AbelsonTaylor president and CEO Dale Taylor chooses to be flattered by the calls he still receives from acquisition-minded suitors. While most gargantuan holding companies abandoned their pursuit during the past few years — they can only ask so many times, right? — private equity firms picked up the slack.
“Given our size and success, and that our senior people have been here forever, they just assume we all want to cash out,” he says. “Well, we don't.”
What they don't realize — indeed, what many former indie firms don't realize until it's too late — is that there's value in asserting one's independence. You set the course and you make the calls. You're not beholden to a spreadsheet. And you don't have to run a conflict-check every time a potential client materializes. AbelsonTaylor figured this out some time ago and, 35 years burning down the road, has no interest in gauging the greenness of the grass on the other side of the agency-acquisition fence.
“The secret to remaining independent is the same as the secret to remaining a virgin: Just say no,” Taylor cracks. “I've seen so much turmoil when agencies are purchased by a network and then combined with other agencies under the same roof.”
Jay Carter, a 28-year AbelsonTaylor veteran and now a part owner (along with 13 other longtime employees) and SVP, director of strategy services, chimes in. “One of my favorite Dale quotes is, ‘Whenever I consider selling the place, I call someone else who sold an agency. That person always talks me out of it.'”
Taylor laughs, then adds, knowingly, “They generally aren't long conversations.”
So that's that: AbelsonTaylor, by any measure one of the agency world's largest and most highly regarded indie players, has no interest in finding a dance partner. Go bug the other guys now, OK?
The company's 2015 performance affirmed once more why would-be buyers keep calling. AbelsonTaylor's headcount jumped from 379 to 408 full-timers — a 7.7% spike — while growing revenue by 13%, to $72 million. That the percentage gain in revenue nearly doubles the percentage gain in headcount is no small source of satisfaction to Carter. “What it means is that we became more productive. We got more work done, more efficiently and more effectively,” he points out.
Carter attributes this in large part to AbelsonTaylor's ambitious gambit to spin off project management as a separate function. At most agencies, account teams remain split between account services and creative — meaning that project management is often a way station for low-level staffers who'd rather be doing something else. But at AbelsonTaylor, a 90-strong and growing group has assumed responsibilities for project management — executing everything from planning to team assembly to general troubleshooting.
This was done with some trepidation, Carter admits. “It really is revolutionary for an agency to separate the concept from the execution, so to speak. But there are some people who are just so much better at this than others, and we've already seen results in terms of better execution,” he says.
The thorny part of the project-management spinoff, not surprisingly, occurred when it came time to reassign staffers to new and different roles. While Carter acknowledges that “an agency is like a cruise ship: It turns very, very slowly,” he reports that the move “went over way better than we thought it would, because nothing else changed. This is still a good and stable place to work, there's still free lunch on Fridays, and so on. And there was a sense from most people of ‘now I get to focus on what I'm really good at.' The creative team loved it. It gave them more structure in terms of making things happen in a more timely fashion.”
Taylor agrees, adding, “Anytime you make a big change to an organization that has been operating in a certain way for decades, there are always people who say, ‘I liked it better the old way.' But by and large, they adapt and move on. We took great care to fit people into places where their skills were best exercised.”
It certainly didn't hurt AbelsonTaylor's case that it thrived on the client front amid the structural shift. Taylor reports that it won 25 new brands in 2015, 21 of them without a pitch. In the first four months of 2016, the agency won five more, three without a pitch. “Whenever we can bypass [a pitch], we save a huge amount of money and we free up a huge amount of time for staff members,” Taylor notes. Adds Carter, “I personally love pitching — it's a very competitive sport — but it's not necessarily the best use of our resources.”
The year's biggest addition was 11 brands from CSL Behring; AbelsonTaylor is now AOR for the company's entire U.S. portfolio. Other roster mainstays are Amgen, Gilead, and Eli Lilly.
At the same time, AbelsonTaylor moved aggressively to diversify its client base and refine its ability to service it. Before 2016 concludes, it will formally debut what Taylor characterizes as a “sub-brand”: Nutrient, which will service non-pharma health and wellness accounts. The new unit, currently in a sort of beta mode, will be housed in its existing offices. Taylor says that headcount will be “episodic. We'll base it on what [business] comes in the door and what the particular needs are.”
The Nutrient debut is motivated by any number of factors — perceived opportunity obviously ranking near the top of the list — but Taylor plays up an underappreciated aspect to working on such accounts. “They're fun,” he says. “Plus there are fewer regulatory constraints.”
It is those constraints, Taylor and Carter agree, that make healthcare marketing a uniquely challenging industry in which to work. “[The constraints] are tougher and the timelines are shorter,” Carter says. “Sooner or later they're going to materially affect the quality of the work.”
Taylor, for his part, points to increasing client pressure around rates as another limiting factor. “It's not just in our industry — my attorney friends feel the same pressure. But there comes a point where you say, ‘That's as low as we can go. If you want the work done for 20% less, we're probably not going to be able to satisfy your needs.'”
None of that is to say that Taylor and Carter are anything less than bullish about AbelsonTaylor's future prospects, of course. Through April, the agency was up 17% in revenue against the year-ago period. Nearly 60% of its work is now digital — which puts it in the same range as most A-list agencies that play in the consumer-goods space. Clients old and new keep calling.
So when they're asked what they hope to tell MM&M during their 2017 agency-issue interview, it makes sense that Taylor and Carter would default into keep-on-keepin'-on mode.
“Nothing really matters,” he says, “unless we're proud of the work we produce, right? So put that down: great work and lots of it.”