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Small Agency of the Year: Why agencies should apply, and why CMOs should care

Small Agency of the Year: Why agencies should apply, and why CMOs should care

ad age small agency awards 1

At Mercer Island Group, we love agencies. 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. We not only love agencies, but we also love agencies of all sizes. And 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.

It’s our love for small agencies that makes this a special time of year! AdAge recently announced that applications were now open for this year’s annual Small Agency of the Year awards. This annual custom recognizes the best in small agencies across a wide range of areas from overall agency of the year to agency of the year in regions and in areas like media, experiential and international. There are also small agency of the year awards for a variety of small agency sizes, including agencies with 1-10 employees, 11-75 employees and 76-150 employees.

The 2022 Small Agency Awards also includes categories for the people behind the work, like Creative of the Year; Strategic Planner of the Year; Media Planner of the Year; and Account Manager of the Year. The deadline for application this year is April 27, 2022.

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 a number of fantastic small agencies that are past winners, like Curiosity, DNA, Walrus, Opinionated, BPN and Erich & Kallman. Here’s what they said.

What prompted your agency to apply?

Agencies applied in order to build their reputation and drive new business:

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.

Kate Higgins, Erich & Kallman: New business. It’s part of the game you have to play to get noticed. We hear all the time that clients searching for an agency found us because of Erich & Kallman winning Small Agency of the Year and A-List.

GOATs Super Bowl spot for Disney+ (from Erich and Kallman)

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. I think we spend more time thinking about competing agencies of our size and offering during “SAOTY season” then we do at any other time of the year.

Seventh Generation print (from Opinionated)

Alan Brown, DNA: We’ve always viewed AdAge SAOTY as a huge win for any agency – more important than creative award shows. This year 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.

Rainier Seltzer mobile (from DNA)

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. “Unvaccinated Life” was a campaign we created on our own dime to shed light on the rise in Measles (especially in nearby Vancouver, WA) and to expose the loud minority of folks unwilling to get vaccinated. The campaign was picked up in local, national and even international press. This recognition energized the team and we felt we were in an excellent position to win a SAOTY award.

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:

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. I can only attribute this to the recognition we have received each August from AdAge – we have won SAOTY recognition every year we have been in business thus far!

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. It’s been a huge sense of accomplishment and injection of motivation to keep us focused on the next step. Before you win, you always wonder, “is it working?” Our business is growing, the caliber of work we are doing is extraordinary, the clients we are winning are notable. We felt like we were taking all of the right steps. So getting this recognition confirms our hypothesis. When agencies win agency-wide awards it’s a sign that everything is on the right track (your people, culture, clients). Individual or campaign awards only recognize a small part of you. Everyone had a role in winning this. Every person and client can pinpoint what they did to bring this recognition to Curiosity and to Cincinnati.

Duke, the award-winning spokesperson for Bush’s Beans (from Curiosity)

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.

Lowes Foods outdoor (from Walrus)

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. Third-party recognition (from a trusted industry source) makes telling our agency story a bit easier. We aren’t purely pitching ourselves. The award is proof of our skillset. And internally it was a massive shot in the arm. Everyone in every department took pride in the recognition.

Unvaccinated! Life parody anti-vaccination “lifestyle brand” (from BPN)

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. This is a differentiator for sure.

Why should CMOs and marketers care?

CMOs and marketers should care because of the commitment these small agencies have to helping clients succeed:

Kate Higgins, Erich & Kallman: We are honored to be recognized, but ultimately what matters the most to us are our clients. We try not to get too fixated on awards. Being identified as one of the agencies who are rising above the fray is always appreciated but winning during the pandemic is even sweeter because of how hard the team had to work to make sure we delivered for our clients.

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 next week!

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

The following are clickable links:

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.