Cairns O’Neil waves the flag for independents

Twenty clients and a projected 50% bump in billings makes 2014 look bright indeed

When they first came together in 2011, Sherry O’Neil and David Cairns boasted extensive experience, impeccable credentials and what they considered a viable business plan.

Still, the launch of their independent media agency in a segment of the industry largely controlled by multinationals represented a significant gamble. As Toronto-based Cairns O’Neil Strategic Media approaches its second anniversary later this month, it’s safe to say their gamble has paid off.

The agency now boasts a diverse roster of nearly 20 clients – nearly all of them with AOR status – including Mobilicity, Cavendish Farms, Mongrel Media, Harry Rosen and the casual dining restaurant chain Mucho Burrido. The two principals are calling for 2014 billings to grow by as much as 50%, to between $20 million and $25 million.

“We’d done our homework, and thought there was an opportunity for a smaller, senior-focused media agency, with senior people actively working on accounts,” Cairns told Marketing earlier this week. “We thought there was a real opportunity for that, but it seems to be a lot bigger than we actually calculated.

“It says to us that there really was a gap in the market for people like us to work closely with creative agencies and smaller and medium-sized clients.”

While Cairns O’Neil has been invited to pitch alongside creative agencies on media assignments, and has pitched some media-only business itself, much of its business – O’Neil pegs it as high as 80% – has come via referrals, often from agency colleagues who are prevented from pitching an assignment because of client conflicts or are unwilling to service a piece of business because of its smaller size.

“We don’t have a particularly adversarial relationship with other agencies,” said O’Neil. “We’re often willing to take a flyer on a small piece of business that we believe will grow, whereas a big agency can’t invest that time because they’re after bigger fish.”

Much of Cairns O’Neil’s business is with brands that are either new to the market or are re-entering the market after a hiatus. “I think that’s really been a strong point for us,” said O’Neil. “Clients that need more sophisticated strategic understanding of the media marketplace are putting a lot of their money on the line.”

While both principals come from network agencies with access to tools and resources (O’Neil spent much of her career with OMD Canada, while Cairns’ career included stints with Carat and later Dentsu Canada), they have discovered that smaller can be smarter.

While their one gripe is the lack of an IT department, O’Neil said that the ability to come up with solutions that wouldn’t occur to a large agency has been a key factor in the agency’s success.

That was underscored by a recent buy in which a client had a piece of creative that wasn’t compliant with Canadian regulations. To get it edited by a Canadian creative agency would have been too expensive given the media budget.

“In a big agency that would have just been a done deal and they would have moved onto the next project and the next client,” said O’Neil. “We’re very vested in our clients’ success, so I took the opportunity to a couple of different broadcasters and said ‘Look, there’s an opportunity to get a buy done here, but we can’t do it unless you can help us out with the creative at a very economical cost.’”

The agency was able to get the piece of creative edited for $2,000, whereas it might have cost 10 times that much to get it done by a creative agency.

“In my OMD experience that would not have crossed most buyers’ minds to do that, because it’s not really their responsibility,” said O’Neil. “They wouldn’t even have that mindset to worry about it. We knew that the client was anxious to get it on air, and because of our experience we knew there were other ways to get it on air rather than go a traditional route.”

Adds Cairns: “One of the advantages of people like us, with the amount of experience we have, is that sometimes the kind of resources that you talk about are required to help backfill a knowledge base that doesn’t necessarily exist. We’re able to make some decisions based on the experience and the knowledge we have.”

The agency has grown from three people to six, with two more positions to be added in 2014. The agency is also moving to a new 1,800 square foot office – double its current size – next month.

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