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Agency Profile: Plan B

Posted on October 21, 2010 and read 3,975 times

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brettcreditpic Agency Profile: Plan BBrett McKenzie
Chief Writer, SBN2
ihaveanidea

Over the years, one of the most favorite features on ihaveanidea has been our growing collection of agency profiles — glimpses behind the walls of ad shops big and small, written from our usual casual perspective. And one of our favorite ways of going about gathering these profiles has been the old-fashioned road trip. After all, why go to a city to visit one or two agencies when you can take some serious time and visit a whole bunch?

It’s been quite some time since ihaveanidea has had the chance to pack our bags and headed off on one of these junkets, but in the summer of 2010 we had the great pleasure of visiting the city of Chicago to check in on the ad scene. We hadn’t been to the Windy City on a multi-agency trip in about five years, and in that time, a lot has changed in the ad industry, both generally speaking and in Chicago in particular. A year or two ago, you would’ve thought the town was on its last legs; layoffs left and right, a tragic incident at one of Chicago’s most respected firms that dazed the community, and JWT Chicago, once the global network’s largest office, reduced to a mere outpost of a few staffers.

Yet here we are in 2010, and Chicago is definitely getting some of its mojo back. Agencies are hiring, expanding their offices and winning big accounts. And the city that used to be the domain of the big multinationals has made some elbow room for smaller, nimbler shops. ihaveanidea saw all of this on our Windy City excursion, and we’d love to share our travels with you.

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planb Agency Profile: Plan B

When most people in the ad industry think of Chicago, they think of the world famous agencies housed in the swanky office towers not far from where Michigan Avenue meets the Chicago River. This is where you’ll find the big names with the big clients and the big, big office rental fees. But should you venture off the beaten path of the Magnificent Mile, you’ll find that the Windy City is home to a number of small shops that fly in under the radar of the big boys. And that’s just the way they like it.

One such agency, Plan B, is only a few blocks away from the Windy City’s “Madison Avenue,” but the differences between this shop and its bigger siblings on the main strip couldn’t be more apparent. Tucked away in an old renovated industrial building on an underdeveloped but emerging stretch of West Illinois Street, Plan B isn’t a spunky new upstart ready to change the ad game. In fact, they’ve been changing the game for more than a decade, building themselves into a place “where tradition and technology find balance.”

IN THE BEGINNING…

Plan B got its start in the same place as a number of small shops: within the minds of frustrated people in bigger shops. “Plan B sorta got started in the mid 1990s, when myself and Don Weaver and Ric Van Sickle, the other two founders, all worked together in the creative department of an agency, and the three of really gelled,” says Clay Cooper, Plan B’s de jure Director of Client Services but de facto all-around creative. “There were about ten to fifteen staff at this agency at the time, and it soon grew to about 70 or 80. We looked around, scratched our heads and asked ourselves ‘hey, these guys can build and grow an agency of their own, and they’re not too bright, so why can’t we?”

“We were actually quite frustrated with how the agency worked, and what the model of the time was like,” Clay continues. “Things seemed to have been done because that’s the way they were always done, and that didn’t make any sense to us. So the three of us broke away from that agency and started Plan B in 1998.”

So where did the name Plan B come from? I mean, most people look at a plan B as a second choice, a fall-back, hardly a ringing endorsement for a new ad shop. “Well when we opened up shop, we decided to check our egos at the door and not name the company after our last names,” explains Clay. “Let’s instead practice what we preach and develop a brand, built around our business model. I remember when we were trying to come up with a name, I walked into Ric’s office and he had “Plan B” on a piece of paper. I didn’t know why I loved it, but I did. It really resonated with what we wanted to change about the ad industry and our frustrations from working within it.”

Those frustrations stemmed from what was then the ‘traditional’ model for how agencies were run. “First and foremost, we wanted Plan B to be an on-demand model,” states Clay. “We felt that clients shouldn’t have to take the risk and go through that ‘marriage’ of a contract, of official AOR status and retainers. Agencies locked clients in and didn’t let them work with others, and needed to demand whatever amount of money to be able to service the account. For us, that way of doing things felt like the agency and client were starting things off as adversaries. The client is always thinking they’re not getting enough work, and the agency feels like they’re not getting enough money. So Plan B’s initial ‘pillar’ of beliefs was that clients shouldn’t stay with us because they are bound, they should stay because we do great work. And then the onus is on us, on the agency side, to over-deliver every time.”

“We were also not fond of the bureaucratic account staff system, where accounts had guarded access to the client. We were creatives, and we were comfortable with talking with the clients, so why couldn’t all creatives? Why couldn’t the people doing the work actually work with the client in an organic way? We didn’t want to just come up with ‘the cool idea’, we wanted to understand their business.”

All of these guiding principles are great when you’re thinking up your dream agency, but what happens when you hang your shingle and actually have to put them to practice with real clients? Fortunately the folks at Plan B discovered that they had hit on something good. “When we finally started our shop, we found out very quickly that clients did want to work with the creatives.” Says Clay. “One of our first clients, the marketing director was frustrated with her agency because she wanted to chat with creatives, and the agency just wouldn’t let it happen. And so she started to look for an alternative to her agency… in other words, a Plan B.”

PLAN B TODAY

Some agencies take success and turn it into rapid growth, but Plan B has kept true to its nimble but scalable roots. Today, Plan B employs about twenty people, with another ten to fifteen regular freelancers who ebb and flow as the demand of projects fluctuates. Such a small shop ensures that everybody can get their hands dirty on just about any assignment. It doesn’t matter your seniority level; CDs can be found doing grunt work, and juniors can wind up producing TV spots. “I really love the small agency culture here, and it’s really what attracted me to Plan B,” says Terry Mertens, creative director. “Yes, I’m a creative director, but everybody does everything here. I’m sometimes writing copy, on photo shoots, making coffee. It makes every day an adventure.”

One of the goals of ihaveanidea’s agency profiles is to give our readers a glimpse at what it’s like to work at an agency before they actually work at an agency. To Clay and the Plan B crew, this bit of research is extremely important in their hiring process. “We always encourage people who have expressed an interest in us to really explore our website,” he explains. “It’s far more about the way we work than it is about the work we do, since the work changes and the philosophies don’t.”

Even then, Plan B realizes that their methods aren’t for everybody, so they often bring potential recruits as freelancers and consultants for a few weeks in order for them to get a feel for the place. “This way of hiring has been very successful for us,” says Clay. “It has helped us bring in some very eager people, as well as helped us figure out who isn’t cut out for Plan B– before either of us makes a commitment.”

For those who do fit in to the Plan B model, the average day begins at about 8:30 AM, with the first person who arrives being granted supreme control over what music will be played at the office that day. After that, it’s a mad buzz of activity with few constants — except for the three founders’ commitment to try to eat lunch together each day.

Because of Plan B’s insistence that creatives are involved directly with the clients, the day-to-day activities of the average copywriter or art director are a bit different than at other agencies. At most agencies, creatives are off doing their thing while account managers are fielding phone calls. At Plan B, every call is potentially a conference call, with the entire team involved, not just being kept in the loop, but creating the loop. “You would think that having creatives pulled into all of these meetings would extend their days,” says Clay. “But we find that because everybody is working so closely together, things get done faster. If you’re here working until 10 PM, it’s your own fault.”

Plan B prides itself on having regular activities and outings for the team. Every Thursday, Plan B holds its own book club, where they bring in pizza and discuss a common book they’re reading. But if you’re looking for Oprah picks, you’ve come to the wrong place. “The book club is fun, and fosters a lot of camaraderie,” explains Clay, “but we also intend it to be related to the business, to help everyone get better.” To this end, they’ve focused on books related to the industry, such as Jon Steel’s Truth, Lies & Advertising and Alex Bogusky’s Baked In.

Other internal activities include French lessons from a tutor who visits. Excursions beyond the walls of Plan B include Chicago Cubs games, trips up to Wisconsin for boating and jet skiing, and celebrations at one of the local bars whenever somebody has a birthday. All three of these activities include lots of beverages.

THE FUTURE

What does the future hold for Plan B, in an industry environment that is evolving so rapidly? Will there be a Plan C? “It’s funny,” says Clay. ”When we started Plan B, that was back in the dot-com craze, and I think in the back of our minds we had this idea of only doing this for a few years, then turn around and sell our company for millions like everybody else was doing at the time. Back then we didn’t have the emotional attachment. It was just thoughts of getting super rich. Today, I wouldn’t dream of selling this place. And if five years from now we weren’t much more than we are today, I’d still be very, very happy. It started as a business and it ended up being a child, a child you’ll always love.”

A big thanks to Clay and the rest of Plan B for inviting us into their offices.

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