No Way! I Won't Sell, Say Independents

Holding companies regularly need to acquire independent agencies to thrive and survive. While many shops eagerly sell out, a few independents remain stubbornly against any possible marriages.

Three strident independents -- Venables Bell + Partners' Paul Venables, Joan's Lisa Clunie and Wieden + Kennedy's (WK) Colleen DeCourcy -- discussed their reasons for staying solo with Campaign U.S.'s Doug Quenqua.

Freedom is the universal reason for remaining independent. "I heard that in the good times you don't notice when times are tough, and when times are tough, like a client takes business in-house, then the holding company's ropes are snapped back that you thought you had," says Clunie. "Times are tough, you appreciate being independent. Times are good, you appreciate being independent."

All three executives previously worked at holding companies, so they understand the advantages and allure. Clients tend to want shops with global resources. There isn't as much of a cash flow problem. Joan recently won its first big production with multi-digits with the open question of who floats the cash?

Clients tend to have more demands on smaller shops, thinking that they will be completely devoted to them and only them. There are clients that expect agencies to be part of their system, says Venables.

The advantages in remaining solo are many, they say. There are fewer layers. Joan recently worked on a project that went from a brief to finish work in 10 days. "It was pure speed-decision making," says Clunie. The agency was able to commit to an idea and didn't have to ask "a million people."

This independence is key to WK's culture. In fact, the agency doubles down on itself by having "built a system that is impossible to be sold," says DeCourcy. "Not too many people know we have a trust."

There is the notion that independent shops are more invested in their clients. Advertising is a transactional business. "Who doesn't love the idea that a person has skin in the game," asks Venables.

Then there is the fact that CFOs hate holding companies, says Venables. There are too many restrictions and paperwork. "Financial guys feel handcuffed," he says.

Still, it can be challenging to attract top talent to independents.

Venables decided to set up its own "teaching hospital" where it hired people with scores of potential, but needing creative help. He would make sure these novices would gain experience on key accounts, despite the fact that clients would not want to pay for them to be on shoots.

His agency would absorb the costs as investing in its future. "Teach men to fish," jokes Venables. This growing your own talent pool now means the agency has its own loyal all-stars without having to wade into the free agent market.

WK, for its part, doesn't receive as much interest as it used to. It's like "hitting middle age, after awhile, they stop coming around," jokes DeCourcy.

And it seems those that sell out may regret it. After being open for four days, Venables spoke with a friend who had already sold out to a holding company and was now trying to buy Venables. "I asked him what was the biggest mistake he made, and he said he sold too soon."

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