Latest news, leadership & events.
Better. Informed.

Age of the Independent Agency

Over the past year alone, the modern workplace has really changed. In the face of a pandemic, advertising agencies had to learn to bob and weave when it came to meeting client needs, doing right by their employees, and maintaining efficiency and revenue. But those big, “safe” holding companies no longer feel so safe both in the eye of their employees and their clients. And whether it be the nature of a bit of isolation, or a desire to trust ourselves more, we’re all craving independence.

Agencies owned by holding companies, although seemingly structurally sound and often contain bells and whistles like recording studios, production designers, and casting directors have their own issues. They’re also the agencies forced into layoffs and furloughs, not the indie shops. Being part of an agency living under a holding company can often mean a line in the sand when it comes to executive transparency, red tape that could impact deadlines and creative ideas, and failure to leap over hurdles as an employee with a big idea, a crucial need, or just a concern.

But, at independent agencies like Greater Than One (GTO), those lines are blurred. The red tape cut. And the hurdling? That’s for the TOKYO 2020 sprinters. Here, it’s all about flexibility, speed, strong partnerships and affordability.  

Clients depend on the independent.

To put it bluntly, independent agencies can just get the work done faster. Many independent agencies are streamlined in one way or the other—smaller staffs, less departments, and full of people who wear many hats vs one big one. It’s also more likely that as work, ideas, and opportunities make their way up the ladder, due to size and nimbleness, that ladder is made shorter which encourages decisions to be made faster which in turn makes for happy clients and even happier wallets.

When we think about it in terms of talent, independent agencies don’t have the luxury of staffing with cushion. It’s really the “big fish in a little pond, or little fish in a big pond” mentality—talent rises with less commotion. In fact, for over 13 years, Colorado-based advertising titan Crispin Porter + Bogusky ideated some killer ideas for Dominos. But in November of 2020, Dominos announced that it would be slicing up their longtime relationship and serving it up to a young, 23-person indie shop called WorkInProgress. A clear act of finding the same level of talent in a more efficient business, Domino’s chief marketing officer Art D’Elia told AdAge,“I really feel that the independent agency model gives us more flexibility and less distractions.”

He’s not wrong. Clients are starting to really peek behind the curtain. And their take on things lines up with employees and what they need. Myself included. And, I’m not alone. In fact, according to Digiday’s Agency Culture and Employment Report from Spring 2019, “Among agency types, holding companies could be at the greatest risk of losing their talent. Roughly 40% of respondents to the Digiday survey who currently work at holding-company owned agencies said they predict, in the next year, they will work for an independent agency, a consultancy or in-house at an advertiser instead.”

Case in point: clients don’t want to see the talent go. And, they will follow them. In fact, the agency Domino’s went with, WorkInProgress, was created by former CPB employees, and they are now thriving as a small creative shop that dishes out huge ideas for the famed pizza co.

The current, traditional agency model is stuck in the 1960s. And while some things fall under the, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality, clients want and need an upgrade or at the very least, a different approach and much stronger relationships. In AdAge’s Brands Increasingly Seek Indie Shops and Their ‘Nimble’ Models In the Pandemic, Sandy Greenberg, who once spent years at Interpublic Group of Cos.’ FCB before co-founding independent shop Terri & Sandy, said,“Indie agencies also say that they can turn work around faster because the founders are weighing in from the beginning on each account. When you hire Terri & Sandy, you get Terri and Sandy,” says Greenberg, whose agency is poised to grow 30% this year. “That really matters. In these troubled waters, clients want people they know and trust. Big agencies [will say clients are getting top leadership], but we came from big agencies and it’s just simply not true. Unless you are the biggest account, you’re not getting the people running the agency on your business. That business is delegated down.”

At GTO, we may be on the smaller side, but we have partnered with BIG brands. One, in particular being luxury beauty brand Obagi. In a pre-digital world, Obagi set the standard with its partnership distribution model. But, throughout the 2010s, that same model exposed the company to risk due to new or different regulations around online distribution; people could order products which previously necessitated professional consultation. This really put the pressure on. Yet, Obagi did have a brand mystique. With over 30 years of patient satisfaction and no adverse events, the company had earned high-end market leadership.

Alongside Clinical and Medical, GTO inherited a website from Obagi. This was a brand channel that strategically declined to promote purchasing. In 2018, it still constituted the largest revenue stream. Putting many minds together and wearing all our hats, GTO planned to update to a Clinical microsite. Each Clinical cosmeceutical would be marketed with unique product description pages which then link to a third-party site for transaction processing. 

Obagi did not need a brand change to appeal to modern consumers. The company has always stayed true to themselves and their unique consumers. GTO collaborated closely with the Obagi PR team to frame values messaging. GTO pitched SEPHORA integration. The insight was that, by duplicating e-commerce ownership with a partner who aligned on price and premium appeal, Obagi could augment visibility while enhancing convenience.

Finally, physician locators presented a eureka moment. GTO discovered that a mini-locator was the most trafficked element on the inherited site, and studied novel uses that visitors had for it, from re-selling to networking. The locator became one-click away, globally, and obtained the ability to book physician consultations directly. This increased business for everyone, and bettered the existing relationships between Obagi and skin care professionals. went live after a 6-month build. Early results were a smashing success, with the site generating six figures in its first month of operation. Traffic has grown consistently since then, and is well on its way to exceeding its KPI revenue target for the fiscal year ending in 2021. Today, Obagi has decided to continuously run media campaigns around specific events and products. The digital platform that GTO executed empowers Obagi to manage many aspects of those campaigns on their own, and the company intends to make full use of that ability. 

At the end of the day, it proves that independent agencies have the ability to do all the things holding companies and their many branches of agencies can do and then some (and without the worry of Wall Street weighing over them). And if that agency happens to be GTO, the partnership, work, and outcome will just be better. Believe it.

If you’d like to chat with us, send us a note at