Shante Bacon built her independent agency, One/35 Agency, on being able to give larger agencies a run for their money through agility and diversity. In doing so, she came up with four core advantages independent agencies have that let them be a force in the 21st century.
“I’m here to tell you that small, independent agencies are mighty and that they are built to accelerate,” said Bacon at The Drum’s Agency Acceleration Day in her ‘The Future Looks Independent’ keynote. “Never underestimate the power of being small and independent, because it’s your actual unique selling proposition.”
Bacon went on to say that she thinks the future of the marketing and advertising industry belongs to independents because they have built their agencies on adapting and disrupting. “Adaptation happens for you on a daily basis, and your ability to adapt is the secret to your acceleration,” she said.
Similar to how Uber and Lyft disrupted the cab industry, the rise of independent agencies means traditional agencies need to work harder to prove that they understand niche markets and new technologies.
“We’re constantly offering clients services that they didn’t even know they needed, but now they can’t live without, and that’s how you stay in business – constantly disrupting and constantly adapting,” stated Bacon.
The four core advantages for her are: evolution, 21st century business model, no team is one size fits all, and diversity of thought.
On evolution, Bacon said that clients are no longer giving annual commitments of business, instead moving towards a project-based culture, which may be uncomfortable to some but is the new norm. Smaller agencies, she said, constantly have to keep up with the pace and volume of pitching new business and being creative.
The 21st century business model is one of a “clubhouse culture” according to Bacon, who came from a music background with Def Jam rather than the traditional agency model.
“When I say clubhouse culture I’m talking about all these new and exciting opportunities you have to work and network at the same time,” she said. That means that her agency people can gather at member-based social work spaces, like the Soho House, Spring Place and Blueprint and Co. At those places, her team can network and run into people that a regular office wouldn’t allow.
“You’re constantly feeding off of the energy, the creativity…it brings like minds together with an energy of collaboration and innovation,” she said.
One big part of the new business model is that more people are working from home than ever before. She cited a Gallup survey found that 43% of Americans work from home occasionally, up from 39% in 2012, and that a lot of office spaces are now empty because of a flexible work model.
“You can still have a top tier agency where you can have a decentralized business model where you can have experts all over the country. For us personally, we have Chicago, Atlanta, DC, LA. Having those people on the ground at all times gives you a local expert and also gives you national perspective. When you have to deliver for a client you don’t have to ramp up and hire on the fly because they need to go into a local market.”
When it comes to no team is one size fits all, Bacon said every single client requires a different custom team. “Certain campaigns are going to require a certain sensitivity, a certain expert, a certain geographical perspective that you cannot find in everyone. One of the things about independent agencies is your ability to customize the team that is going to be on every single campaign and not have to have 15 layers of approvals, and have the HR people interview 100 people to figure out how you’re going to customize the team for each client.”
Bacon said that leaner nature is a big benefit that clients are getting used to with the project-based culture evolution – they’re not just relying on research and development but they’re actually relying on shared life experiences in the categories that they’re trying to get into.
“Right now everybody’s on the search for authenticity. The voices are democratized but you cannot democratize authenticity. Everybody can’t have every single experience. You have to be speaking to a team member that knows what they are talking about because they come from that background. And that is where independent agencies win the most,” said Bacon.
One way to get that authenticity is to come to the table with diversity of thought, and that means diversity in the workplace. She cited Antonio Lucio and HP’s push for diversity by requiring it of their partner agencies. But she stated that having a chief diversity officer will not necessarily move the needle.
“Chief diversity officers are the only people I know who can be somewhere for 15 years still talking about the same problem,” she jabbed. “We never subscribe to the belief that you need an official watchdog to tell senior leadership at a company that they should value and celebrate diverse voices. If they need you to tell them that, then they don’t really believe in it.
"I don’t think the industry as a whole is finding much success in that and I expect a lot more people will catch up to where independent agencies already are.”
Bacon added that independent agencies are getting the diversity angle right because they don’t have a choice. They have to build their companies by celebrating all cultures, diversity of thought and a diversity of socio-economic conditions because they can't be profitable without speaking to every segment of the population.
“If any business plans on being profitable you have to play to the entire marketplace, not just one segment. Because you build your business having to think this way every day, it is coming from the top down. You do have a celebration and respect for different voices, different values and different socio-economic conditions, and different cultural celebrations,” said Bacon.
Ultimately, independent agencies will lead the way in marketing and advertising because they are “built to accelerate on all the things other agencies cannot move quickly on” and be agile to continue to disrupt the norm.