As the IMAA spruiks new growth opportunities, why are brands currently choosing indie agencies?

Trust and transparency are traditional factors when choosing to go with an independent agency, but now indies are pushing innovation and agility, as barriers to buying media are falling. Mumbrella's Zanda Wilson spoke with a handful of brands about why they choose indies, and the IMAA's Sam Buchanan about how the organisation is helping level the playing field between indies and the big end of town.

When choosing between independent media agencies and larger or multi-nationals agencies, brands have traditionally needed to make a decision on a pretty straightforward proposition.

By virtue of their size, larger agencies can generally buy cheaper because they buy at scale. They also have access to a large amount of inventory. As a result, working with indies has typically been more expensive. The traditional argument for indies is that agencies provide a more hands-on approach, and more touchpoints with those running the agency. You don’t just get pushed to the second team once the first team has won the pitch.

These are all generalisations to some extent, of course.

The choice between indie and larger media agencies has become starker in recent years, spurred on by mid-to-large indies like Match Media, Hyland Media and Paykel, now Involved Media, being bought out. These departures left an environment where it was perceived as even harder and riskier to go with an independent agency.

IMAA GM Sam Buchanan

But there is now an argument being made that scale and price, those traditional hurdles for indies, are becoming less of an issue, especially for brands looking to invest heavily in non-traditional and digital spend. Independent Media Agencies of Australia (IMAA) general manager, Sam Buchanan, tells Mumbrella the barriers to buying digital has caused a shift in how agencies operate.

“The barriers to buying media have come down significantly. So it does open the door and levels the playing field. Yes, digital does make it easier, but it’s also about agility and innovation, and access to skilled people.”

In addition, the shift to digital has meant more crossover between traditional and digital agencies, according to the IMAA’s inaugural general manager Buchanan.

“The line between traditional agencies and digital agencies is blurring. When you have a pure-play digital agency, they’re crossing lanes now into traditional agencies because you can buy traditional media such as radio or TV or out-of-home via digital pipes. So agencies who would never consider buying traditional media are now being exposed,” Buchanan says.

The IMAA has been working to bring down other barriers to make working with indies more attractive. Formed in 2020, the non-for-profit body was developed and is run by independent media agency leaders, with a goal to provide a platform for collaboration between indies, showcase the benefits of indies, and support 100% Australian-owned agencies.

Its members include Claxon, Enigma, Flow, Impetus, Joy, McKenzie Partners, MediaSmiths, Media Republic, Pearman Media, Sandbox Media The Media Store and many more.

“Since its inception in February 2020, and right before a global pandemic, the IMAA has still managed to grow its membership base by 275% and we are on track to exceed 100 members this year,” Buchanan says.

“From an idea discussed among a handful of indie agency owners, we have become a fully-fledged industry body, aligned to an international indie agency network, with strong support from media owners.”

Service remains the core pull

Multiple brands across several industries provided Mumbrella with insights on why they chose to work with independents.

Simon And Schuster has worked with independent digital media company iNC Digital since 2017. Marketing and publicity director Anabel Pandiella says the publisher has never felt like “just another account”.

“We weren’t a huge player in the digital space to start with and sometimes what we wanted to do seemed bigger than what we could do, but they always offered sound advice and encouraged us to try new things and experiment,” she explains.

“Results are one thing but, for me, trusting the people I work with is the most important thing above all. I know they have our best interests at heart.”

RACT Insurance began working with indie agency Pivotus on its strategic digital media in 2020. Insurance product and marketing manager Susanne Schantz says after doing a few trial campaigns, the insurer was so impressed they signed on for a deal.

“In our experience, indies tend to work harder per client, and are very responsive. It’s easy to escalate issues, get answers and fix things on the fly,” she says.

“With Pivotus, in particular, what attracted us was their ability to show results live, and to help us make fast decisions and alterations where necessary.”

The IMAA’s founders and leadership team

Kate Phillips, CMO for human behaviour insights company Revelian, another client of Pivotus, says that a desire to form a true partnership is what led the company to work with the agency.

“We didn’t set out to work with an indie,” she says. “It just so happened that an indie fitted that bill better than larger agencies did. The big agencies seem to service the big clients with the big budgets and brands really well. But for smaller organisations with niche brands and target markets, the same level of service just doesn’t seem to be there.”

Claire Vanderstoel, marketing director for cosmetic company Kao, who has worked with Media Republic since 2019, says the agency brings large agency experience on a small scale.

“Working with a smaller independent agency that has large agency experience has delivered the perfect balance of expertise and effectiveness and given us the attention we need. We feel like a much more important client, with more care and attention to best amplify our brand plans,” she says.

Greyhound Racing NSW commercial and marketing general manager, Nick Babos, says working with Thump Media over the past two years has been like “having an in-house media team”.

‘Innovation and Agility’

In Mumbrella’s chat with Buchanan, “innovation and agility” were buzzwords that kept arising. It’s clear that the IMAA is trying to move beyond the perception all indies have to offer is ‘trust and transparency’.

“Trust and transparency has always been the cornerstone of the indie sector. It’s very meaningful and it’s a huge separator from us and the big end of town,” he states. “But I believe we are becoming more known more for agility and innovation now. It allows people who work within indies to have a different skillset and this leads to more creative thinking and innovation.”

Creative thinking, agility, and innovation were common themes that came up in brand testimonials too, with some companies experiencing this at levels they weren’t used to previously. Simon And Schuster’s Pandiella says she was surprised at the levels to which iNC Digital went about understanding the ins-and-outs of the business.

“From the first meeting I had with [iNC], I knew their approach was completely different. Rather than telling us what they could do, they asked us a lot of questions and really wanted to understand the nuances of our business,” she says.

“The publishing industry is a crazy little beast. iNC understood this and worked with us on creative ways that we could maximise our reach, engagement, and budgets across several campaigns and encouraged us to think longer term, rather than month-to-month.”

The ease of buying digital is helping level the playing field

Next&Co is an indie that has worked with Maven Dental for a year-and-a-half now, and Maven’s head of digital marketing, Brent Adams, says the rise of digital meant they were looking for the right partner to help them explore the future.

“Next&Co was appointed largely because they focused not only on what we could improve now but identified opportunities for us to explore into the future,” he says.

“They are also able to gain a greater understanding about our business and our patients, which helps them in producing more efficient ad sets and greater digital presence.

“One of the starkest differences between an independent agency and a [bigger player] is the sense we’re not simply a number to them. They value our business, and we value their expertise and experience.”

Those thoughts are echoed by Kao’s Vanderstoel. “We love our indie’s ability to be nimble and adapt media channels, quickly reallocating spend to most effective channels and creative, rather than being a ‘back of the queue’ client with slow response times.”

Greyhound Racing NSW’s Babos says Thump took the time to build up specialist knowledge in the space, at a time when the business was looking to change perceptions.

“…racing and wagering are relatively niche categories, so we needed an agency with specialist knowledge in this space. It’s not to say that we couldn’t have found this expertise in a multinational, [but] we felt we were a better chance of finding the dedicated focus we needed from an independent.”

Growth and the inevitable departure of clients

You can have the best service in the world, with amazing touchpoints, a deep understanding of the needs of a client, and high levels of trust. Still, the perception remains that a client will inevitably leave for a holding group agency when they reach a certain size.

Buchanan admits that some will always leave, but insists that more and more are choosing to stay with indies. The size-based departure is no longer “inevitable”, he tells Mumbrella. “We have lots of agencies who have quite substantial clients.

“Yes, there’ll be a proportion who reach a certain size and will sell, but it’s a reflection of their success, and on the other side many agencies like being independent and that’s why they stay that way.

“Normally, when large companies move over to holding companies it’s due to a global directive. People like dealing with indies for many reasons, whether it’s transparency or agility. Indies aren’t tied to any particular tech stack or global directive to spend in certain ways, and that’s why people like dealing with them.”

Backing that up, several brands Mumbrella spoke to pointed to the tangible results that partnerships with small agencies have delivered.

Pivotus, for instance, has helped both RACT Insurance and Revelian hit significant milestones. “The relationship with Pivotus has been hugely beneficial to us. We’ve modernised the way we buy, track, do testing and get the results we’ve been looking for,” RACT’s Schantz says. “We have a great deal better visibility of every aspect of our digital campaigns and if you don’t have that these days, you can’t compete.”

Revelian’s Phillips adds that transparency not only with operations, but also results, has been crucial for a successful relationship. “I know the Pivotus CEO has an active interest and involvement in my account and is as focused on our success as the account manager,” she says.

“I’ve also found independent agencies are more responsive, more transparent, and more willing to accept and offer feedback to make the relationship and the results better for both parties.

“We’ve seen some strong success across a variety of metrics with our independent agency. Their transparency with data and performance against agreed KPI’s and metrics has really assisted us in quantifying the impact.”

Buchanan says education is a core part of the IMAA’s purpose

Pandiella says Simon And Schuster has seen a jump in its online presence thanks to working with iNC. “By being careful and strategic with our approach, we have increased our EDM sign-ups by 62% but most importantly, sustained our open-rate at 40%, which means we’re getting both quantity and quality.”

Babos explains that Greyhound Racing NSW has been able to measure the success of the Thump partnership via three key metrics. A Net Promoter Score which shows that “brand health has never been higher”.

The organisation has also achieved “record numbers in greyhound adoptions via GRNSW’s ‘Greyhounds As Pets’ program”, which rehomes retired greyhounds.

And finally, “the promotion of key feature races has driven historic records in wagering turnover, which is vital to the sustainability of the greyhound racing industry”.

On the cost side, Buchanan says brokering a trade credit insurance deal that indies benefit from when they become part of the IMAA is one significant way indies can reduce the sorts of overheads that have forced them to charge more for their services.

“Trade credit insurance is a huge pain in the backside for all agencies, and being able to broker a world-first deal that reduces [the cost] by about 75% gives independent agencies more opportunities to be truly independent.”

So perhaps an indie renaissance is on the cards. However, we’re yet to see many larger-scale clients make the plunge away from global agencies, and while that remains the case, small agencies for small clients will probably remain one of the ways indie media agencies are typecast.

Buchanan believes it’s only a matter of time. “As the industry evolves, we’ll see more and more international business or large businesses coming or staying with indies. Indies are growing into their own mini powerhouses as well.

“I do know of a couple of wins that will be coming out later this year with big companies going to indies,” he teases.

Mumbrella will endeavour to share the news when that happens.


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