There's a wave of change sweeping through the ad industry right now. Creative talent is leaving corporate powerhouses to start their own shops. Established agencies are dealing with the structural challenge of creating content for both traditional media and emerging platforms. Programmatic, native, and social advertising each claim to be the next big thing. Agencies are lining up and placing their bets.
Seasoned creative pros Eve Asbury and Tina Cervera, the co-founders of Wit & Measure, are building an agency from scratch in the middle of it all. We caught up with them to talk about creating a scalable infrastructure, how to compete with bigger agencies, and the biggest piece of advice they have for creatives looking to branch out on their own.
BlueWing: Can you guys start with a little bit about your backgrounds and why you started Wit & Measure?
Eve: I’ve worked for a lot of the big agencies: Saatchi, JWT, T1, Grey, and then up here in Boston, Hill Holliday. I have focused on scaling up internal businesses for agencies, whether it be creative or production. What Tina and I are doing with Wit & Measure is we create, coach, and teach. Create is to be a creative agency as one might expect. To coach is to coach entrepreneurs and entertainment personalities as we develop their personal brands. To teach, we go into agencies and big corporate marketing departments and help them transition into the social and digital space.
The traditional agencies have fantastic creatives who are truly conceptual, which is missing in the social space. Those creatives are not familiar with how to transition the story, and how to repurpose it elegantly for the social and digital platforms.
"Think about social media as a way of coming up with creative that is grounded in community, getting feedback, and understanding your audience."
Tina: That’s right. Most bigger agencies that started with the TV model or an above-the-line campaign will use social media and content marketing as an amplification model. They take the marketing that they’ve done for TV and they force it into other platforms. What we do is teach them the appropriate way to do this. Yes, they have to amplify a big TV campaign, but also understand the idea that social media, emerging technology, and content marketing are their own marketing schemes. To think about social media as a way of coming up with creative that is grounded in community, getting feedback, and understanding your audience.
So we go in and teach these guys how to think a different way, and then, if needed and desired, we’ll work with management to look at the team and assess whether they want help bringing in fresh talent to build up this arm of their company—and also to think about whether they want to use us as an extension of their creative shop while we get their creative shop going.
BlueWing: With classic VC-backed startups, you’re searching for product-market-fit, but from the agency perspective, you're searching for positioning-market-fit. How did you guys determine there was an opportunity in the space for what you’re specifically trying to offer?
Tina: I think it comes from my experience. Let me take a step back. Eve and I met at VaynerMedia. Vayner was my first agency where it was all social, and I learned a lot. In my time there, I scaled our department quite a bit: I grew it from 20 people to 250 and five offices. Then Eve came in to work with Vayner. She was coming in to look at several departments, including mine, to see if we were running efficiently, to see if we had the right talent. I met her that way and we gelled really well. We talked quite a bit about how we want to make sure that when we think about agencies in the future, we’re matching the right talent to the right project instead of having the staff just fill a task. We’re really into coming up with talent that is really invested in the brand that we assign them, or if we’re working with an in-house team, they’re passionate about that brand. How do you ignite that?
"We want to make sure that when we think about agencies in the future, we’re matching the right talent to the right project instead of having the staff just fill a task."
When she and I both decided to start an agency, we realized that we wanted to do a couple of things. We wanted to come up with a creative shop that really did offer what we’re talking about: a sense of modern marketing. And so for us, that obviously means attention marketing. When we’re doing the creative part of it, we want to provide our clients the right execution. So we’re not going to just push social on them and we’re not going to push traditional on them. We’re going to start with a really strong strategy and get them in front of the right audience at the right time. A lot of that will be social, but we don’t throw digital or PR or branding out with the bath water. There aren’t really many successful integrated agencies out there that understand social media as well as we do.
We want to teach everyone what we know. We don’t think it’s right that social media agencies keep some of the information about marketing to themselves. They don’t want to teach their clients. They want to hold all the information. So whatever we’re doing, whether it’s coaching, teaching or creating, we want to teach as we go and some people think we’re crazy because all of your clients will eventually go away, but for us, that’s a compliment. We’re like, ‘OK great. We’ve done a great job. We’ve done right by you.’ We’ll build these relationships but we want to build them in a different way.
BlueWing: What is your current business development strategy look like? How are you going about getting new clients?
Eve: We’re doing several things. We have the old fashioned, amazing network. We’re blessed with wonderful friends and colleagues who just are truly truly special human beings, there’s no other way to put it.
We also have our own funnel through social, through digital, through reaching out. I would say our most successful method right now to build up our own sales pipeline that does its own churn and burn 24/7 is email. Email has been the best and most proactive way to give us an opportunity to tell an elegant story without interrupting somebody’s day. Twitter is also a fantastic place to connect with potential clients. We’ve certainly done that and have been successful doing that.
"This might sound really lofty and in five years we might tell you this is the biggest thing of hogwash that didn’t work, but we want to do business with brands we believe in."
BlueWing: Are those emails cold emails to prospects that you’re researching?
Eve: Either actually. There’ll be people who we might be sort of vaguely connected to, or absolute stone-cold emails for companies that we’re interested in. The one thing that we’re really really careful about is, and this might sound really lofty and in five years we might tell you this is the biggest thing of hogwash that didn’t work, but I don’t think so because I believe in this, we want to do business with brands we believe in. So if I’m in Wholefoods and there’s a particular yogurt that’s made in New York state and it’s a really tiny farm, I buy this stuff and I eat it and I absolutely love it, I want to be the agency for that company. I really, really do. Tina and I are laser focused on that.
There is another dimension, and that is we’re super conscious about the environment, the earth. The brands that we’re attracted to and the brands that we like, it’s really based on the principles of brands and products that are doing good in the world, that are not creating a destructive footprint.
If you throw out a position that you want to do business with brands that are only doing good in the world, that might infer that it’s not for profit. And while we want to do business with a lot of those companies, we are very much a for-profit. We want to do business for others to help them grow and be even more profitable because that’s obviously a very important aspect to what we do.
A message from me, from my heart, to other independent agencies is to do business with people with whom you really resonate and connect, and brands that you really believe in. Because if you don’t, when the shit hits the fan as it always does and you’ve got to do something at One o’clock in the morning and you’re exhausted and you just hate everything at that moment in time, the one good thing that you still believe in that product and the client, and that will carry you through.
BlueWing: I like the idea of finding inspiration in everyday life. That connection between offline and online is rare. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of being a small agency versus a big agency? You guys both come from much larger agencies than what you’re doing now. When you approach a pitch meeting, how do you sell yourself against a VaynerMedia or a Grey?
Tina: It’s a lot of things. It’s the level of service. If you sign on with a big agency, you’re going to be one of 20 or 30 clients. You’re either going to get caught up in the process or you get assigned 20 people from account executives to creatives to project managers to whoever and it’s going to be very machine-like for the most part. You’re going to have a standardized process that goes for every client and you’re not going to get the level of one-on-one service and output execution because they can’t do that. They can’t scale. They can’t pay attention.
When you’re a smaller, independent shop, you have the time that you can spend with them, which means they’re going to get a higher level of service in terms of one-on-one interaction and client services, creative output. You’re going to get a little bit more understanding and collaboration than you would at the big place. Obviously, you’re going to go up against cost. Unless you’re crazy, you can’t charge the same price as a VaynerMedia. Independent agencies have to sell against the fact that they’re small and nimble and can be more flexible.
"With small agencies, clients can look you in the eye and know that if there’s a burning building, you are going to get them out."
Eve: I would also say that just as for us, when you sit opposite somebody who owns the brand, who owns the company, who’s created a product, that yogurt, who’s invented that app; even if they’re an introvert, you can feel their passion for the product? It’s the same way with small agencies. Clients can look you in the eye and know that if there’s a burning building, you are going to get them out. You really have their back.
However, if you walk into the Saatchi & Saatchi and you look at the wonderful view and it appeals to you that you’re doing business with this huge brand that has been around for a long time, and you want to be able to say to your friends and neighbors anywhere in the world, ‘Oh yeah, my agency is Saatchi & Saatchi,’ then you’re not the right client for us. You’re still going to be in a room of fabulous, really, really smart people, though not necessarily the right people to be working on your business.
Everybody that works with us, we vet them. We have tough confidentiality agreements, which kind of surprises everybody because we have all of this stuff as an independent agency. The fact of the matter is that we want to make sure that our employees are really on our side and on our client’s side. We’re not, ‘We’ve got 50 people and we’ve got to keep them all busy,” We’re not about that. We’re about, ‘Is Ella the right person to work on this brand? Yes she is.’
That’s what comes across in any of our pitches. We have this sincerity, this enthusiasm, and on top of that, we do do great work and I can sit here and say that because I’m not on the creative team—and Tina isn’t about to say that—but our work’s brilliant.
BlueWing: Do you see a trend of creative talent leaving big agencies to start their own shop?
Tina: There’s a huge call for people to leave and start independent shops. But there’s an even bigger call for the same thing within female leadership within advertising. There’s several conferences out there. There’s a big one that was in San Francisco this year and this very well-known woman, her name is Cindy Gallop, made this whole speech to all the industry executives saying: ‘If you want to be better, if you want things your way, if you want to make an impact, then leave and go start your own female-founded agency.’
What advertising needs is diversity in thinking. You’re not going to get that in almost any of these other agencies. Grey just appointed its first-ever female CEO this week in New York. It’s a huge thing. We’re still very much behind the times in terms of diversity.
BlueWing: Are there any other communities that you found supportive as an independent agency owner or as a female in this space?
Eve: Yes, I’m a member of The Women’s Forum of New York. Tamara Ingram, who’s now CEO of JWT, recently became a member. They’re a fantastic group of people and I just adore them.
Tina: The 3 Percent Conference is big. There’s the 50/50 Initiative, which is created by the ADC and it’s about levelling the playing field for women, so I’m a part of that. There’s a couple forums that are for female creative directors on LinkedIn. AdWomen is big. So we do follow those, but I would say that we are definitely are looking to connect with more professional women.
BlueWing: Are you guys designing Wit & Measure with an eye towards scalability or do you want to stay mall?
Eve: You bet we are! (laughter)
"At the time both of us thought, ‘Oh my god. You know this kind of a little bit crazy for a little company to have a timesheet system.’ But you know, well, it isn’t."
BlueWing: As a two-person full-time shop right now, how are you creating a process that’s scalable, that you know will work when you’re a hundred people?
Eve: We have gotten up and running really, really quickly. We have several clients who are on retainer who we’ve locked in already, so certainly straight out of the gate, we wanted to make sure we had the right infrastructure in terms of legalities: Master Services Agreements, Scope Of Work, NDA, and confidentiality agreements for all of our employees. Using a timesheet tool straightaway, which means as soon as we do business with a Fortune 500 company and they want to do any type of audit we’re ready.
So all of those things we put into place immediately, which I know at the time both of us thought, ‘It might be a little bit crazy for a small company to have a timesheet system.’ But you know, it isn’t. We’re busy talking to a Fortune 500 company at this minute.
Tina: I think you’re completely right. But I think what it comes down to also is... Eve and I have done this before. We’ve taken VaynerMedia and she’s taken places like Saatchi and Hill Holliday and we’ve double, triple, quadrupled their growth in only a few years. So in terms of setting up companies and process, we’ve been through the best and worst of it.
We understand right now that we have to be really lean and really specific about who we use, the time we use, the processes that we put into place, so that when we do get bigger, we’re not sloppy about it. What we’ve both seen is a lot of sloppy work with agencies that grow.
BlueWing: Is there is a crucial element to scalability? Between positioning, your pricing, your technology stack, the way you hire, do you think there’s a really important theme worth taking away when it comes to scalability?
Eve: There are various different infrastructures that you have to have to be able to scale. You’ve got to have the right legal pillar in place. It’s going to cost you money. You’ve got to go to an attorney that really knows what they’re doing. You’ve got to have all of that in place. Number two is having the right technology in place.
So you’ve got to have the legal. You’ve got to have the technology. And you’ve got to make the right hires. You need that stable of people. I think that with any creative business, it is a service business. It is a people business. You do have to have a balance, so it may well be that you have to bill out a higher rate, because you have a creative person who is not fully occupied, because they’re only suitable for that one client and you can’t put them on anything else.
The other thing that I really believe is you should have is a brick and mortar office. I don’t believe that having a collaborative workspace at WeWork is the same thing as having an office at WeWork. You need the office at WeWork or you need a separate office, and that’s what we have. I think it’s important that clients know that you have that.
"It’s not a perception. It's an absolute fact. If you want to be scalable, you better get your brick and mortar."
BlueWing: How much do you think having things like your own office and tough MSAs plays into the substance of your business versus the perception of professionalism?
Eve: From working with P&G, Unilever, Toyota, Lexus Ford, GE, I can tell you that from experience, they will not do business with you if you don’t have your own office. And they will not do that because the confidentiality of their patents and brands is very important to them. P&G have a process where they will do regular checks on their agencies and if you leave your desk and you have anything to do with P&G, a memo or an old fashioned proof or a reel or whatever it is open on your screen or on your desk, not face down, the agency is penalized.
You won’t believe how many times Tina and I have sat at lunch or we might sit in these coffee shops and we will overhear another agency talking. So it’s not a perception. It's an absolute fact. If you want to be scalable, you better get your brick and mortar.
BlueWing: What are you guys reading right now? Are there certain magazines or books that you’ve found really helpful and useful for your career?
Tina: Oh my gosh, I have so many. Start With Why is one that I read and reread again by Simon Sinek. We’re really into one… From Impossible to Inevitable?
Eve: I love that book.
Tina: Yeah, so many. Smarter, Faster, Better I really liked. Also, The Intelligent Entrepreneur. I also have separate branding books that I read a lot about branding principles. I try to keep up with the Content Marketing Institute and the Native Advertising Institute, but I try to stick with fundamentals in leadership and creativity.
Creative Confidence is a good one. Really, anything by Tom Kelly. He did The 10 Faces of Innovation. I think he’s really great in terms of how to think outside of the box and concepting but also breaking through, we all have barriers and we do this all day long. It’s just really hard to think with innovation in mind.
BlueWing: Eve, do you have a couple?
Eve: From Impossible to Inevitable is one of my most favorites. I just absolutely love it. I’m reading The Challenger Customer right now which I absolutely love.
BlueWing: Is there one piece of advice you would give someone who is thinking about starting their own independent agency?
Eve: I tell you what, I know what I would say. I don’t have any secret with this, but I know that I’ve hit the jackpot and I would say: ‘Find the right business partner.’
Tina: I love that one.
Eve: Absolutely. I cannot cannot tell you how lucky I am to be working with Tina.
Eve: Really, I think that we’ve really hit the home run. I know the two of us can get through anything.
"It’s really important to have what we’re calling sort of our advisory board. You have to have people in several industries that you can reach out to."
Tina: And we have certainly had our moments. You really need a trusted partner. It’s interesting because you don’t have to be [friends out the gate] – like Eve and I were friendly when we started business but we started because we wanted to do business together. Then we became friends. But you really have to have someone that you can trust.
And then what we’re learning is that it’s really important to have what we’re calling sort of our advisory board. You have to have people in several industries that you can reach out to, that are going to help you understand things that maybe you know about but you’re not an expert in. It could be a different kind of marketer. It could be somebody in PR. You have to have a circle of people who can help you grow and can just bounce ideas off of, without them expecting anything back or you expecting anything else from them, and that is very hard to come by.
And don’t wait, man. It’s never going to be the perfect time. It really isn’t. We started with a very small amount of financing from ourselves. We’re not a funded company. We weren’t given any sort of handouts and we wouldn’t ask for it any other way because we’re learning so much as we go. I think people have too much fear and the only thing you’re going to learn is where you need to grow and what you’re great at. You’re just going to blow yourself out of the water with everything that you learn every day.