by Luke Jones
Posted 3/10/2014 12:00 am
Updated 4 months ago
CJRW has been roiled by staff defections recently, departures that have left the state’s largest ad agency increasingly dependent on its big clients, the biggest being the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism worth $8.4 million this year.
More than two dozen employees headed for the door in 2013, by one insider’s account, but that’s not the worst of it. When Rebecca Tennille and Jordan Johnson left the agency to found their own marketing firm last summer, they took the account for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center with them.
The defection prompted a statement from an obviously hurt Wayne Woods, CJRW CEO, who noted that the Little Rock agency had been associated with Bill Clinton for 50 years.
Seeking to restore CJRW’s luster is its new president, northwest Arkansas publishing industry veteran Darin Gray, who refrains from discussing specific plans for the ad agency, allowing only that he wants to build on CJRW’s “legacy.”
The company also recently announced it was moving its headquarters to a new space in downtown Little Rock.
“CJRW has a long and very rich history,” said Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School for Public Service and a former executive vice president of CJRW. “It has survived all sorts of changing, from where your major clients were the community banker across the street or the utility executive next door, to a world dominated by technology, where social media is in many areas winning out over traditional.”
These changes are evident in the success and evolution of smaller, “boutique” firms, like Johnson and Tennille’s still unnamed firm, Eric Rob & Isaac or Impact Management Group Inc., all of which are in Little Rock. Rutherford said that clients go to the smaller firms for “the one-on-one service,” and to dodge the bureaucracy that occurs in larger agencies.
“The problem with larger agencies, in this day and time, is that they get bogged down with overhead,” Rutherford said.
That high overhead, he said, typically comes with assigning multiple employees to a single account.
It’s a conventional wisdom in the Arkansas ad industry that CJRW is able to employ so many — it currently claims 85 employees — mainly due to the tourism account.
“It’s hard to have a large overhead of people and resources and equipment,” said Rob Bell, a principal at Eric Rob & Isaac. “We knew early on that we wanted to stay incredibly lean.”
Technology has helped that lean dream come true. It’s even one reason that Cranford Johnson, which had as many as 115 employees in 2005, is getting by with three-quarters as many bodies.
“Areas that used to be done with people are now done by computer,” Rutherford said.
Newer workers in the same fields are more accustomed to multitasking, he said, and are more flexible.
“One of the ways we did that was we wear a lot of different hats,” Bell said. “As we grew, we all were multi-disciplined. We could approach clients without bringing a lot of folks in and increasing overhead.”
But ERI is not so lean that it couldn’t be a beneficiary of two departures from CJRW: Bryan Jones is now digital director for ERI and Caroline Puddephatt is a PR account executive for Ghiddotti Communications, a separate company that serves as ERI's PR arm.
Robert Coon, a partner at Impact Management and political columnist for ArkansasBusiness.com, said clients are also seeking a different experience than they did in the past.
“There’s a changed dynamic of what clients are looking for or a dynamic of what fits their needs,” he said. “In regards to that, a lot of firms have an older, institutional model of the traditional media market.”
Starting up is easier now, too. Coon said size is “not a hurdle that it used to be for the smaller boutiques,” and the price of entering the industry has dropped.
“Getting a film crew or getting the right type of equipment in-house is not what it used to be,” he said.
A small firm, Coon added, also allows a “real time, rapid response type of PR. Having a model that is built around speed and nimbleness is really important for a lot of our clients.”
Rutherford said the changes at CJRW may be a response to the younger, speedier style of these newer firms.
“The days of the traditional office setting, the days of all that, are changing,” Rutherford said. “Where people are working from home, or working by distance, CJRW is having to make adjustments. The move from Capital Avenue down to the creative corridor of Main Street is, I believe, reflective of the young talent at the agency.”
Ebbs and Flows
CJRW CEO Wayne Woods said the company’s employee count “has ebbed and flowed as it has with most businesses over the past five years.”
Woods said that it’s still possible for CJRW to compete with the boutique agencies, and its shrinking employee count has more to do with changing technology than any chink in the agency’s armor.
“For one, there are technologies that allow us, and all agencies and companies for that matter, to make best use of our professional staff,” he said. “In essence, we are able to do more with less. And that’s something that we see not just in our industry but in all industries. It allows us to effectively control our costs while continuing to deliver the full suite of services clients want and need from a fully integrated marketing firm. Having that range of services and a cross-functional team approach allows us to compete with anyone, regardless of their size or range of services, or lack of them.”
Woods said the company doesn’t discuss the relative size of its clients, but “emphatically” denied that the agency is dependent on the state tourism account. “Speaking on behalf of our agency, I will say our staffing policy is based on what’s required to meet the needs of our entire client base,” he said. “Nothing more, nothing less. And that includes not only headcount, but also the expertise represented in our professional staff and the range of services we provide.”
And the agency still has the respect of competitors and former employees alike.
Bell, at Eric Rob & Isaac, noted that despite CJRW’s employee shrinkage, its business hasn’t slowed.
“I don’t think it’s a sign of the times for Cranford,” he said. “They’re growing in the ways they planned to grow. They’re doing well, maintaining relationships and picking up new businesses. So something’s got to be right.”
Rutherford said that CJRW’s 50 years in business shows its ability to adapt. He said, “I wouldn’t count them out.”
“It’s just part of the change,” he added. “It’s gone from the suit and coat and tie every day to blue jeans. Quite frankly, you’ve got to give CJRW credit for trying to adapt.”