Inside the Mix

Though created to compete with big firms, startups' biggest rivals are often each other

Though created to compete with big firms, startups' biggest rivals are often each other

If you ever wanted to see the heads of Omnicom and Interpublic being viciously beaten to a pulp by a little person, then you're in luck. Minneapolis ad startup Pocket Hercules has enacted that scenario in a short internet film in a bid to show that it doesn't always make sense to hire the big guns. Which proves, once and for all, that the debate about big-vs.-small, independent-vs.-owned agencies is unlikely ever to go away.

It was, in no small part, reaction to the predicted wave of consolidation in the 1990s that fueled many small, creative-focused startups across many marketing disciplines. Even though the predictions that one day there would be three holding companies and thousands of five- to 25-person firms have failed to come to pass, startups like Pocket Hercules perpetuate this thinking.

The agency itself admits that it's not "inventing anything new," but the partners - copywriter Tom Camp and art director Jason Smith - felt that the time was right for such a splashy launch and brutally literal ad. "We're almost seen as a renegade company," says Camp. "We're not at all; this is just the way of the future."

But while the launch may ostensibly be a rail against the giant, owned ad agencies - the "skyscrapers" whose fees cover more than just the work they do for clients - it actually seems more of a bid to capitalize on the success of the independent firms that have paved the way. Smith highlights such firms as Strawberry Frog and Anomaly as ones whose model they are ho ping to emulate.

The partners' argument is not so much based in creativity, but in value. More of your dollar will go toward the work, say the startups, not the artwork in agency lobbies. Their inspiration came from writer Thomas Friedman, who describes the new business world as an environment in which technology allows anyone with talent to compete with a corporation by outsourcing, to paraphrase, a lot of the grunt work.

While the partners' take on the agency world is somewhat bombastic, the model they propose does point to a reality in the way that clients are hiring firms. A giant client will still want a global AOR model for their flagship, global brands, but often turns to a boutique to handle side brands. Coke has Wieden & Kennedy as its global AOR for Coca-Cola, but just gave its Dasani water brand to Anomaly.

Big clients still need big agencies, especially for the added value beyond the executional work they buy. In fact, the finished ad itself is frequently such a small part of the overall marketing process, that the likes of Pocket Hercules almost seem to be the model that's stuck in the past, not the big firms who also provide extensive research, corporate as well as marketing strategy, and more often now, solutions that don't necessarily use the expertise that's at the firm's core.

This all points to a trend far more interesting than anything to do with big or small agencies: Clients aren't consolidating their work; they're fragmenting it. Pocket Hercules may depict itself as fighting the big agencies, but it's the other upstarts who are capitalizing on this that will be the real opponents.

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