What is the difference between the collective agency model and the traditional agency model—and how can a hybrid model work to your advantage?
I’m joined by Brook Jay, founder and CEO of All Terrain, an independent brand strategy and activation powerhouse.
In this episode, Brook shares her journey of over 25 years of designing memorable consumer experiences for brands that translate into real time ROI.
She’ll also cover how her agency’s model has shifted over time—and her advice for traditional agencies looking to transition to collective or hybrid agencies.
Mentioned in this episode:
Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.
Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host Steffen Horst. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about the collective agency model versus a traditional agency model. Here to speak with me as Brook Jay who is the CEO and founder of All Terrain, an independent brand strategy and activation powerhouse.
Brook has over 25 years of designing consumer experiences for brands. She connects brands with their consumers, builds relationships and provides memorable experiences that translate into real time ROI. For some clients Brook and her team act as the agency of record. For others, she works from project to project, at times collaborating an inter-agency mix to deliver best in class campaigns. Brook, welcome to the show.
Brook Jay: Thank you for having me.
Steffen: Now, before we start talking about today’s topic, tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself. How did you come about to found All Terrain 25 years ago?
Brook: Yeah, our origin story goes back to the Olympics in ’96. I was there as a near PA, production assistant. And we were on the grounds there for about 30 days. And our job was to manage all the talent and all the show production and everything I was working for another company. And right across from our production trailer, there was a brand activation. I didn’t even know the words brand activation, but there was a brand activation by Champion T-shirts.
And we watched, my team and I, watched for the 30 days while we were on the ground as people would walk up to this installation, it was a 20 by 20 booth. It had, as you can imagine cubby holes with T-shirts inside of them. Each cubby hole represented a country that was participating in the Olympic Games. And obviously, they were branded on one side by Champion and on the other side with the crest of the Olympic Games of ’96.
And it was a complete social experiment. We watched every day as people from the athletes that were participating in the games to the talent that were performing on the stages, to the people that were working at Georgia Tech, come up to this booth, there was no brand ambassadors, nobody around manning it and look for their country’s t-shirt. And then above the booth, there were signs that said if you want to take one, you have to give one.
And there were sharpies hanging down. And people of all walks of life would walk in, look for their country shirt, look to a total stranger next to them and say, you know, like, do you want to do this? Do you want to exchange shirts? And they would sign them for one another and then off they would go. And my eventual business partner who is partnered with me in this particular area, and I just talked about the indelible impact this brand was making on these consumers.
They were going to be managing their social currency by how many shirts they got. They were going to go back home to wherever they were from, and use the shirts to tell their story of their time at the Olympic Games. And we knew that the minute that they would go into a store, and there would be, let’s say, an Adidas shirt or a Champion shirt next to them, they would have this indelible connection to the brand.
And we thought it was a really fascinating emotional connection that we were interested in figuring out how to do on a regular basis. How do we show up in stride, with a consumer like this in everyday life. Provide some sort of value that builds a relationship between the brand and consumer. And the original concept, we left our jobs. My then business partner and I quit our jobs after the Olympic Games, and decided to open All Terrain, which was basically a content company initially.
But that’s the beginning of it. You know, we were 25 years old. We didn’t know what we were doing. But we knew that we were onto something. And we started out very small and regionally in Illinois, and we got an opportunity to do a project where we launched a tribune product called the Red Eye here in Chicago, and one of their advertisers was General Motors.
And we had built these crazy parties to connect the brands of the advertising brands of this newspaper to a very cool and evolving audience, which today we would call influencers. And GM walked in and they saw that we had built an installation where their Pontiac G6’s were parked right under a huge industrial bridge and we had built a video game and you couldn’t play the video game unless you were sitting in the car.
And there were lines are people around the cars just waiting to get in, readily interested in giving their data away, and their buying horizon. And they were the people that GM were not speaking to at the time. These are like, Pontiac was an old man’s car. And these are Lexus people. These were Mercedes people. And it just so happened that a key decision maker for GM was standing in the audience watching this all go down.
And he approached me and he said, what is going on here? Whatever you’re doing here, can you do this other places? And of course, you say yes. And they said, can you be in about 55 markets in six weeks? And we said, of course, no problem. And that was it. We really went from seven people in a regional office in Chicago, to 50 or 60 people, both headquartered in Chicago, New York, and LA.
3000 independent contractors, and just scaled really quickly. And from there, we just started attracting other big brands to what we were doing because it was working. We were able to track the time we met somebody in an experience, incentivize them to go to retail, and then track when they went to purchase. And so it really became a very measurable and successful model for us.
Steffen: Interesting, interesting. Now along the journey that you have 25 years ago, when you kind of got that big break, to now, at some point, you changed your model from that traditional agency model, which everyone is so familiar with, to a more collective model? What prompted that?
Brook: Yeah, thank you. Well, after 19 really successful years, and one very unsuccessful business divorce, I took sole ownership of All Terrain. And at that time, I was really questioning. We were looking at, this was like 2017, and I was questioning whether this big agency model could survive in an era of digital immediacy, and democratized creativity.
And while still continuing to attract the top talent that we needed, who was more and more so even before COVID, looking for more autonomy and more balance. And so while we were kind of disruptive with this experiential model, which when we started the company, experience, it wasn’t even a word or a marketing format. So I took that passion for disruption inward and I recalibrated and restructured All Terrain for the future.
So in 2018, All Terrain Collective was born. And we started using a very revolutionary hub and spoke model to curate project specific teams of senior level talent, subject matter experts, member agencies. And together we would partner with clients in causes that we were very passionate about. We were designing exceptional campaigns that were surprising and delighting, disrupting, and then for sure, impacting the bottom line for our clients.
Steffen: Now, in addition to impacting the clients’ bottom line, how has that affected your business?
Brook: Yeah, it’s been incredible, Steffen. It’s been a, I mean, I wish I’d done it sooner, to be honest with you. It’s been hugely beneficial for our clients and the teams. Our teams get to work with their dream clients, and collaborate with really exciting people that they might not normally get to work with. The clients get this best in class team that are tailored to the exact specific needs of this program. And they’re not really having to pay a major overhead for the talent. The work has gotten even better. And the agency’s margins have doubled.
Steffen: So are you saying you kind of adopted a Hollywood model where you don’t full time employ these people, rather you cherry pick the ones that have the right experience for individual projects, and bring them for that project on board?
Brook: That was the initial concept. Very much like a film production. You bring in all the right teams to make that movie magic. Same concept with a brand campaign. As we’ve evolved over the last six years, it’s been a great learning curve. We came from a very traditional model. And we have now had to kind of morph the two traditional and collective models in order to maintain the pace and the workflow of the company. And we’ve just recently coined a new term for the model that we’re working under which is a hybrid collective model.
Steffen: You’re taking one step further. Before I asked you about hybrid collective. Can you explain for the listeners, from your perspective, what’s the difference between the traditional agency model and the collective agency model? And what are the pros and cons? Second question.
Brook: Sure. So a traditional agency model utilizes a conventional structure of a typical advertising or marketing agency. It typically operates as a single entity with a team of employees specializing in different areas advertising, public relations, digital marketing, creative strategy production.
And the agency offers this full suite of services and clients interact with one account manager or project manager who coordinate those daily services. And then inside a collective agency, it’s more involved with multiple independent specialists, or smaller agencies that come together to collaborate on projects or a campaign for a common client.
Steffen: So that’s more like when we talked about it before we came onto the podcast, we at Symphonic, as we work with other agencies and provide white labeled services, I quite often have conversations with full service agencies, when I asked them about what do you do for a media perspective? Well, we don’t really do media. Well, you’re actually just air quotes, just to create a shop. You’re not really full service.
So that’s kind of what you’re talking about. It’s about focusing on where your strengths are, as an agency. Not kind of reaching beyond that, and trying to deliver something where you probably don’t have really the expertise or the experience. And rather finding a partner that is really strong in that area that you don’t provide, and kind of teaming up.
Brook: Exactly. Each participating entity inside a collective brings a unique expertise to the table. And that comes together under a unified framework, with each contributing their specific skills to meet the client’s objectives.
Steffen: Makes a lot of sense. Now, let’s talk about the pros and cons from I’m sure, I know, there are pros and cons on both sides. There’s a pro and con on the agency model. You have the people readily available, right, whenever you need them. However, there is a cost associated with that. The collective side that we talked about, is more you cherry pick the ones that you want, but they might not be available when you need them. What other pros and cons do you see, or have you seen?
Brook: I think you nailed the head on the traditional model. I mean, we’re all very familiar with it. So yeah, centralized structure of clear communication, single point of contact, specialized expertise within the agency. The cons, in my opinion, about the traditional model are you’re not able to scale quickly. There’s sometimes there’s limited perspective and a potential bias towards the agency’s solutions.
There’s higher overhead. You just mentioned that with a traditional agency. And they’re not as agile and adapting quickly to marketing trends as a collective model is because you’re bringing in these subject matter experts. On the pros and cons for the collective model, you know, with the traditional agency, there is the opportunity to have a really strong culture, which is one of the cons with a collective model.
You are not interacting with the same people all the time. But one of the pros are, you have the ability to assemble like a kick ass team that’s tailored to each client, and each project. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, I have met the most incredible people that I could never have afforded under my original model to hire.
But when I get a chance to bring them in as subject matter experts or specialized talent, like music curators, DJs, fashion designers, you know, creative directors of all life, this brings a unique and incredibly effective innovation to our creative. There’s also a pro of the collective model is there’s a sense of ownership. The members of the collective agency often have a stronger sense of ownership and commitment to the organization’s goals.
So they’re not just like a hired gun. Not saying that that’s the case for everybody inside the traditional model, but in this case, they’re more likely to be emotionally invested in the success of the organization. Definitely lower overhead, as you mentioned. And like I said, it’s an incredible opportunity to work with people you only dreamt of getting to work with.
Steffen: Over the last three to four years, has that model kind of picked up in speed? Because obviously, you know, COVID sent people home, so to speak. They weren’t not as mobile and wouldn’t move around as much. Has that helped this collective model that also more people were looking for more independent work and then left their full time employment?
Brook: Yeah, it accelerated this model incredibly. I kept saying to people when we started this in 2018 and we went into COVID what, beginning of ’20, end of 2019. And so, you know, I felt somebody was looking out for me. I felt I really had manifested something that supported what would eventually become the end of a lot of agencies during COVID.
So I definitely have seen a great deal more of this collective model evolving and people like it. People want to stay working remote. People like the idea of being able to pick and choose their projects. I think what I have noticed from the teams that I’m starting to hire full time is what they really lack and want outside of that collective model is they want that idea of a culture.
They want that idea of being part of something that stands for something. That has values that has missions and goals. And so I think that’s what’s really led us to tweak this model into more of a hybrid collective model.
Steffen: Yeah. Earlier you said, it allows you to be flexible, picking up new trends and new solutions, right. So I think it allows you to bring in specialists for solutions that you might not have, as the core part of your service offering, but your client might ask for it, right. And therefore you can test it out. Is there enough business there from your existing clients or from prospects, that you can potentially create a team internally, before you even go out and start spending a lot of money on building a team.
Brook: The way we have been operating is that we build the team in real time. So we try not to, one of my lessons from All Terrain 1.0 was we got top heavy at the end of the agency’s run. And, you know, we learned not to hire forward too much on key people that were more overhead. Headquarter overhead.
So I feel like, what’s great about this model now is that we’ve got a really strong core team of people that are here to manage accounts, manage process flow, reach out and build the teams with me. And we have so many people at the ready, that it’s been a really successful approach for us to be able to have this full time crew that’s ready to assess what the opportunity is, and go build the team in real time.
And that could be to respond to an RFP, or that could be just to build the, the client comes to us and says, this is what we need. And we automatically know we’ve got partners in all walks of life that we can tap to bring into the collective to support those goals.
Steffen: Now, a few minutes ago, you talked about that you actually are a hybrid collective. You’re one step away from the collective model. So talk about that. What is a hybrid collective?
Brook: Well, you know, we originally started the collective with just myself and a finance person. And then we’re building teams. And just after six years of growth and needing to maintain the pace and consistency of the work. We needed to put more full time people in to make sure that we were delivering our recipe on a consistent basis. So the hybrid collective model combines elements of both the traditional agency and the collective model agency.
We still have an incredibly diverse talent pool that we collaborate with, each bringing their own skills and expertise to the table. However, like a more traditional model, we now maintain a centralized coordination and management structure. The full time team acts as the point of contact for clients, they oversee the project. So the clients see the same people over and over again, but they see new members of the team based on the new ask.
Steffen: So I assume this hybrid model is your way of scaling a collective agency.
Brook: Yes, and it’s also a way, the one thing I was so proud of at All Terrain 1.0 was our culture. Our culture was what really differentiated us from a lot of our competitors. And it’s back. We’ve been able to foster a collaborative culture, bring back some of our rituals and strong connectivity, even though we work remote. And it’s been an amazing thing to watch it evolve into something new, based on this new model.
Steffen: Yeah, that’s actually a good question. Culture, right. When you work in a collective way. So with other individuals or other agencies, it’s quite hard sometimes to find partners that have a similar culture as you have, right. And then when you pitch to a client, they want to have kind of the same they’re used to, if you are the leading agency in that collective right. So how did you overcome or how have you overcome that potential challenge in the past?
Brook: Well, first, that I’ve had a steady stable of people that I’ve been dreaming about working with for my entire career. So they’re usually like minded, work ethic, value wise. And so already, they’ve kind of been vetted. Because I’ve been admirers of them, so to speak.
So there’s a little bit of already knowing that there’s a cultural fit when we reach out to them. You know, you just want to work with great people, and I think you know, better than anybody that people show you who they are, you believe them.
And so when we wind up having a really successful collaboration with an independent contractor or a member of the collective, they stay with us. There’s people that are inside the collective that have been working on, let’s say Ferrari for the six years. So it’s the same team, but they also go off and do other projects.
Steffen: Interesting, interesting. Now, what advice do you have for someone that is in a traditional agency model and is like, you know what, I can see the advantages there. And maybe there’s a way for me to transition, at least into a certain way into a more collective model. Maybe using your term in this hybrid collective model. They obviously don’t want to let everyone go tomorrow, right? So how did you go about it, when you basically transitioned from traditional to collective?
Brook: I think you have to take an honest look inside your organization and see what’s working and what’s not. If you’re in a position to go into a collective model, and it makes sense for your organizational structure, I would absolutely do it. Even this hybrid collective model that we’re talking about. Keep your best people, but let go of the overhead, because it’s an opportunity to decrease overhead, raise profitability. You’re able to scale much quicker.
And for a CEO or a founder like me, you’re able to really transition into more of a team lead company and move into that visionary role, and less of an integrator role. So I think it really is taking a good hard look at what’s working inside your company. And looking at the people you know, are in it for the long haul, and understanding how they want to work.
Because I think to your point earlier, COVID changed us forever. And a lot of people don’t want to come into an office every day. A lot of people want the ability to choose the projects they work on and take unlimited time off. And I feel like you get the best out of people when they’re with you under this model.
Steffen: But just because people work from home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in a collective model. Traditional agencies, just to be clear, traditional agencies, they also have people work remote, or in a hybrid situation where they are from home two days a week and three days in the office. It’s really more about how you think about how you structure your team. You said earlier, at some point you were very top heavy, right?
So more overhead people, operations, etc, than actually people that were working on projects. And that can obviously tip the scale of profitability, right? If you were too heavy on top, then that will eat up your profit or make your overhead so much that you have no chance to make any money.
Brook: 100%. And we do have an office and people come in and work at it. And we utilize co-working spaces all over the world where we work to meet up and ideate and create together. But yes, so I wouldn’t say that everybody, we’re totally remote. But it’s definitely a much more flexible structure than the traditional model.
Steffen: Brook, we’ve come to the end of today’s podcast episode. Thank you so much for your thoughts on your traditional agency model versus a collective model. If people want to find out more about you, how can they get in touch?
Brook: Well, they can absolutely check out our website. It’s allterrain.net. I would love for them to reach out. There’s a new business button, and anything you want to know whether it’s not new business, but just really want to understand or talk about the opportunity to transition your company. You can also find me on Instagram at Brook Jay ATC. Brook Jay ATC on Instagram.
I love to be a mentor and a consult for people that are transitioning their companies. It’s been an honor to be able to do that with some of my other colleagues and friends. And so I would welcome conversations about both collaboration and sharing our pros and cons in real time.
Steffen: Perfect. Well as always, we’ll leave that information in the show notes. Thanks everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcast please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at symphonicdigital.com or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again, and see you next time.
Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at symphonicdigital.com.