We are a humble group at The Variable. It’s part of our Southern upbringing, I guess. Our head of strategy would be reluctant to tell you that she founded the world’s first marketing to women organization for a global holding company. Our media director would be loathe to tell you the hundreds of brands he’s planned and bought media for, or that he ran the media department for one of the largest agencies in the country. Our social media director would never mention how she grew an LA social agency from 5 to 500 people and our associate director of operations would never brag about how she single-handedly figured out how to create a beverage company! But we might brag just a little bit right now. Because The Variable was founded on the belief that advertising is only effective when it is grounded in innovation and focused on people. So to be recognized as an Ad Age Small Agency of the Year three times and to be named a Fast Company 100 Best Workplaces for Innovators is our version of three Oscars and an Emmy. So we’re proud. It’s validation that we’re doing something pretty special and proof that mid-market companies can punch above their weight, big time. Our success is due to our crazy-talented people and to the fact that we’ve been able to lean on innovation to get ahead of most of the advertising industry curveballs.
This isn’t just happening in our business. People everywhere 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 A plan. From the very beginning, we’ve seen no value in growth for growth’s sake. We want to work with people we like. People who value the work we bring them and want a business partner (and not in the bullshit “partner” kind of way). We want to be truly invested in their successes. And benefit when they do. Hard to get that type of incentive alignment from a holding company.
It used to be if you weren’t in a major market, you weren’t getting major talent. But that has been changing for years and will only accelerate in a post-COVID world. Young talent these days appreciates the quality of life that Winston-Salem, NC, brings. And clients appreciate a perspective that is more indicative of reality (Pro-tip: If you want to know what most Americans really think, don’t go to LA or NYC or Chicago.) We chose Winston-Salem, NC, as our base because we wanted to send a message that advertising doesn’t have to keep investment banking hours. We put real value on work/life harmony. And 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 that fell more under innovation consulting than advertising. Clients appreciated the thinking, but leadership at those agencies kept treating every problem like advertising alone could solve it.The Variable was formed to combine the thinking of an innovation consultancy with the doing of an ad agency and 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 building people-friendly businesses. 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.
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 a value-based compensation approach (and are in the process of building a SaaS business to help other agencies do the same.) 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.
Ad agencies of old were factories. They would give away the valuable part of the process (strategy and creative) to charge for the commoditized part of the process (the production). We are built to change that. We believe that great advertising is critical, but it must follow brilliant innovation. The two are inseparable. To cut through indifference, a company has to have an innovation worthy of advertising. As Bill Bernbach used to say, “nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising.” And vice versa. Execution still matters. But no amount of craft is going to overcome a tired business concept.
This change has been meaningful, we believe. We think great branding has 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 and connect with people. Because reach is a metric that simply needs to die. And this change has to start way before an advertising campaign is created. People-friendly businesses understand that to succeed, they have to create value in people’s lives. The truth is, people don’t give a shit about brands, so brands need to start giving a shit about people.
Thanks, again, Ad Age and Fast Company, for acknowledging that all of the work we’ve been doing for the past ten years hasn’t been for naught. We work in an industry that is awards crazy. And while we don’t care about most of them, these two (taken together) mean a great deal to us. Because we have a great team at The Variable, and humility aside for one second, we like to think that we’re pretty damn good at what we do.