The Way We Work
May 21, 2013 by Julia Camenisch

Greg Henderson was disillusioned. As a senior-level executive at a global ad agency, his accomplishments were far more than he’d ever dreamed. Yet the "perfect" job was losing its charm. Realizing that he was forcing himself to go to the office each day, he finally began to acknowledge that something was wrong.

The problem? "I was frustrated with the length of time that it took work to make it to the client and was shocked at the estimates we would turn out," Henderson recounted. "Plus, process on top of process paralyzed our ability to be nimble, drove up costs and in many cases lessened the creative impact of the work."

Henderson began to wonder if there might be a better way. "The rise of cloud technology got me to thinking about dream teams: lean creative teams, doing smart work quickly, working with clients directly, removing the triple and quadruple check...and billing clients in a way that reflected a leaner approach."

Soon after this realization, his virtual ad agency, Red Rocket Connect, came into its own.

The Rise of the Dream Team

Bonnie Morris is the founder of virtual agency Company B, which handles PR, social media and branding campaigns.  After a freelancing stint with a virtual PR agency, she realized the power of technology in assembling an awesome team. "I quickly saw how technology enabled us to work together as a team and how the virtual work environment brought out the best in everyone."

From this experience, she decided to embrace the distributed team model as the foundation for her agency. For each client, she assembles a group of senior-level marketers, all of whom work virtually.

"In our virtual firm, everyone self-selected OUT of the cubicle. We have no dead weight, no slackers or coasters – it’s an  A-team across the board.”  - Greg Henderson,  Red Rocket ConnectIn an article on 99U, Scott Belsky of Behance predicted, "The advertising agency of the future will consist of...a tiny leadership team that provides creative direction. The creative production itself will be distributed to individuals and small teams around the globe who are at the top of their game."

According to Red Rocket's Henderson, this vision of the future is already here, and it's extremely powerful.

"[In the traditional agency] twenty percent of the shop are rock stars and then there’s a tired middle and of course the dead weight. Those are the employees that wish they were somewhere else. In our virtual firm, everyone self-selected OUT of the cubicle. We have no dead weight, no slackers or coasters — it’s an A-team across the board."

Morris agreed. "People who are successful at virtual work are generally responsible self-starters who aren't distracted during the day. The people I collaborate with don't necessarily want or need a 9-6 structure to do their work. We're all pretty happy, even when we're under deadlines and are jumping to fulfill client requests."

Henderson noted that he is consistently surprised by how nimble his agency can be. "We’ve turned around national, integrated campaigns in the time former agencies I was at took to find a meeting room, coordinate calendars and hold a start-up meeting — that is not an exaggeration."

How Virtual Creatives Work

While the agency runs an outside-the-box, lean operation, there’s still plenty of work that has to happen the traditional way. Henderson regularly logs miles traveling to client meetings and presentations. As he pointed out, "it’s always going to be a relationship business and that is best built face to face."

Beyond that, Henderson said they tailor their approach based off the client’s needs and desires. "Our twist is that while some clients want a ‘one call does it all’ approach, others like to get really in the weeds. We’re totally cool with them having direct, unfettered contact with any and all of the team. We’ve found this really helps in meeting the needs of the client with little or none of the accidental misdirection that happens when you have account staff running to and fro."

Working as a virtual agency isn’t without its challenges. Henderson admitted that brainstorming sessions are just not the same when you can’t work in the same room together. "I’d be lying if I told you it was as much fun...as the traditional method."

He then shared how they typically handle the initial idea generation: "A creative lead will brainstorm out some directions and then float them to their creative partner. They narrow it to one or two ideas that they share with me. I provide focusing guidance, and then we socialize it across the client team and solicit feedback."

Morris finds that everyone is more engaged in brainstorming because they have to be. "Virtual brainstorms tend to flourish because everyone has to have some skin in the game. We generally send out briefs a few days in advance, and typically use the web during brainstorms to research on the go and use Skype to share assets and such."

The Creative Muse of the Future

In a piece for AdAge, advertising exec Jeff Rosenblum noted that small agencies have a competitive advantage. "After 20 years in the advertising industry, there's one thing I can say with great certitude: small agencies crush big agencies...In fact, it's not even close."

Both Red Rocket Connect and Company B have found this to be true. Clients look for agencies that can offer a wide array of resources and talent. Virtual agencies are best positioned to offer those resources. They’ve designed their business model to seamlessly connect with and source talent from around the globe, allowing them to work with the best people — not just the best people within commuting distance. Both Henderson and Morris have discovered what Madison Avenue is just now beginning to realize: Creativity has officially left the cubicle.

What do you think the future holds for ad agencies? Does distributed creative production work? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Julia Camenisch

Contributing Author

Julia Camenisch is a freelance technology and business journalist. She also works as an editor and copywriter for a wide range of clients, including national magazines, small businesses and nonprofit organizations. Julia brings to oDesk a passion for empowering small businesses through the innovative use of technology.

  • http://www.idw-design.com Jerry Foster

    It's my goal to build an industrial design firm using this type of business model. I tried it the traditional way and the inflexibility and overhead made it impossible. I'm now looking for cloud-based tools like Skype that include combine project management and file sharing. Have you seen anything?

    • http://gerardmarketinggroup.com Susan Gerard

      I reviewed many cloud-based project management softwares out there, but the most simple to use is Basecamp. That's what I'm using for may marketing firm and highly recommend it. We are operating in a cloud very well.

      • Julia Camenisch

        @Susan - That's great! I like to hear what tools agencies are using to collaborate.

  • http://www.bluevolcanomedia.com Marjorie R. Asturias

    Great article! I completely agree that the "distributed," virtual model can work for even the most creative of companies. While it doesn't offer the same environment as an in-house team that can jump from one office or cubicle to another and throw ideas over a cubicle wall whenever they feel like it, with some work and time, a similar dynamic can happen in virtual teams, too.

    Skype is a huge advantage for our little team. Because we're still growing, we keep the Skype window open as often as possible so that we can jump in and out of conversations. We've experimented with Yammer and Basecamp's old Campfire, but Skype always seems to be where we end up anyway. It's something I learned from a previous virtual marketing agency where I worked - we just gabbed on Skype all day, did occasional team meetings, but mostly just provided each other with some watercooler breaks during those deadline-driven days.

    I can't imagine going back to the traditional, office-bound company. In fact, I always say that no matter how big my company grows, it will always remain virtual. Perhaps we'll take a page from Matt Mullenweg's book and still have a "real" office where we can have occasional client meetings and such, but otherwise I want everyone to work from home. I hate driving. Why inflict it on others?

    Cheers,
    Marjorie R. Asturias

    • Julia Camenisch

      Thanks for your input, Marjorie! It's cool to see what ad agencies can accomplish virtually. And that's interesting about keeping Skype always open. Seems like a good way to easily chat. Best of luck to Blue Volcano!