on a personal level. See yourself and your agency through the eyes of the human beings who are going to be reading the submissions. Imagine yourself speaking directly to them as you write. I don’t think this is a volume play. Meaning it’s not the amount of stuff you can manage to cram into your submission but how you tell the story of your agency and the year it had. I guess, to put it simply, act like the talented, successful communications professional you are trying to demonstrate you actually are.

Frances Webster, Walrus: Be nice to the Ad Age editorial team. They are good people, and they ultimately decide your fate.

5. Start early

A winning plan isn’t a last-minute effort to apply. Winners often start a year or more out and it generally takes multiple years of applications to break through.

“It helps if your Small Agency submission isn’t the first time Ad Age is hearing from you. The PR your agency does throughout the year can play a significant role come judging time, as it’s worked consistently to keep you top of mind in a world of constant clutter and competition. Having your agency be a regular part of the industry conversation and having your work and wins raise eyebrows and gain coverage across various publications throughout the year only helps support your small agency awards submission and narrative. It all just sort of works together.”
– Alyssa Siegel, founder, AJ Media Communications, an independent PR consultant for agencies

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: Get started the day after you submit last year’s entry. Truly, it’s like any award entry. If you wait for the submission form to go live, you’re too late. You have to carefully craft your story throughout the year. But truthfully, no matter how soon we start, we never get the early bird price! Somehow we always end up down to the wire.

Kate Higgins, Erich & Kallman: We’d have started planning for it earlier so we weren’t having heart attacks getting our submission out the darn door.

Summary – The 5 Step Plan to Win: Small Agency of the Year

These fine agencies – all past winners – have shared a fine blueprint for how an agency should approach the challenge of winning Small Agency of the Year:

1. Have a plan and a story to tell.

SAOTY winners are interesting shops that have a point of view and a distinctive, interesting story to tell. And they build a plan to tell that story effectively. What makes your agency special? How is that expressed? How are you planning to tell the world?

“Don’t be afraid to tell your true story. Ad Age wants to see how you faced a difficult situation like the loss of a big client – and how that may have propelled an agency forward. These stories show the agility of a small agency to move fast and take decisive action.”
– Toni Lee, Toni Lee PR, an independent PR consultant to agencies

2. Focus on your clients’ success.

Client successes and new client wins are the most visible sign that an agency has something special to offer. This success is the agency’s proof that they deserve attention and becomes a core part of the agency’s story. Help your clients succeed and you’ll have a good story to tell.

3. Get PR help.

Make it impossible for your agency to be ignored. There are a handful of PR pros that know this special editorial community. Partner with them, take their advice and enjoy the results that will follow.

4. Get on the radar of the selection committee.

These folks have tough jobs. Be warm, friendly, and helpful. Be planful and selective in your outreach, and always be responsive to their requests as they live on deadlines.

5. Start early.

You can’t tackle the first four strategies without starting early. Want to win in 2023? Your agency should be starting now. Start with an application this year to get your feet wet and to prep for a better attempt next year: you can access the 2022 application here.

And a hearty “thank you” to these fine PR partners!

Toni Lee and Alyssa Siegel are fine independent PR pros that specialize in supporting agencies. You can reach them here:

Alyssa Siegel: AJ Media, Inc.
Toni Lee: Toni Lee Communications

Steve Boehler, founder, and partner at Mercer Island Group has led consulting teams on behalf of clients as diverse as Ulta Beauty, Microsoft, UScellular, Nintendo, Kaiser Permanente, Holland America Line, Stop & Shop, Qualcomm, Brooks Running, and numerous others. He founded MIG after serving as a division president in a Fortune 100 when he was only 32. Earlier in his career, Steve Boehler cut his teeth with a decade in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble, leading brands like Tide, Pringles, and Jif.