NYC Is Still the Place to Be for Agencies, Despite Its Difficulties

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by Mike O’Brien

During Advertising Week’s first-ever Periscope-streamed session, three marketers discussed the importance of moving an agency to New York, and the inherent obstacles and benefits of doing so.

Frank Sinatra once said that if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, a sentiment about New York City shared by the panelists of Advertising Week’s first session to be streamed on Periscope.

Led by Alex Pettitt, head of live and social for U.K. content marketing agency John Brown Media, the discussion centered on bringing an already established agency to the New York market. The three panelists noted the importance of having a presence in New York because it’s the center of so many industries. As a result, there are benefits not only for the agency (it’s easier to recruit top talent) but for clients (it’s easier to meet in-person more frequently.)

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Jason Harris is president and chief executive of Mekanism, a San Francisco-based agency whose client roster includes Ben & Jerry’s, Miller Coors, and Charles Schwab. He said setting up shop in New York was inspired by a beverage giant he frequently took red-eye flights to meet with.

“Pepsi was a cornerstone,” Harris said. “[Advertising is] an in-person business and nothing beats sitting around the table, hammering out stuff in a room together. Wherever [the clients] are, you need to have an office there, whether it’s a big office or a service office. Advertising is a rough business so if you’re going to sell ideas, you need to be in front of the people who are going to try and buy them.”

Cory Berger, managing director of San Francisco-based Pereira & O’Dell, pointed out that one way to thrive in the city is to secure some home grown talent. He believes an agency is better served by people who have already experienced some success in a new place – particularly one as fast-paced and competitive as New York – as opposed to importing everyone from a different office.

“You can bring people from an existing office and set them up here, but there are times when people underestimate how different and unique New York is as a market,” said Berger. “In our case, [the founders] took a lot of time to find people who they felt shared the same vision and philosophy, and had experience and a level of success in this market.

“The industry is a microcosm of the city at large, and there’s an energy that happens from here,” he added. “We’ve got 50 ambitious, bright people working for us and their energy is really infectious to everybody. Our colleagues from San Francisco come over and they see that, they feel that energy, and they wonder how to bottle it up and bring it back sometimes.”

At the same time, Harris noted that it can be dangerous to open up an office with all new people.

“Culture is king and you can’t replicate culture without people who have lived it,” he said.

Among New York’s other challenges are the ingrained Madison Avenue culture and the fact that it’s “expensive as s**t,” as Harris put it.

However, while the former is an obstacle, it can also prove advantageous for outsiders. According to James Townsend – managing director of 72andSunny, which has headquarters in Los Angeles and Amsterdam – the New York market can be more homogenous than others, allowing different types of creativity to stand out more.

“You’re naturally fighting an ingrained way of doing business,” said Townsend. “That’s normal; it happens. It’s like trying to do a different kind of steel company in Pittsburgh 30 years ago. We come from places where you do things in, not a better way, but in a different way.”