Rachel Barek

Rachel's latest interview with ANA Magazine

Fixing the Ad Agency Model

This article first appeared on the ANA Website

Rachel Barek, CEO and co-founder of creative agency Said Differently, says the existing system is broken — and she knows just how to fix it

By Jacqueline Lisk June 7, 2024



The times are a-changin', but are advertising agencies? Not fast enough, says Rachel Barek, CEO and co-founder of Said Differently, a creative agency that launched right before the pandemic in early 2020 and has thrived in the past several years deploying a remote work model.


"During the pandemic, we saw a lot of folks who are caregivers — whether they're caring for an elderly person or a young kid — leave the legacy agency model. They couldn't do the butts-in-seats, 40-, 50-, 60-hour a week jobs," Barek says. "We offer a lot of part-time opportunities to folks because not all client projects are full-time. There's a real advantage to capturing that talent."


The model has already provided significant returns. Said Differently — whose clients include Brightspeed, Neiman Marcus, and UScellular — was recognized as one of Adweek's Fastest Growing Agencies in 2023, ranking first among women-led agencies, second among minority-led agencies, and third overall in the nation. In April 2024, the agency announced the hiring of its first-ever CMO, Josh Combs, to help take the firm to the next level.


Barek stresses that the agency meets the needs of the modern marketer in ways traditional firms do not by assembling bespoke teams of freelancers for each project and offering a wide breadth of services, ranging from strategy to implementation to development and measurement. She shares her thoughts on what distinguishes her agency from the pack and how to fix what ails the ad-agency field.


Q. Said Differently was born out of frustration with ad agencies. What were you frustrated about?


[Said Differently co-founder and president] Brian Skahan and I had both become managing directors [at AKQA]. It wasn't frustration so much as a realization that the industry could be doing so much more to create better, more creative work for clients and also empower creative professionals to do great work.


As we thought about it more, we realized agencies hadn't updated their operational model since the 1950s when they served clients that were just doing TV, print, and radio. Companies have innovated in terms of the types of work that they do. But no agency was purpose-built from the ground up for all the needs of a modern CMO. So that's exactly what we did. We started from a blank sheet of paper and built exactly the firm we knew our clients wanted, but that didn't yet exist; one that was endlessly flexible, scalable, and creative.


Q. What do you make of the consolidation throughout the ad agency business?


It's wild, the amount of market share and dollars that these holding companies lost on those roll-ups. They call it strategic, but if you're looking at the bottom line, they're losing money. They are not allocating talent in a way that optimizes talent happiness. Each office is competing with one another, only working on projects that come in through their office. That's why you are seeing this consolidation. That model is antiquated and broken. The good news is it's totally fixable, and it's exciting for us to fix it in a way that makes more financial sense and also treats people better.


Q. What is the unconventional approach your agency takes?


We are purpose-built on two design principles: what is the agency we would want to work with if we were talent, and what is the agency we

would want to hire if we were clients? Our resulting model is different. I haven't seen it replicated anywhere. We can have specialized talent at scale by having strategic leaders — called principals — who make sure knowledge management transfers from project to project. Then we cast exactly the right talent for the work from our network of more than 3,500 creatives. That alone is a differentiation. At an agency, you don't get to choose what you work on. Here, everyone opts in.


All of our principals and project management leadership are full-time, because when you bring talent in and out of work, you have to have consistent methodology. That's how we put our stamp of excellence on everything. It's the difference between clients hiring their own freelancers and hiring us.


Q. Could you provide an example?


A good example is the agency's work for Brightspeed, an internet ISP that's bringing fiber to parts of America that haven't traditionally had access to it. We started off by building their tone of voice so they can have consistency in marketing. We built their design system as well. We expanded our relationship to become their AOR (agency of record), which is an antiquated term, but, essentially, they are coming to us for everything from revamping their call centers to CRM [customer relationship management] and loyalty. We just launched their first broadcast campaign about a reformed internet troll named Ray. Brightspeed is selling something that's fairly ethereal, so we gave the brand a character so people can understand what it stands for.


Q. What are the challenges (and advantages) of running a remote agency?


The biggest challenges that I see are with the hybrid model. Because we were purpose-built as a distributed company, everybody's on equal footing behind the screen. We had to figure out how to work through time zones and turn that challenge into a competitive advantage, where we're able to

work around the clock. We make sure knowledge management roles work in time zones that make sense for the clients, and that talent isn't working off hours. That will burn people out.


We benefit from being purpose-built to be remote before the pandemic, which is a huge advantage. We weren't a legacy company trying to adapt. My visual metaphor for this is you're a cruise ship, and all of a sudden you realize that there are airplanes out there and you're like, 'Man, how do we turn this cruise ship into a plane?' You start thinking about how to give a cruise ship wings. We are purposely building this light, efficient airplane because we know that flying is the future.


Q. How can agencies and marketers stay viable

amid rapid changes in demographics, identity, and



Listen to your talent. When you spend time with gen Z, you see their relationship to work is so unbelievably different than even mine as a gen Xer. Gen Zers are thinking about their own personal brand. Their relationship to work is more transactional, as I've written about. They're not in it for 25 years and a gold watch at their retirement party. If we understand their motivations and have a capitalist, quid pro quo mindset, we'll get their best work, and we will realize they want to work remotely.


When it comes to recruitment, companies pulling people back into the office are at a huge disadvantage. They are unmotivating folks, plus they have to hire folks in a certain geographic region, so they have a smaller pool of talent to pull from. A lot of folks still have a North America-centric

way of looking at work. They need to realize that a lot of the best creative talent has gone freelance, especially in Europe where health insurance isn't a constraint the way it is here.


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