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Your plan to win Ad Age Small Agency of the Year

Your plan to win Ad Age Small Agency of the Year


Many Ad Age Small Agency of the Year winners have gone on to enjoy incredible success.  

There are so many potential benefits from winning Small Agency of the Year. The agency’s reputation grows! Team morale swells! The phone rings!  

Given the importance of the award to building a small agency’s reputation, many small agency owners and leaders want to know: “what do we need to do to win?” Over the past few years we’ve thought a great deal about this question and a couple years ago developed the industry’s first guide to winning.  

A few years have passed and we are delighted to present an updated version of our recommended plan for how agencies can win Ad Age’s Small Agency of the Year.  

What does an agency need to do to increase their chances of winning Small Agency of the Year?

To find out, we went to the winners. We interviewed a number of winners from the past five years and their experiences helped us develop this updated plan for how to win Small Agency of the Year. We also 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 strategies. 

1. Have a compelling story and a plan to tell it

The agencies that win market their agencies 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. 

Toni Lee, Toni Lee Communications, independent PR consultant to agencies“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.” 

Rachel Braude, VP of Client Services, Powell NY, an agency focused on agencies & media: Entering for Small Agency of the Year is not a one-size-fits all strategy for every agency, every year. We advise clients to go for it during a year when their work and wins speak for themselves, and put their resources elsewhere when that’s not the case. But once we’ve all agreed that there is potential, we work with our clients to create a strong but concise narrative, which is sometimes a tough needle to thread. 

Ashley Walters, Curiosity: You have to carefully craft your story. 

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. 

Curiosity has “questioned the unquestionable” on their way to multiple SAOTY awards

Curiosity has “questioned the unquestionable” on their way to multiple SAOTY awards 

John Condon, The Distillery Project: Our work differentiates us from virtually every other nimble, little shop out there. Big, enduring, brand-defining ideas are our specialty. We’re the small agency you go to for something much bigger than just a Super Bowl spot. Arrow Electronics asked us for one. And of course, we gave them their Super Bowl spot, but in the process, we gave them a campaign that ran globally for eight years. We’re the small agency you can ask to revitalize a $60 billion Fortune 100 global giant like Caterpillar. We’re a little different.  

The Distillery Project celebrating another SAOTY win

The Distillery Project celebrating another SAOTY win 

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, CuriosityYes, 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. 

Evan Russack, WorkInProgressIn the past three years, we have been honored twice by AdAge Small Agency Awards. In both instances, our story boiled down to three key things:

  • Staying true to our agency vision of controlled growth and building the agency with brands that share the same approach to advertising — taking action to prove what you passionately believe in — and turning that action into advertising that is more memorable to drive top-of-mind awareness and sales. 
  • Treating every employee as a work in progress and supporting them in their journey, professionally and personally. This means investing in L&D programs, ensuring work-life balance, sharing in the financial success of the agency, creating ways for employees to add to the culture of the agency, and launching multiple DE&I programs to increase inclusivity within our agency and within the industry. 
  • Having a leadership team that is actively involved in the daily activities of the agency. So that we can make sure the partnerships we have are right for the agency. That the most effective work is being presented and made. And most importantly, that both agency and client are treating each other with respect and hearing what the other is saying. 

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

2. Focus on your clients’ success

Of course the review panel wants to hear about agency growth, client wins and overall agency success. And there is a specific accomplishment that really can distinguish your agency: the success of your clients. You can’t win SAOTY without successful clients. Successful clients are the proof the selection committee needs that your agency is for real. Winning agencies focus on doing well by their clients. 

David Mullen, The Variable: In our experience at least, both the work and the results have to stand out to the judges. It’s not enough to have great creative without clear results or average creative with great results. Both are held as equal requirements by Ad Age. Each year we’ve won, we had strong campaigns with great results. 

Evan Russack, WorkInProgress:The last time we won SAOTY it was tied to our agency culture, and that agency culture delivered groundbreaking work. We launched Carryout Tips for Domino’s, which delivered a 14.6% increase in same-store sales growth for that quarter. Not only did Carryout Tips drive sales, it addressed a key business objective: grow carryout orders at a time when the business (read: the entire world) was struggling with staffing issues and needed to swing consumer behavior away from delivery orders. This campaign went on to win a Gold Effie. At the same time, we have helped Mike’s Hard Lemonade successfully enter the seltzer category with the launch of their new Mike’s Hard Lemonade Seltzer. In less than a year, Mike’s became the 8th largest seltzer brand in the country, while achieving a 51% awareness level. None of this would have happened without the people who make up WorkInProgress and without a relentless focus on building a culture that yields an 85% retention rate.

Britt Fero, PB&: We’ve been honored to win twice. I think in both cases, it’s been a combination of our unique model coupled with the work output from that model and the business growth it’s driven.  We don’t have traditional departments (correct, we don’t have a “creative department.”). We work in ‘thinker and maker’ dyads that simplify the process – and allow us to get to interesting solutions in an agile way.  Last year, that model drove a substantial amount of growth for the agency and contributed to the win.   

Small is wonderful at PB&, and the results are mighty

Small is wonderful at PB&, and the results are mighty 

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. 

At DNA, different drives client success and SAOTY recognition

At DNA, different drives client success and SAOTY recognition 

John Condon, The Distillery Project: The work we do is simple, pure and potent (that’s why we call it The Distillery Project). It’s the kind of work that actually works, because it has the power to change the way people think, how they feel and even what they do. It rallies entire organizations. It builds sales, brands, and trust. In other words, it’s the kind of work that results in strong case studies and more assignments.

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 Professional PR help

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

David Mullen, The Variable: We partnered with outside PR support for the first time in mid-2022 and continue to work with her because she’s been an incredible strategic and executional partner. So we won our first three awards before we had engaged outside PR and won our fourth after doing so. The field for Small Agency gets more competitive every year, so it’s important to stand out in your entry, but also throughout the whole year as you launch newsworthy work and initiatives. I’m not typically a selfish person, but I hesitate to tell you who we work with because I don’t want everyone to call her tomorrow. 😀 But she’s amazing. And her name is Alyssa Siegel.   

Alyssa Siegel, founder, AJ Media Communications, an independent PR consultant for agencies: 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. 

Toni Lee, Toni Lee Communications, independent PR consultant to agenciesWinning 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.”  

Rachel Braude, VP of Client Services, Powell NY, an agency focused on agencies & media:  Submitting for an agency award is a year-long campaign.  The editors should recognize your work and know your ethos. This is where your PR team comes in. We’ll help you strategize exclusives, communicate your story throughout the year, and generate interest in your agency overall. That way, when judging season comes around you’re a familiar face.  

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. 

Britt Fero, PB&: We work with High10 Media to help us raise our visibility. They’re a good barometer for how we can better tell our story.

4. Get on the radar of the selection committee

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

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. 

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 few 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  

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.  

Alyssa Siegel, founder, AJ Media Communications, an independent PR consultant for agencies: “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.” 

Britt Fero, PB&: We invested in building personal relationships with folks at Ad Age. 

5. Start early

Winners often start a year or more out and it generally takes multiple years of applications to break through. And the mere act of going through the process is incredibly beneficial! So, start now. A winning plan isn’t a last-minute effort to apply.  

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. 

Rachel Braude, VP of Client Services, Powell NY, an agency focused on agencies & media: Start early. When you give yourself plenty of time to plan ahead, you can gather proof points, sit with your responses, and edit for the most impactful answers. Read coverage of who won in previous years and be strategic about which categories you have the best chance to win. Also, this may seem inconsequential, but remember to follow the rules. All too often we see agencies get swept up in the process and forget to answer the questions or go over word count. It’s better to be concise, clear, forthright and direct. 


Bonus: Respect the selection committee 

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

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 compelling story to tell and a plan to tell it.

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 Professional 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.

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

5. Start early.

You can’t tackle the first four strategies without starting early. Want to win in 2025? 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 2024 application here. 


And remember, respect 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.

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.