Anatomy of an Agency

Originally found on Big Orange Slide. (Probably easier to view there, too.)


More On Branding An Agency

Last month, I posted about Modernista’s statement on its website: “Modernista is not for everyone.” (Although they recently changed their site from the Webby award-winning “overlay” format to a safer one that’s full of words about their full range of services.)

Anyone who watches Mad Men saw Don Draper issue a similar statement this season when he took out a letter stating that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce would not work for cigarette accounts. Setting aside the moral dubiousness of being the Lucky Strike agency one moment, then taking a moral stand the next, Don essentially put a stake in the ground and said, “this is the kind of agency we are. Take it or leave it.” (Apparently, Jay Chiat, among others, ran similar ads on tobacco back in the day.)

As Greg has pointed out, “Look at the ABOUT US section on most agency sites and it will say, ‘We are a full-service marketing communications agency, specializing in broadcast advertising, digital media, corporate branding and public relations.’” The same is true of most agency videos. They’ll talk about changing media (duh), the need to make lasting, meaningful relationships with consumers (no kidding), and that social media has shifted conversations blah blah blah blah. We rarely do a good job of distinguishing our own agencies from all the others out there (ironic, since building memorable brands is our job).

Here’s a video from Firstborn that says pretty much everything most agency websites say (client roster, quick portfolio of work, importance of technology, a sense of the agency’s culture).

It conveys all of this without the use of a narrator or flashy titles. I think it does a pretty good job. At the very least, it makes me feel something about the agency (isn’t that what we try to do with most of our work—get someone to feel something?).

What do you think?

Modernista Is Not For Everyone

If you go to Modernista’s Website, you find a unique and inspiring message. “Modernista is not for everyone.”

Many agencies will take a shot at any client they think they can win. But an agency with a good sense of who they are and who they want to be realizes that they can’t be the right agency for every client. Like a brand, they have a character. Taking on the wrong clients will dilute that character pretty quickly.

Understanding what your agency’s brand is can be just as important as understanding your clients’ brands. But, as Tim Williams points out in Take A Stand For Your Brand, agencies can be surprisingly bad at defining and understanding their own brand. We tell our clients they can’t be everything to everyone. We would be wise to heed our own advice.

Agency Web Sites and Your Portfolio

A friend of mine is helping her agency put together their website, and she wrote to pick my brain about what I liked and disliked about agency sites.

First of all, I think the work is the most important part of any agency site. This is especially true if the site itself can be counted among the agency’s best work.

As of this writing, here are what I’d consider the best agency websites of all time:

Crispin Porter + Bogusky

Boone Oakley


What makes them remarkable? Two things: 1. Innovation, 2. Bravery. It’s not easy to pull something like this off. But if you can, you win.

Some agencies are incorporating newsfeeds and their own blogs – not buried somewhere in the backwaters of the menu, but right on their landing page. If you have interesting things to say (or if other people are saying it for you) it says a lot about who you are. My favorites include:

Butler Shine Stern & Partners

The Martin Agency

Zeus Jones

Sites that have great design are worthy of note. So are sites with some level of interactivity.

I’m not a huge fan of agency sites that show introductory videos on the landing page. Nor am I a fan of background music. I think the more features an agency tries to build into their site, the slower (and consequently, the less interesting) it gets. I don’t have time to wait for your site to load. I’m sure your potential clients don’t either.

Sites need to have personality. You can go overboard with this. Or not. I guess it depends on the type of clients you want to attract.

What does this have to do with you? An agency site is basically the portfolio for the office. When you’re putting together your book, you should ask yourself if it’s as good, as memorable, and as innovative as the best sites you’ve seen.

Like the best ads, and even the best student portfolios, I really appreciate agency sites that are simple and direct.

What do you think makes an agency site good? Have any favorites I’ve missed?

Continuation of a Cool Story

About a year ago, I wrote this post on agency tenacity. Long story, short: Creative team comes up with a cool idea. Client loves it, but doesn’t make time or money for it. The agency, knowing a great idea when they see it, tenaciously pursues it with the client until the client capitulates. Then the client ends up using it all over the place – TV, t-shirts, banners, etc.. There was never a brief or a client request. Just a cool idea and a committed agency.
Seems now the client is using it on their own products. A very cool continuation of the story.

Remember, not every agency or every creative director will take a brilliant idea and push it forward like this. Make sure you find those that will.

More Experienced Partners

When I started my career, I was fortunate to be partnered with an art director who had a couple years’ experience. My first assignment was tv spot, and about a month into my first job, I was on a shoot. I would have been completely lost had it not been for the help of my partner.

The learning curve is pretty steep when you start at your first agency, but it will be steeper if you work with more experienced people. If you have an opportunity to partner with a seasoned vet, take it. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to look foolish.

Agencies often pair juniors with juniors. This, I think, is a mistake. Juniors will grow much faster if they have someone to show them the ropes.

What’s On Your Agency’s Walls?

What’s on your agency’s walls? Ads? Art? Post-Its? Scuff marks?

How does that affect the creative? The clients? The culture?

My friend Brian (AD at the Martin Agency and author of has a pretty cool project going on. (It’s where I stole the quote for the last post.) Send pictures of your agency’s walls to him at to contribute.

He’s got a few cool ones from W+K, Crispin and Creature up already.

(If you’re working the days before Christmas, it’s probably pretty quiet and this will give you something to do. Otherwise, bookmark Brian’s page and send pics in January.)