Building Small

By Mike Kriefski Posted on Jan 20, 2011

"How big do you want to be?" It's a question we were asked quite often back in the start-up days of Shine. Back in the "we're three guys with no clients and no money, and yes, Mr. Banker, we'd like a loan" days. And to be honest, not many bankers were all that fond of our answer: We wanted to be small. Not small like three guys working out of an apartment small. More like, smaller than Young & Rubicam small – like, less than one hundred employees small. What the bankers didn't understand (except for one, thankfully) is that in a business rooted in creativity, bigger isn't necessarily better – better is better.

Fast-forward nine-and-a-half years, and today Shine is exactly where we thought it would be – exactly where we wanted it to be – a profitable and thriving small agency. We are on our way toward 40 employees, with over $32 million in capitalized billings. And we have a portfolio of great work for clients like Carver Yachts, Harley-Davidson, Jones Soda, Winston Fly Rods and Wisconsin Cheese, to name just a few. In sum: Life is good. And while we can't help ourselves from using words like "growing" and "thriving", being small has always been one of the central keys to our success.

We believe that small makes us hire smarter. Small makes us work harder. Small creates a less political, more effective environment. Small allows us to be more flexible – better able to adapt to our clients' needs, to changes in technology and to an unpredictable economy. These basic concepts add up to significant differentiation, both for our employees and clients.

First off, when you're small, there's no room for B-teamers. No room for slackers. Everyone has to perform at the highest level. Sure, we have senior- and junior-level talent, but everyone has to bring his or her A-game each and every day. Everyone has to carry his or her fair share of water up the hill. All of which means we have to be smart when it comes to hiring new Shiners. This means looking far and wide for talent. It means finding individuals who are intellectual, collaborative, have a strong work ethic and are truly talented. Again, no B-teamers allowed. This, however, has led to a fairly onerous interview process. The average interviewee will meet with a third of the Shine team (if not more) before getting the nod. It's imperative that new hires (at all levels) be "wanted" by Shiners – not just welcomed. And it should come as no surprise that, as individuals, we do better work when we "want" to work with someone, than when we "have" to work with someone.

For Shine, small also means that we have to work harder than your average bear. More times than not, when we pitch new business, we pitch against agencies that are four to six times larger than us – and outside of our market. In fact, our first big account win came when we pitched for, and won, the Peachtree Window & Door business – a $4 million account. Shine was just a couple of years old, with a dozen employees at the time. Our competition? Two Minneapolis shops, each with 100+ employees. After the win, the client told us that we "Just plain outworked the competition. Smarter thinking. A stronger point of view. And better creative." This became a validation of our business philosophy – that being small would allow us to more easily focus our thinking, reach consensus and work as a truly collaborative and integrated team – ultimately generating better work.

Creatively, smaller means less politics and more control. While teamwork and collaboration are important philosophies at Shine, too much of a good thing can often turn out poorly. Too much teamwork and collaboration usually waters down big ideas, turning the extraordinary into the banal. An old creative director of mine once told me, "There's no creative substitute for an art director and a writer sitting in a room and getting it done." It was true back then, and it remains true today; simply put, advertising is not a groupthink business.

This obviously puts a great deal of pressure on our creative staff to consistently produce at their highest caliber. And because we are small, we seldom put multiple teams on a project, so it's critical that our art directors, designers and writers have the chops to play at a national level (and if they don't, they unfortunately don't last too long here). From a process standpoint, we've always believed that great ideas are in the details and that more often than not, the details can be found with the client and their consumers. As such, our creative teams are actively engaged in getting to know the client as well as their target market prior to creating anything. We've made and delivered pizzas for Toppers Pizza. Taken motorcycle-riding courses for Harley-Davidson. And even sat in on a few actual operations at UW Hospital to get a better understanding of the amazing work provided by their surgeons and nursing staff. For us, being small means being involved in every step of the process, from fieldwork to final presentations.

Lastly, with small also comes flexibility – assuming that is part of your agency's mindset (and frankly, in this day and age, I don't know how it couldn't be). As more advertising moves away from print, over half of our billings this year will come from digital initiatives on behalf of our clients. From website creation to online and social media (and everything in between), we continue to invent and reinvent the processes and team structures that marry creativity and technology with consumer interest and interaction. While every web-based project is different, our "stated-but-flexible" process has proven invaluable for getting big ideas off the drawing board and into the real world – as evidenced by, one of our first major digital initiatives on behalf of Wisconsin Cheese. The Cheese & Burger Society ( – is a Flash-driven edutainment site that, in addition to receiving several creative accolades, attracted more than a million visitors in the first few months.

Bottom line, I'm not saying that smaller shops are better than bigger ones; to the contrary, I'm saying better shops create better work. That said, for Shine and its clients, small works. Small has made us better. Small has provided Shine with an incredibly creative atmosphere and culture. Small has helped us fend off bureaucracy and complacency, and foster innovation and excellence – allowing us to truly focus on our craft. So now, when people ask us how big we want to eventually be, the answer is simply, "Better."


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