Read any advertising publication in the world for the past ten years and you will certainly pick up on the fact that the business is changing. We are in the business of change, so we shouldn’t be surprised, but somehow we always are. At The Variable, we’re honored to be the recipients of an Ad Age Small Agency of the Year Award for two out of the last three years. I’d like to say it was because of how awesome we are, but I actually think it’s a reflection of a sea change in the advertising world (and the fact that we’re pretty awesome). We started our business in the right place, with the right people and watched as the industry swung towards us.


This isn’t just happening in our business. I think everywhere people are longing for a personal touch. They want to be a big fish in a small pond. They want customization not commoditization. They want THEIR plan, not THE plan. From the very beginning, we’ve seen no value in growing for growth’s sake. We want to work with people we like. People who value the work we bring them, and we want to partner with them (and not in the bullshit “partner” kind of way). We want to be truly invested in their success. And benefit when they do. Hard to get that type of incentive alignment from a holding company.


I’m not really sure why this happened. It used to be if you weren’t in a major market, you weren’t getting major talent. But that changed. Young talent these days appreciates the quality of life that Winston Salem, NC brings. New York and LA and Chicago are nice to visit, but there’s something about this place. We chose Winston Salem, NC as our base because we wanted to send a message that advertising didn’t have to keep investment banking hours. We put real value on work/life balance. And I think that commitment leads to a better work output. Our people are more interesting and more curious and more happy. And all of that leads to better work, better perspectives and better outcomes for our clients.


The founders of The Variable got out of “the big agency” business because they felt like they were delivering disproportionate value to client’s businesses. They were hired to do advertising, but were coming up with business models or product ideas. The clients appreciated the thinking, but the agencies treated it like an advertising problem. The Variable was formed to engage further upstream; to talk to CEO’s and CMO’s. To get seats on boards. And equity in new ventures. We are committed to brand-led business transformations. Usually, that involves brand development and marketing and advertising. But more often than not, it involves company mission, vision and values alignment. It involves internal stakeholder buy-in. It involves business tweaks and agile implementation. It has led us to hire different people (from MBA’s to JD’s to client-side refugees to private equity players) all of whom have a seat at our “advertising” table. We believe that businesses can be transformed through brands. And vice versa.


We’ve all worked at places where we threw money at problems. It sometimes worked. But it often didn’t. We realized very early on in the life of The Variable that you should measure twice and cut once. In advertising terms, that really means that you need to get your brand house in order before you spend a dime. You need to think hard, then spend smart. The shift from spending to thinking also led to a change in the way we approached compensation. We wanted to get away from timesheets and into value. Timesheets are only useful if we are really not doing our job well and we need to prove that “at least we’ve been working.” We now approach projects with what we call value based compensation. We mutually decide with our clients the value of a component of a scope of work. And that’s what we do it for. Because we could easily spend enough time to charge $10,000 for a business card design. But does that seem fair to you? It doesn’t to us.


This change has been meaningful, we believe. We think great campaigns have moved from the number of eyeballs assaulted to the number of goosebumps created. In today’s world, messaging can’t be interruptive, it has to be opted-into. We have to create messaging that is so relevant and resonant that people choose not to ignore it. We have to overcome consumer indifference. Because reach is a metric that simply needs to die. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t meaningful. And this change has to start way before an advertising campaign is created. For brand led business transformations, it starts at the top. The long and short is that people don’t give a shit about brands, so brands need to give a shit about people.

Thanks, again, Ad Age, for acknowledging that all of the work we’ve been doing for the past six years hasn’t been for naught. We work in an industry that is awards crazy. But this one means a lot to us. Because we are small by design. And we like to think that we’re pretty damn good.

Joe Parrish
Partner, Chief Creative Officer
The Variable

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