What are the biggest challenges indie shops will face in 2020?

Originally published in Campaign US by Lindsay Stein

It’s almost time to pop champagne and toast away all of the craziness, excitement and woes of 2019. But that also means a whole new calendar year is about to start – full of new obstacles and opportunities for those in adland.

This week, Campaign US caught up with some independent agency executives to hear what they expect to face in the coming year.

What will be the biggest challenge indie shops will face in 2020?

Carter Collins, Executive Producer, Bindery

Knowing when (and how) to say no.

Dooley Tombras, President, Tombras

Figuring out how to turn project work into a sustainable business seems to be a challenge for many independents, but to us it’s a huge opportunity. Independents are generally better positioned to tackle project work because we’re flexible, not held back by a particular margin or some other limiting factor that has nothing to do with making better work.

Jo McKinney, CEO, Burns Group

2020 looks to be a year of impact for agencies. ‘Shortermism’ will dominate the focus of many brands and campaigns, which will impact our work, our relationships, and our pay. The looming recession (will it happen? what will it mean?), and the trend in CMO time spent managing the present vs. the future, means agency creativity will focus more on short term activations that drive results (think Whopper Detour) and agency compensation will continue to trend towards project work and shorter term deliverables. This means agencies will be making more content, more quickly, and with less confidence in longer-term compensation.  To manage that trend profitably, agencies will need to change the way they work.

Mira Kaddoura, Founder/ECD, Red & Co. 

Making sure what they are selling is something that clients actually need and want to buy.

Mona Gonzalez, Managing Director, Pereira O’Dell NY

Beyond the more obvious challenges we all see – increased holding company investments, pitch term wars, balancing scale with soul – the biggest challenge will be surviving, if you haven’t yet taken to heart the 2019 conversations about the significance of diversity and inclusion in the agency’s people and creative work. The talent is out there and indies have the unique ability to give all employees a place to tell their stories and ultimately impact the work. If you haven’t made changes by 2020, what’s the excuse?

Ryan Kutshcer, Founder, Circus Maximus

Demonstrating value and finding the right client partners. I don’t think too much changes as the calendars flip over. That’s always the name of the game. 

Lauren Schuster, Head of Business Development, Bailey Lauerman

What I love about working for an independent agency is the ability to control your own destiny. We may not have an army in every department but that doesn’t mean we are any less innovative or passionate about owning our craft. I think the biggest challenge for indie agencies in 2020 will be building those strategic alliances that can help the agency scale. Whether that is tapping freelance networks or creating partnerships with other agencies, I think that will be critical for growth and success, especially in mid-size markets like Omaha. I’ve worked for a global agency, a mid-size niche agency and now a small agency. There seems to be a comradery among smaller, independent agencies, which is refreshing. My prediction is that there will be a rise of small agency partnerships to meet the demands of our clients’ evolving business needs in real-time.

Steve Red, President and Co-Chief Creative Officer, Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners 

Marketer’s willingness to consider the nimble, innovative and customized approach that indies often deliver over the perceived safety of a large agency network.

Anders Wahlquist, CEO, B-Reel

I would say it’s about talent. Indie shops are competing with startups and unicorns on the one hand, and big tech and network agencies on the other – all at the same time. In the best of worlds, we are fast and agile with a strong culture, and worst case we’re stuck in the middle.

David Soliday, CEO, Mythic

Continuing to convince clients of all types, but mostly larger, ad-savvy clients, that an Indie shop can absolutely tackle their most complex marketing challenges, from strategy through creative solution. Many of these clients see inherent benefits in the Indie shop: we will be lean and nimble; fewer layers will mean faster speed to market with creative work; lower overhead will lower costs. All of which makes us great … for their less high-profile projects. Their lingering question – “Can I really trust that you have the strategy and analytic skills, the creative chops and the bench depth to solve our most critical challenges?” 

Yes, yes, yes. Talent seeking a less siloed, more entrepreneurial environment is coming to Indie shops in droves from large agencies; we’re attracting amazing talent from universities and ad schools; we’re developing talent via the same best-in-class methods and online resources that holding company agencies tap into. The “virtual bench” of freelance talent in the gig economy flows equally to agencies big and small. A few forward-thinking clients are pressure testing the Indie shop approach, but a huge percentage of clients are still tied to the perceived security of the same behemoths they’ve used for years. In today’s marketing landscape, the safe choice may be the risky choice. Helping clients see that remains a pivotal challenge for Indie shops.  

Christian Hughes, Principal and President, Cutwater

Clients are increasingly looking for agile, idea-driven solutions — which independent agencies are in a great position to deliver against since they’re able to focus on their clients’ business and their talent vs. their, own quarterly earnings. In this environment, one of the challenges for indie shops in the new year is around awareness, as there are some great, innovative solutions across the country with various capabilities and areas of expertise, but for clients whose day-to-day job isn’t around evaluating agencies, it can be hard for them to find these gems.

Travis York, CEO, GYK Antler

The biggest challenge will be the balancing act between ongoing client relationships and the increasing demand for project-based services. In addition, what brands build in-house vs. rely on agency partners continues to evolve, which requires more flexibility with how partnerships are structured client-to-client. Lastly, it’s a cluttered market with lots of new players so authentically differentiating continues to be a challenge.

Tom Denari, President, Young & Laramore

Given the ever-shifting relationships that marketers want to have with agencies, 2020 is actually a time for the independent agency to thrive. We’re more nimble because we don’t have to chase profit targets set forth by a home office or a multi-national network. And, we can make own decisions about what clients or projects we want to take on, and which ones we don’t. If we want to invest in a client, we can.

The secret is staying true to the agency’s overarching vision, and only engaging with clients that are consistent with it.

Libby DeLana, Co-Founder & Creative Director, Mechanica

I think there are two big challenges that indie shops will face in 2020. The first is the expanding and diversified influence of marketing on everything we touch, including customer experience, product design, employee engagement, privacy issues, technology experience, internal alignment and more. The second challenge is the increasing demand for agencies to prove their worth. Everyone seems to be a “marketer.” With software platforms making overreaching claims, to the brutal truth that many people/individuals call themselves agencies, true partnership between client and agency will require increased transparency and mutual/shared goals.

Dustin Callif, President, Tool of North America

The challenge for independent companies will be to find their niche and break out of the overused tropes of our industry, to offer values beyond “storytelling” and “cultural relevance.” With the industry shifting to a project-based model, the companies that can articulate their unique point of view and can back it up with the right staff will have a better chance at thriving in 2020. Another big challenge will be figuring out who Baby Yoda is. 

Brian Salzman, Founder & CEO, RQ

Collaboration among agencies is so critical to the success of our client partners. Instead, so many small agencies continue to land grab for business outside their core business (aka driven by $$).

Kate Wolff, SVP Client Service, RQ

The agency model is starting to mirror the restaurant model as clients are becoming more like patrons than partners. The jump ball approach to creative agency work puts stress of the agency model and an inability to properly forecast for a year long run. This in turn makes it very hard to retain talent and thus contributes to inconstant or sporadic work for clients.

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