What You Can Learn from This Agency Breaking Free from the Status Quo

By Erica Bray

Sean Duffy has always been a creative soul unafraid to do things a little differently. He started his career as a cartoonist, drawing political cartoons for his college campus newspaper, a gig that led to his first paying job as a freelance writer for a Boston-area hospital -- where he shook things up a bit.

“I didn’t feel people would read 1,500 words on health,” Duffy recalls. “So I came back with a different idea: I told them I could convey the same information in a three-panel cartoon strip, and they agreed.”

Fast forward some 30 years, and this innovative way of thinking remains at the heart of Sean Duffy’s career. After giving up cartooning to rise through the ranks of established advertising agencies such as BBDO and London-based Lowe Group, he founded his own digital branding agency in 2001.

Duffy Agency, as it’s now called, has offices in the U.S. and Europe. As the company’s CEO, Duffy recently transformed the company in a very innovative way: He “flipped” the traditional agency-client model so that compensation would be results-oriented, versus tethered to a contract based on time spent producing campaigns that might or might not yield results.

At the same time, he spearheaded a complete re-brand of his agency, including the website name: duffy.agency. The previous domain name, theduffyagency.com, was clunky and felt too much like the old way of doing business. The new, crisper URL helps to punctuate Duffy’s forward-thinking approach to his agency’s relationship with clients.

“You're always looking to differentiate, right? Every brand is,” he says. “We were positioning ourselves as something that's a new alternative in the marketing world. [The domain change] made total sense for us.”

“Flipping” to new agency-client relationship

During a pitch for new business in 2011, Duffy had an epiphany that inspired him to pivot the way his agency conducts business. His team of eight had worked nearly 800 hours over five months, he says, at a conservative cost of $50,000 – all out of pocket – with a goal of winning the business of a multibillion-dollar global brand. His team won the business. Then shortly thereafter, it was put on hold “indefinitely” when the mega-brand restructured.

“Which reading between the lines is, ‘We're never going to hire you,’” says Duffy.

All of that time, effort and money for nothing. This was something he had to explain to a company board member, who illuminated an underlying problem in the agency-pitch-for-new-business paradigm.

"He accurately described the ad agency business model to me in his own words," Duffy recalls. "It sounded absurd. That was the moment where the light burb went off, and I said, 'We have to change this.'"

Duffy decided that it was time to shake things up. He wanted to align his agency’s financial model, upfront, with the financial interests of his clients. He wanted to stop engaging in long and drawn-out pitches that cost money with too much risk of not yielding new business and revenue for his agency.

“Typically, an agency is not compensated for business results,” Duffy explains. Instead, most agencies charge clients for time spent or per project and aren’t held accountable for the outcomes, positive or negative.

Duffy Agency “flips” that. Its client relationships are now tethered to upfront and agreed-upon value-based key performance indicators (KPIs), versus any time-based performance. He says this is the only way a marketing agency can truly serve a client, but recognizes that it flies in the face of how advertising and marketing agencies have worked for years. Namely, because it means that Duffy Agency no longer pitches for new business in the traditional way.

See RelatedIs It Time to Flip the Agency Model?

“Trying to convince global Fortune 100 companies to change the way they do business because we've changed the way do business didn't seem very viable,” he says. “So what happened was we started attracting a different kind of client.”

Duffy says his agency has phased out “mismatched clients” and found a niche in working with mid-size companies, “$10 million U.S. dollar turnover up to $1 billion."

His current stable of clients also includes an eclectic mix of businesses simultaneously advocating for social change. Among them: one of Vietnam’s largest food companies that is looking to revolutionize the aquaculture industry with sustainable practices that will feed the world while saving our oceans.  Another: A medical device company that has developed the worlds first HIV diagnostic tool that can work in rural, sub-Saharan Africa as well as other rural locations which are most effected by the HIV pandemic.

Duffy says the volume of new business inquiries is “up by a factor of four,” which is in part due to the strategic rebranding that paired with the new business strategy.

Duffy gets to travel to exotic locales such as Vietnam through his work with international companies. (Photo courtesy of Duffy Agency)

A digital facelift

To proclaim to world that Duffy Agency was undergoing a change, one of the agency’s first re-branding moves was relatively simple – and took a cue from the re-branding playbook of Facebook. When Facebook was launched, it was known as “The Facebook.” Just before it took off and became a multibillion-dollar powerhouse, the company dropped the “The.” Duffy Agency did the same thing.

“When we started to rebrand, we wanted to shorten our name,” says Duffy. “We were ‘The Duffy Agency.’ We wanted to signal a change, so we got rid of the ‘The.’”

The change also inspired a new logo.

It also warranted an updated website, a place where Duffy Agency is regularly attracting new business inquiries. A big part of the website update was tethered to choosing the new domain name. Grant Adams, a managing partner and in charge of the website migration, which was partly outsourced, says the website transition was a “relatively smooth” process.

“Your domain name is important,” says Duffy. “It's harder and harder for brands to differentiate. Online now is where a lot of differentiation has to happen.”

Because the agency only works on international accounts, never just within one specific country, moving to a ‘dot-agency’ (.agency) URL carries a special benefit for his international-minded business, says Duffy.

“These new ‘not-coms’ are really helpful because instead of having .co.uk, or whatever, we can just have this global ending that doesn't tie us down to any one country,” he adds.

See Related: Why Established Companies are Ditching Their ‘Dot-Com’ Domains

Traffic to the agency’s website has “significantly increased” since the digital make-over, says Aneta Kiankova, Duffy Agency’s social media strategist. It’s experiencing five times the volume of traffic year-over-year, she adds, and people are spending more time with the website, where users have the ability to download and share content, plus reach out directly.

That’s all very good news, as Duffy Agency continues to beat the drum about success with its evolved business model and new digital brand.

Sean Duffy is hopeful that other agencies will follow his lead, as he expressed in a recent TalentZoo story: “Our version of the flipped agency model is surely not for every marketing firm or for every client. But, if you are an agency or a business looking for new and innovative solutions, a good place to start is with the conventions that define the way you do business today. Flip a few of them over and you might be surprised what you find.”