Only independent agencies can be "special," says VB+P founder

Venables traded tales of indie life with W+K's Colleen DeCourcy and Lisa Clunie of Joan at Advertising Week

Representatives of independent ad agencies large, small and brand new swapped stories of life off the holding company leash at an Advertising Week panel Wednesday afternoon. It was a lighthearted conversation, but none of the speakers were shy about their belief that the holding company model is broken .

Any agency can "aspire to be good, can aspire to be very good, can aspire to be great," said Paul Venables, founder and chairman of Venables Bell & Partners. "But to be special, you have to be independent."

Colleen DeCourcy, partner and global ECD at Wieden + Kennedy, maintained that the holding companies themselves don’t like the model as it stands, either. "The holding companies aren’t even liking themselves," she said. At one point, they made sense, but now when they buy agencies, much of the talent or client list leaves. "They’re buying nothing, and they know they’re buying nothing," she said.

But much of the commentary was reserved for lauding the benefits of independence and the freedom it provides. "The independence isn’t just financial," said Lisa Clunie, co-founder and CEO at Joan, which opened its doors in May of this year. The entire creative process is up for amendment.

That enables client benefits like quick turnaround, Clunie said, citing the agency’s first work for Netflix. "That was 10 days, brief to finished product."

Despite the marked differences in business philosophy, independent agencies are always valuable acquisitions for a holding company. Venables received an offer just four days after its launch in 2001 and continues to receive them regularly. Joan received one even before the agency had officially launched at all. As for Wieden + Kennedy, even if the partners wanted to sell the agency, they couldn’t -- it’s controlled by a trust.

But if W+K’s experience is anything to go on, buyout offers could eventually dry up. W+K has been around for 34 years and turned down many offers in the interim, often vocally, but it’s been a while since any holding company approached them. "It’s kind if like turning middle-aged," DeCourcy said, quoting partner Dan Wieden. "After a while they just stop coming around."

For independents who don’t sell, intensive investment can lead to rewards down the line. "We had to be a teaching hospital," Venables said, taking in young creatives with plenty of potential who nevertheless needed hands-on direction.

But after a few years of cultivating that talent from within, rather than buying it wholesale like a holding company, Venables said, "all of a sudden, you have all-stars."

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