The Hot Tomali team is back from a few days in New Orleans, having attended the fantastic Ad Age Small Agency Conference that brought together small agencies from across the continent to share insights and strategies on how to be better at what we do. Aside from feeling pretty proud about being the only double winner at Ad Age’s awards show, we also took away some great insights that are valuable to agencies and businesses.

Things are Changing

For agencies these days, it’s all about digital, and it’s all about business. Any Creatives in the conference must have been muttering, “Where are the ads?” as speaker after speaker focused on the need for agencies to engage customers online. It’s not that the great creative idea doesn’t matter, but it is now inextricable within the online media capabilities. As Tom Martin of Converse Digital stated, “The industry needs people who speak advertising like a native yet are fluent in digital.” Social Media was front and centre; not in a buzz word way, but in successful examples that are grounding some new marketing principles. Eric Ryan, the founder of Method, had a great perspective on this: “Every brand in social media should have a social message.” And Michael McSunas recognized the spread of expertise that is evolving in social media marketing when he questioned, “Do young people understand how to market through social media? Or do they just understand how to use the platform?”

Agencies are now about the business. Literally. Eric Ryan had seven years of experience in advertising with high-end consumer brands before deciding he should apply his marketing excellence to his own brand, and started the incredibly successful Method home care products. Kenny Tomlin, founder and CEO of Rockfish (the winner of Ad Age 2009 Agency of the Year), has a goal of 50% of agency revenues coming from branded companies they create, marketing technology they licence to clients, and joint business ventures. This model of agencies marketing their own companies and systems really shows a client that the agency knows how to make business happen. We were particularly excited to see this model succeeding, as Hot Tomali has been developing its own products for years with the HotCMS content management system, our retail training platform, and our business partnership with Cientis in creating a physicians community for electronic medical records systems evaluation.

Things are Staying the Same

Agencies have always had a role in advancing their clients’ marketing knowledge. Not since Mad Men times, though, has this been so important with the shifts to digital marketing. As Tom Martin stated, “A small agency is there to guide clients through this new digital age.” And what hasn’t changed is the desire of agencies to play a bigger role in the strategy layer of marketing: “Too much tactics and we all turn into machines.”

Most significantly, the biggest thing not to change was agencies’ desire to do great work for their clients. It was an enriching experience to be in a room where job #1 is to help clients connect better with their customers. Through every speaker, and every discussion thread, this objective was obvious.

And in the end, it seems none of us could come up with a better moniker than “small agency” as Ad Age has defined it. “Independent”, “Nimble”, “Way Better”, were bandied about as replacement for “Small”, but we left with the creative challenge of branding ourselves. Regardless, I think we all agree with the conference lunch sponsor when they stated:

“Where is it written that brilliant ideas only come from big places? That’s right. Nowhere. And we know it. … We know that really great thinking can happen anywhere people have brains to think with. And since that’s just as likely to be your shop as it is any other, why shouldn’t you have the same shot at online success?”

I’ll raise a New Orleans Hurricane drink to that.

Author Bryan Mavrow

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  • Tom Martin says:

    First, congrats again on the strong showing at the conference. There were a lot of great agencies and work there — so too get a twofer is pretty incredible.

    Second, thanks for sharing my thoughts with your audience. Surprising to me that more agencies don’t see/take the opportunity that digital provides — namely a chance to get back into the driver seat with strategy and marketing guidance. I hope more jump on the bandwagon and decide it is time to catch up on all of the changes in digital, mobile and social to regain our rightful seat as the guide of our client’s marketing investments.

    Congrats again.
    Converse Digital

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