Drew McLellan

Is Your Creative Agency an Artisanal Bakery or a Wonder Bread Factory?

By: Drew McLellan | March 14, 2019 | 
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creative agencyWhen I meet struggling creative agency owners, one of the first questions I ask is: what kind of agency do you want to run?

Their answers typically involve the deliverables their agencies produce, or who their agencies serve, but that’s not what I’m asking.

No, I’m really asking whether their agencies are artisanal bakeries or Wonder Bread factories.

The artisanal bakery creates things from scratch, and is constantly tinkering with recipes.

If you ask the head baker to make something new, they embrace the challenge.

The bakery carries a wide variety of products, and there’s always something new to sample.

Because everything is custom-made, items come with a higher price tag.

So while people might not visit the bakery every day, when they do, it’s always a delightful experience.

But with more creativity comes more uncertainty—costs and sales rise and fall depending on traffic and consumers’ whims.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Wonder Bread factory.

It carries white or wheat. It doesn’t make cakes or pies, or take on new challenges.

The factory’s bread is inexpensive and consistent; people buy it every day.

It’s not fancy or as beautiful to behold, but the bakery’s stable.

Neither option is better than the other, but each requires a very different baker.

The key is understanding what you, as an agency owner and entrepreneur, need and want your creative agency to be—and making sure that’s the type of shop you’re building.

Are You an Artisanal Baker?

Most independent agencies fall into the artisanal bakery category.

They do everything custom; their owners tend to be passionate and heavily involved.

Artisanal agencies take special orders from clients and discern how to achieve successful results as they go.

Because these agencies spend more time on each project, they typically charge higher prices.

As a result, these businesses rely on a few high-dollar clients to get by.

Losing a client at an artisanal creative agency is a much bigger deal than it would be at a larger, more regimented company.

Having worked in the agency world for decades, I’ve noticed most owners of artisanal agencies are cut from the same cloth.

They tend to be classic agency people with backgrounds in art, writing, or accounts.

Many are accidental business owners.

In the beginning, they needed a little help and perhaps a bigger building, and before they realized it, they started leading a team of two dozen employees.

Maybe Wonder Bread is More Your Style

Wonder Bread-type agencies exist on the opposite end of the spectrum.

These agencies focus more on processes and systems, and they’re able to produce work efficiently because it’s the same work they churn out daily.

They don’t worry about winning creative awards, but instead, seek to serve clients in a way that keeps them coming back.

When it comes to reliability, factories reign supreme.

Clients of Wonder Bread agencies don’t ask for custom work.

They look at the menu, select an option, and know exactly what they’re getting.

Reliance on processes and repeatability allows these agencies to serve a more significant number of clients, even if those clients pay less.

When a client leaves, the loss doesn’t sting as bad because it’s rare to have a mammoth client.

Unlike artisanal agency owners, Wonder Bread agency owners are business first and creative second.

Often, they don’t have the same agency background or passion for the creative process.

This doesn’t mean they lack passion altogether—many of the Wonder Bread agency owners I know are tenacious businesspeople—but they’re more interested in running a successful business than operating an imaginative agency.

Sometimes, external pressures force agency owners to become something they don’t want to be.

Wonder Bread owners might get too deep into the world of custom requests, and find their businesses dealing with trickier clients.

Artisanal agency owners might scale quickly, create processes to compensate, and accidentally distance themselves from the creative work they love.

It’s not about which type of agency is better, but which one is right for you.

Baking a Better Creative Agency

Worried your agency has grown into something you didn’t intend?

Unsure which direction you’d like to grow?

Both artisanal and Wonder Bread agencies have their ups and downs.

Before you decide which agency model is the best fit for you, consider the merits of each.

Artisanal Agencies

Easier Recruitment

Not many hotshot designers and copywriters want to work within formulas.

They crave creative freedom, and they want to work at agencies where they can explore their talents.

If you want to hire creative types who went to school for advertising, marketing, art, or writing, you’ll need an attractive artisanal pitch to catch their attention.

Deeper Client Partnerships

In an artisanal agency, you can roll up your sleeves and work beside your clients to tailor solutions to their unique problems.

That kind of professional intimacy isn’t for everyone, but it does lead to some brilliant ideas.

Leaders of artisanal agencies regularly rub shoulders with C-suites, so anyone who likes to talk high strategy with important people should consider this path.

Brand-Name Prices

Agencies that create memorable, recognizable content can command higher rates.

Your artisanal agency might not have as many clients, but the goal is to earn clients that appreciate and are willing to pay top dollar for your quality offerings.

Obviously, the pros of running an artisanal agency come with their share of cons.

Increased volatility, slower sales, more ownership of individual projects, much higher financial risks, and greater involvement in day-to-day creative work may not appeal to every owner.

If these drawbacks give you pause, consider the alternative agency model.

Wonder Bread Agencies

Lower Variance

Losing a client won’t kill you.

Some agencies I know have 100 to 150 clients they serve every day.

Superior Processes

Reliance on replicable processes means these agencies don’t have to stress over finding the best and brightest talent.

That’s not to say workers in these agencies lack skill; instead, owners in these businesses don’t need every hire to be a marketing genius.

Processes make the owner’s life easier, too.

When everything runs on its own, you can step away without worrying about your company’s well-being.

Simpler Pitches

Selling the services of a Wonder Bread agency is easier.

You don’t have to go back to the office, come up with a plan, and pitch it again.

Clients pick the silver, gold, or platinum package, then wait for you to deliver.

This may not be as creatively fulfilling, but there’s something to be said for reliability.

Plus, most clients are far more willing to pay a $5,000 monthly retainer for dependable work than $25,000 a month for the artisanal treatment.

Where Do You Want to Work?

Neither agency is right for everyone, and neither is better than the other.

If you’re in the wrong situation, you have the power to change that.

If you want to bring your creative agency closer to the artisanal side, know this—you cannot be a generalist.

Our world is too complicated to keep top-tier talent on staff for every kind of project.

Narrow down the industries you serve (and the types of services you provide), if you want to be the best artisanal agency on the market.

If you want to standardize your operation to be more efficient like a Wonder Bread agency, focus on your deliverables.

You should still serve a specific niche, so come up with a series of packages that make sense within that niche.

Then, price them at a level that allows you to deliver quality work at a steady pace.

Look at your creative agency today and ask yourself some questions.

Why am I doing this? Why do I own this business?

Think about your goals and the life you want to lead, then shape your agency to reflect that vision.

What type of agency do you have? What type do you want? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Photo by Amelie Ohlrogge on Unsplash

About Drew McLellan


Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry for more than 25 years. For 18 of those years, he has owned and continues to run his agency. McLellan also leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small- to medium-sized advertising agencies on how to grow and build their profitability through agency-owner peer networks, consulting, workshops and more.