How Greater D.C.'s oldest ad agencies are surviving in the age of disruption.
Kipp Monroe, partner and executive creative director (left) poses with Matt Walker, partner and group creative director (right) and Duncan (dog), all at the new White64 offices in Tysons. The company has undergone several incarnations since its founding in 1964.
The world of advertising has undergone swift and relentless change in the past decade, tied directly to the total disruption of media itself.
Some agencies have kept up and adapted, but others have fallen. “What we’ve done, and what the more successful agencies in the country have done, is recognize that the way things are today is not the way they’re going to be two months from now,” said Kipp Monroe, partner and executive creative director at Tysons-based White64.
White64 is one of just a handful of local agencies, along with Alexandria-based Williams Whittle, that have stuck it out since the 1960s “Mad Men” era — and still live to tell the tale. “When I came along, it was X-Acto knives, and T-squares and typesetting. And you’d order type from the typehouse, and they’d rush it over to you, and somebody would glue it down on a board, and position a photograph on an ad, and weigh down the type with the headline,” Williams Whittle CEO Rob Whittle said. The change is like “going from candlelight to electric light.”
Here are how these two longtime ad firms account for their survival, changes they’ve witnessed and where they see the industry headed.
RIP vodka, big budgets
The oft-reminisced three-martini lunch is not a myth. But it is a casualty of the industry’s change.
In the 1970s, Williams Whittle CEO Rob Whittle remembers his first week of work as an ad copywriter, heading to lunch with his boss and a radio station rep. “Many martinis and Scotch-on-the-rocks later, and about a pack of cigarettes between everybody, we finished lunch. And I’m staggering back to work, going, ‘Are you kidding me? How can anybody get anything done here?’”
Another once-assumed, now-doomed practice is thinking that an ad campaign only needs a wad of money to be successful. Monroe said you really can’t just “buy your way in” anymore and own the airwaves.
Why? The power has come to the people, so to speak. Individual consumers and viewers, more than ever, have more power over not only what we choose to view, but also how others perceive it, too — thanks to social media and the various digital sounding boards for public reviews of products and services.
"You can't bullshit people. Period."
Said Matt Walker, a partner and group creative director at White64. “If you have great advertising, but terrible service and a terrible product, you could easily have a disgruntled consumer who posts a catchy review on YouTube, and that single review can reach millions of viewers. And that can take down a multimillion-dollar ad campaign.”
What’s to come
Whittle sees digital ads getting ever more targeted. “If I want red-headed people who live on the left-hand side of the street in Arlington, I can find them. And if I know that red-headed people on the left-hand side of the street in Arlington buy my product, then I don’t need billions of reach, I need targeted reach,” he said.
He also said the ability to get instant analytics on any kind of digital ad is starting to give TV and radio a run for their money. Fewer people are watching TV ads, increasingly opting for the commercial-free Netflixes, Hulus or Amazon Primes of the world. So, like other agencies, Whittle is putting more effort behind digital advertising, hiring a new president, Kelly Callahan-Poe, who came from a digital agency background.
The print problem
The supposed “death” of print has been overstated — but it’s certainly become more of a niche.
“It’s an older audience, so if you want millennials, don’t do that,” Whittle said. “But if you want 40- to 65-year-olds in one giant reach situation, then yeah, The [Washington] Post is the way to go. Wall Street Journal, places like New York Times.”
Print has had more staying power in certain parts of the country than others. But for the most part, people’s reading habits have changed. “We’re much more scanners now,” Monroe said. “We use the word ‘snackable’ a lot. So things move faster, they’re quicker and no one’s got the attention span that they used to.”
One thing Whittle started doing differently five years ago at his agency is specialization in nonprofits. At one time, most agencies used to take on any job that paid — until more niche, boutique agencies began popping up and taking their business. “We were losing to specialists, in whatever category we were pitching,” Whittle said. “And I said, ‘I’m tired of this, let’s be specialists, and let’s win.’”
Both Whittle and White64 are also now streamlining their operations. Monroe and Walker said they’re hiring fewer outside companies for production services, doing more of that in-house, including photography, editing and printing. Walker said the agency looks for more multidisciplined people when hiring. Whittle said in his agency’s new incarnation, he has far fewer traffic managers, production managers, graphic designers and art directors.
That’s also been a benefit for some firms. Whittle points to a past client, Ryan Homes, which bought 75 print ads a week — but its price didn’t really factor in all the employees it took to get that done. “I couldn’t make any money on it,” Whittle said.