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So... How Do Virtual Creative Agencies Work?
by Stephanie Orma

For an industry built around forward-thinking ideas and a universe of inventive minds, you’d think someone would’ve reimagined the traditional creative firm long ago. Sure, offices have gotten facelifts, spaces are more open and cubicle walls have been lowered. But for the most part, brick-and-mortar design and advertising workplaces have barely evolved. Of course, if it ain’t broke… you know the drill. But something’s obviously not jiving. There’s a growing unrest among experienced creatives disillusioned with conventional agency methods, so much so that the desire to create meaningful work in more cost-efficient, flexible and personally satisfying environments is pushing talented folks to think outside the walls—literally.

The results: creative collectives, networked models, distributed teams—however you label them, virtual creative agencies are popping up in coffee shops, co-working spaces and homes across the country. And while the notion isn’t entirely new, ditching the cool studio space in exchange for a business run from wherever there’s Wi-Fi, with an entirely remote employee and client base, is becoming a heck of a lot more viable thanks to ever-emerging technologies.

But how exactly does the business-sans-building model work? For answers, we tapped on the (non-existent) doors of the country’s leading virtual creative agencies for tips on making this unlikely venture succeed.

When Texas-based partners Trish McCabe Rawls, creative director, and Tracy Marlowe, account services director, launched their virtual marketing and advertising agency Creative Noggin in 2008, they built their team with a laser focus on seasoned creatives. “A lot of the veteran talent is freelance—they hit a ceiling at agencies and move on,” says Marlowe. “So what we did, and still do, is utilize all this experience by building specialized teams for our clients’ exact needs. Not only do our clients get access to incredible talent, we can ebb and flow with our business. One month, we might work with 10 contractors, another month 25.” Creative Noggin now consists of 5 full-time staff and 40 freelancers nationwide.

“That’s one of the big strengths of the virtual agency—talent comes on board for specific jobs, as opposed to traditional agencies, where the staff might not have the experience, but you have to use them anyway,” says Los Angeles-based Jacob Reed, principal and creative director of Ogmog, a virtual design firm that works with clients like NBC, and Funny or Die. “I’ve found I get the best work from creatives when they can choose the projects that excite them, which in turn produces great results for our clients. But if someone can’t self-manage, they’re just a weak link.”

Also critical to success is having an extensive talent list that you can tap at a moment’s notice, notes Barbara Gorder, president of virtual advertising agency Undisclosed Location. Her global collective is comprised of friends and colleagues she met at established shops like Leo Burnett, where she previously headed creative as senior vice president. “You need to be connected to talent everywhere to solve your clients’ problems,” she says. Orma
Stephanie Orma ( is a San Francisco–based writer, illustrator and cartoonist. When she’s not writing copy for top creative firms or penning articles for publications like HOW, Entrepreneur and Travel + Leisure, she’s creating humorous editorial illustrations for her greeting card and art line.