The Insights Blog

Small Agency of the Year: How the Winners Won

Small Agency of the Year: How the Winners Won

adage small agency awards

Small Agency of the Year winners enjoy many benefits from their hard work, talent and success. The agency team’s morale gets a huge boost. The award enhances the agency’s reputation. It’s evidence of both talent and success. It puts unknown agencies on the map and elevates known agencies to a new level of acclaim. It drives business development. It can get agencies on the coveted “list”. As Sandy Greenberg of Terri & Sandy recently told me:

“I’ve told AdAge editor Judann Pollack a million times that winning top honors at the AdAge Small Agency Awards led to more new business inquiries than anything else. Our phones rang for well over a year.”

Given the importance of the award to establishing a small agency’s reputation, many small agency owners and leaders have asked us: “how have other agencies won?”

We didn’t know – so we asked the winners.

So how did the winners win? What was it about the winning agencies that enabled them to win Small Agency of the Year?

The team at DNA is appropriately proud of their win!

We interviewed a number of past winners and we learned there are three keys to winning Small Agency of the Year.

SAOTY winners had a good story to tell, and it was well told.

Brian Hurley, SCC: Our narrative – as I’m sure it was for most agencies – was about not only surviving Covid but thriving, winning clients like P&G during the lock-down. And then doing great work (like the Ferris spot for LiftMaster) during Covid. And it now needs to be about that continuity, building on our prior years’ success, raising the bar on work and clients alike.

LiftMaster hijacks a classic film and garage (by SCC)

Alan Brown, DNA: I think there were 4 reasons we were selected:

1. Our commitment to our people. In a very difficult year when COVID drove many in the industry to layoff thousands of agency employees, we decided to potentially forego any profits and keep every single employee on staff. We didn’t do any layoffs, furloughs or cut pay. We knew that times were hard enough and that the worst thing we could do is bring more instability to our employees’ lives. We were honest and transparent that things might get rough – but we shared our commitment and intention – and in the end, were able to grow, make a profit and return some of that to employees in the form of a bonus.

2. Our commitment to diversity. We committed to improving DNA’s employee diversity – gender, race, ethnicity, age, LGBTQ, etc. – and for every hire, it was required to include diverse candidates. We also invested and were an inaugural agency member of BLAC – a black internship program, backed by P&G and supported by independent agencies. 100% of our hires were BIPOC, women and/or those identifying as LGBTQAI. We also brought in 4 amazing black interns through BLAC.

Celebrating a commitment to diversity by transparently sharing real outcomes at DNA

3. The quality and effectiveness of our work. In a year that was challenging to get people together and manage production, we produced some of our most interesting, breakthrough work in a wide range of categories – including CPG, healthcare, technology and financial services. Our work for Dragon’s Milk (part of Pabst Brewing) won a national ADDY and “best in show” at the Northwest show. In addition, we created a digital/AI “product” called Project: SugarFree for our non-profit partner StolenYouth and is proving to divert online “sugaring” (which leads to child sex trafficking). This product was the result of using social data intelligence, creativity and unique partnerships with StolenYouth and the King County Prosecutor’s office.

DNA has a good story to tell…

4. Our culture. Working remotely presented challenges to maintain culture (and sanity). We did a few things to support our employees from burnout – carving out 2 hours per day that were set aside for “thinking work” when meetings/video calls could not be scheduled. We pushed employees to take vacations as part of our ongoing “unlimited PTO” policy. And we stood by our principles. When one of our clients (10% of our revenue) was found to have a discrimination policy against hiring LGBTQAI employees, we resigned the business and took the hit.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: It’s always a crap-shoot trying to second-guess the rubric for any ad industry award competition. My assumption is there is some sort of scorecard that covers financials, creative output and “other.” Beyond that, my go-to is just to remember that the judges are human beings. They sniff bullshit, to varying degrees. But they also like a good narrative. Last year I was probably more honest in my write-ups than normal. I had hit a pretty thick pandemic wall and just wasn’t in the mood to blow sunshine. My opening sentence was something to the effect of “We’re still here. Isn’t that enough for you people?” The honesty and humility must have resonated because AdAge quoted it in the opening paragraph of their write-up on us. So I think we won for our work and financials. Just like everyone else. But I think how we presented ourselves was the icing on the cake. We told a story of survival, compassion for our people and maturity in the face of adversity. And given the year, I think it was a story people could relate to. As judges, but also as editors who in turn had to write a story for the publication.

Kate Higgins, Erich and Kallman: It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, but it could be the accomplishments we are most proud of in 2020 – having no layoffs or salary reductions, paying bonuses, bringing more diversity to the agency with seven new hires, surviving the tremendous decrease in marketing spending by our three largest existing pieces of business by winning eight pieces of new business (both AOR and projects), and continuing to deliver strategically smart and creative work – all while our team was spread around the country working from their dining room tables.

Trey Harness, Curiosity: It was also about our culture and how we pivoted during the pandemic. For some companies the pandemic tore them apart, others it brought them together. For us it was the latter. It wasn’t a stagnate year at Curiosity. 2020 was the year we built our foundation and focused on ourselves so that we could attract top talent and top clients. It’s not a coincidence that the year we rebranded, evolved our positioning, revamped our hiring procedures and our strategic process, and built new capabilities based on client demand, is the same year we were named an AdAge Small Agency of the Year.

Boogie Wipes digital work by Curiosity

It takes a village… and great clients!

David Selby, SCC: Great clients enable great work.

Trey Harness, Curiosity: If we don’t have clients who are great partners and are willing to take risks, we don’t win awards like this. Being courageous is a quality we look for in clients, and that’s what it takes to not just win an award like AdAge Small Agency of the Year, but to create content people care about.

Lori Gaffney, BPN: We had some brave clients who trusted our expertise and listened to the reasons for our creative recommendations. Two clients come to mind, Portland Bureau of Transportation and Explore Lincoln City. For both, we were able to develop breakthrough work that yielded exceptional results.

Alan Brown, DNA: Our clients have allowed us to do great work and have supported us in pushing the boundaries to get breakthrough creative work. They have been incredibly supportive.

Mark Fitzloff, Opinionated: The work is as much a product of their partnership as anything.

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: How did we win? You would probably get a different answer for every person you asked this question to at Curiosity. And that’s why I love this award so much. Because it’s never just one thing. It’s everything, all working together. I would say it was a combination of our new business successes, which everyone played a role in, and the quality of work we produced.

Momentum is a key driver of SAOTY success.

David Selby, SCC: Great work tends to drive business momentum.

Frances Webster, Walrus: Momentum is key, and for Walrus that is a result of bringing on the right senior talent and investments we’ve made in media, design, strategy, and production. At some point in 2017, we realized that if we were going to build a more durable business, we were going to have to invest in capabilities that would make the agency more indispensable. We pivoted from a pure creative agency to a more integrated shop and that has driven durability into the business, and as a result, growth.

Walrus OOH work for The Farmer’s Dog

Several new business wins undoubtedly contributed. Lowes Foods, The Walton Family Foundation, Amazon, The Farmer’s Dog, Wells Ice Cream, Jet Edge and others hired us. And, for Los Angeles Magazine, Walrus worked with editor Maer Roshan ideating covers like the Kobe Bryant Tribute.

An iconic cover for Los Angeles Magazine, courtesy of Walrus

Lori Gaffney, BPN: It was probably a combination of things. The work we did on the Unvaccinated Life campaign coupled with our new business wins and extraordinary revenue growth.

How should an agency approach the AdAge Small Agency of the Year application process?

Stay tuned – we’ll cover that next week!

And a hearty “thank you” to these fine agencies!

The following are clickable links:

Terri & Sandy
Erich and Kallman

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.