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Ad Age 2024 Small Agency of the Year: Agencies should apply! The industry is watching!

Ad Age 2024 Small Agency of the Year: Agencies should apply! The industry is watching!

Ad Age 2024 Small Agency of the Year

There is a special place in our heart for small independent agencies that are living by their wits and putting their heart, sweat and tears to work for their clients. And that love for small agencies makes this a special time of year! Applications for this year’s annual Ad Age Small Agency of the Year awards are now open. This annual custom recognizes the best in small agencies across a wide range of regions, agency types and individual contributors. If your agency has 150 or fewer staff, these awards are built for you.

The best agencies, with the best clients, can drive immense returns on a client’s investment and can change the entire future direction of brands and companies for the better. That kind of impact is not reserved for just the biggest or best-known agencies. Agencies of all sizes are helping clients achieve really important outcomes every day.

Why should small agencies apply? And why should a marketer care?

To answer those questions, we interviewed a number of recent Small Agency of the Year Award winners.

We heard from several fantastic small agencies that are past winners, like PB&, The Distillery Project, The Variable. Curiosity, DNA, Walrus, Opinionated and BPN. Here’s what they said.

Why should small agencies to apply to Small Agency of the Year?
Agencies applied to build their reputation and drive new business:

John Condon, The Distillery Project: We’ve been entering regularly throughout our 10 years. And we’ve been named an Ad Age Small Agency of the Year 4 times. Our first win was as a two-person shop, at the very beginning. Our most recent was in the Under 50 category, with people spread across 6 states. But the reasons why we enter have never really changed. It’s easy to think you’re good or doing well.

But it’s an entirely different thing to have your agency evaluated against hundreds of your peers by an independent third-party. Even better, when that third party happens to be the most-respected industry publication, and they broadcast their findings to the world—or at least our little piece of it. That’s great press. Competitors notice. Clients notice. And our team notices a little extra spring in their step.

distillery project

The Distillery Project’s work for Dole

David Mullen, The Variable: We won our first of four Small Agency awards in 2015. A friend of ours owns an agency that had been named a Small Agency of the Year in 2012 and he talked about how much interest it created in new business inbound opportunities, as well as how helpful it was from a talent retention and recruiting perspective. We had really strong agency growth with some great creative and client business results in 2014 and felt like it was worth throwing our hat in the ring in 2015. We continue to apply because those three things remain true still. It’s a great positive amplifier of both agency culture and agency business development.

Britt Fero, PB&: For a growing company, visibility is critical. Endorsement is even more valuable. The Small Agency Awards not only helps raise our level of visibility but also adds a layer of discernment on top. It highlights companies making the grade, so it’s a great source of validation to use with clients – both existing and new. Not to mention it’s something that gives a lot of our team members pride.

PB& work for Seattle Bank

Trey Harness, Curiosity: This award puts small agencies on the map. We made it our five-year goal to win. We weren’t shy about it. It was part of our agency planning and goals. We talked about it openly and often with our staff.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: Practically speaking, it’s a relatively cost-effective way to goose new business development. And as an agency located outside the industry centers, competing for SAOTY is like an annual re-connecting to the industry at large. We don’t tend to dwell on our competition much. But the event is an opportunity for us to look around a bit. Both in the process of writing an effective entry and also once the winners are announced.

Alan Brown, DNA: We’ve always viewed AdAge SAOTY as a huge win for any agency – more important than creative award shows. We felt like we had the right mix of metrics that would capture the attention of the judging committee and that we had a good chance of being selected.

Lori Gaffney, BPN: We were firing on all cylinders: revenue was up, we secured new clients, we were hiring and we created a campaign that generated tremendous exposure for BPN.

What has winning Small Agency of the Year meant to your agency?
Overall, we heard that winning Small Agency of the Year was great for business and for the agency team:
David Mullen, The Variable: It means a lot every single time for a lot of reasons. It’s external validation to our amazingly talented team that our work is noticed and noteworthy by a group we respect so much. It’s external validation to current clients that the agency they love working with is highly regarded by the industry. It’s a ringing endorsement to potential clients that we’re a partner worth considering. And it’s a big attention getter when you’re recruiting great talent to consider joining the team.
Racing Team car

The Variable’s pitch team for NAPA with the NAPA Racing Team car

John Condon, The Distillery Project: In a word, validation. Of our purpose, our product, our people and all the effort that went into every little bit of it. But beyond validation, there’s recognition. For our people, our clients and our brand. Ad Age says we’re the kind of shop that clients should be looking for.

Britt Fero, PB&: It’s meaningful on several levels.

  1. It puts us on the radar for clients. Lists like this help many clients wade through the sea of small agencies that are popping up – helping them cut to some of the ones that are breaking through. We’ve had relationships begin because someone saw our name on the list.
  2. It builds continued confidence in our clients, that we’re doing work that makes a difference for them.
  3. It’s a source of pride for our team. We’re building something different and creating work that gets noticed. It builds momentum for continuing to do what we do.
Small Mighty
Small is mighty at PB&… and at Small Agency of the Year!

Alan Brown, DNA: Winning SAOTY has been a huge morale boost and validation for our team! These efforts have taken time, money and attention – and this recognition validated our efforts.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: As a small agency without a dedicated new business discipline, winning this award annually has been like a yearly injection of biz dev. I don’t want to assume anything in this business, but so far, we have consistently seen our phone ring/website traffic increase/google search traffic increase etc., every August/September.

Trey Harness, Curiosity: For our team, it’s like reaching the 10,000 foot base camp on a mountain. It’s a signal of progress and appreciation for our work. Now we know what we have to do to get to the top.

Frances Webster, Walrus: Winning feels great. As a business, landing on an Ad Age “Best Of” list is critical. It signals to potential clients that out of 14,000+ marketing agencies, Walrus is considered one of the best. It’s like searching “best restaurant” in New York, Charleston, Los Angeles, Bentonville, Austin. Those lists matter. It’s essentially a de facto shortlist.

Lori Gaffney, BPN: It has been a great calling card for approaching potential clients. It makes “cold calls” a bit less cold. It’s also a clear point of distinction from our competitors.

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: The calls and interest have picked up already, and we haven’t even seen the full impact just yet. It certainly makes opening that first door a little easier! It’s also been great for our region. Cincinnati is a marketing hub, home to many Fortune 500’s, and the world’s largest advertiser, P&G. So having an AdAge Small Agency of the Year winner right here in Cincinnati, in their backyard, is incredible. I also think it helps with recruiting. Just like clients, talent wants to work for the best in the industry, and the small agency landscape is competitive.

Why should CMOs and marketers care?
Marketers should care because of how committed these small agencies are to helping clients succeed:
John Condon, The Distillery Project: In order to win, you have to be a healthy, well-rounded, up and coming shop that does exceptional work. I’d imagine those are pretty appealing qualities. And even more appealing in quick, responsive, independent organizations that aren’t bloated, bogged down by process or resting on the laurels of someone dead for generations who they’ve never even met.
Distillery Project enjoying
The team at The Distillery Project enjoying their Small Agency of the Year win

David Mullen, The Variable: If you’re looking for a short list of potential agency partners doing phenomenal work with their clients, you should start by looking through the Small Agency winners from the last several years instead of a Google search. (Maybe pay particular attention to agencies who’ve won, say, four times. Wink, Wink.) Seriously, though, it’s almost impossible to be named a Small Agency even once given the odds. Any agency that has claimed this honor has proven they’re worth consideration as you look to make the most of your opportunities and dismantle your challenges

Frances Webster, Walrus: As a team, we are thrilled when Walrus receives recognition for the work we put into market, the companies who hire us because of that work, and the growth that follows.

Alan Brown, DNA: We have been laser focused over the past few years on improving the quality of our teams and creating more breakthrough work for clients that are generating demonstrable results for their business.

So, how can an agency win Small Agency of the Year?
Stay tuned – we’ll cover that in a future post!
And a hearty “thank you” to these fine agencies!
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.