In Austin, Preacher Reimagines What a Small Agency Can Be

Posted inDesigner Profiles

The term “agency” can be a loaded one. Many negative connotations swirl around agency life, fueled by horror stories about overworked employees and domineering CEOs, grind culture, and capitulation to the capitalist machine. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I’ve profiled a handful of agencies here at PRINT that are actively combating this agency stereotype, including Six Cinquième in Montreal and Rev Pop in Milwaukee. Another refreshing take came to my attention: an agency in Austin, Texas, that wears the additional mantel of creative community facilitator—introducing Preacher.

Founded by partners Rob Baird (Chief Creative Officer), Seth Gaffney (Chief Strategy Officer), and Krystle Loyland (Chief Executive Officer) in 2014, Preacher emerged around the pillar of “soul”—making more soulful decisions, finding more soul in their work. AdAge named Preacher the Small Agency of the Year in 2019, 2020, and 2022, and maintaining this boutique agency’s size and energy is central to the partners’ mission. 

At the end of last year, I had the opportunity to chat with Preacher CCO Rob Baird. We had a lively conversation about Austin’s creative exuberance, hybrid office spaces, and what growth looks like for a small agency.

(Interview edited for clarity and length.)

How has being based in Austin affected Preacher’s ethos and work?

There are three founding partners of Preacher, and we always say that Austin’s the fourth partner— it was somewhat intentional. Two of us are from Texas, me being one of them.

We all met working at Mother in New York. I think people often start agencies because they’re frustrated or there’s some sort of gap they see, but honestly, we were really happy. We were working on global brands and loved our life in New York, but the idea came through some projects happening in Austin. We kept watching the change and the growth, and we started to feel like, Man, if we were to do anything different, it would just be having our own place to get to make all the calls and decisions. Even if we made the wrong decisions, at least they would be our decisions. 

So we dreamed and schemed for a year and a half. The more we thought about it, the more we felt like Austin was the move. It’s always been kind of mine and Krystle’s spiritual home, and now Seth also loves it as well. We started Preacher in 2014 when life in New York began to feel like we were in a little bit of a bubble; it’s kind of its own thing in New York. And the more we spent time coming to Austin, we were like, Wow, there’s a genuine, generous kind of creator-maker-DIY culture here. It’s still going on despite all the changes in the tech industry; Austin still has this vibe of generosity and camaraderie, like, Let’s make amazing shit together. 

It turned out to be the best decision because it shaped the work and the agency’s makeup. Also, the location influenced how we operate with our clients; this is a big-time hospitality town with food and drink, and we’ve adopted that. The entire downstairs of our office is more like a cafe-store-art-gallery-hotel than an office. Being in Austin has changed our approach to everything.

What is it like operating as a “small” agency? There are a lot of connotations around big agency culture and the grind that comes with it. How is Preacher doing things differently? 

We’re a good size; we can work on global clients, big projects, or smaller brands within huge corporations. But I think we’re also pretty nimble, and our size lets us still design album covers, make music videos, and do stuff that is harder to do if you’re a giant. It’s a nice sweet spot. We never had a number dream, but I think the team has been around 65 or 70 for a few years now, and it feels good.

Copies of Preacher’s zine, “The Good Word.”

I’ve always been interested in what “growth” means for an agency like yours. Because in agency land, bigger is by no means better, and getting larger shouldn’t necessarily be the goal. Preacher has found other and more interesting ways to keep growing outside of size. 

That’s how we’ve been thinking about growth, actually. We started doing this free art and literary zine called “The Good Word,” we built a recording studio in our new office just because we were working on so much music packaging. You don’t make much money doing it, but it’s a lot of soul and pride for the designers and the crew that works on them. 

In the same way, our art gallery gives 70% to the artists very intentionally. The gallery doesn’t make much money; its purpose is to let the artists make more and, hopefully, give back to the communityThe recording studio has the same model. In Austin, musicians struggle for the money and the space to get their music going, so we built one as part of our new office. Hopefully, in 2024, we’ll have our first artist record their album there. In the short term, it’s enabled us to do more projects with a music angle, which has been cool. 

So for us, that’s the more exciting growth. We make a lot of merch for the Preacher brand, just for ourselves, but now, fashion companies are approaching us for collaborations. So, that’s the growth: intentionally pushing into things and seeing if some of it sticks. 

Because there’s such a massive creative community here, it’s been cool to play a little bit of a connector role for ourselves and others.

How does it feel to be the epicenter and facilitator of all of this creative energy?

We used to laugh at the fact that, for a while, people in Austin just thought we were an art gallery; they didn’t realize what we do. 

Because there’s such a massive creative community here, it’s been cool to play a little bit of a connector role for ourselves and others. We showcase illustrators, designers, and artists in “The Good Word.” Then, when we have our huge South By [SXSW] blowout party, people from Portland, London, San Francisco, and wherever are here take a copy, and suddenly, those creatives are getting hired to work on Nike jobs. Or a photographer friend who showed in the gallery gets an A-list photo rep. Or a few people come together in the space, and the opportunity presents for an amazing local photographer to do a photoshoot. It’s been really fun to see that kind of energy. We’re not doing it with any hope that it comes back to us, other than it feels fun to be in the middle of all that. We thrive off of it. 

We’re trying to encourage people not to feel like they have to make such a hard line between their work stuff and their side hustle…. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate a little bit.

A snapshot from one of Preacher’s Gallery parties.

By definition, agencies inherently bring together a wealth of creative people, so it’s great to see you all leaning into that with these offerings. How does that mentality extend to your employees?

We’re trying to encourage people not to feel like they have to make such a hard line between their work stuff and their side hustle— This is my work, and this is my creative passion. Bring your creative passion into your work! If you’re a fantastic photographer but your role is strategist, bring photography into your strategy work to tell the stories. Or, if, in addition to being a killer copywriter, you’re really into short-form fiction, let’s create a literary festival or a writing symposium, or let’s put together a compendium like McSweeney’s

There’s a lot you can do if you can get people excited. Don’t be afraid to cross-pollinate a little bit. We’ve tried to set the space up where people can use it to make the most of their talent and time as long as they’re here.

Having a physical office space is central to Preacher, not only for how you tackle your client work but also for hosting events and being this creative hub. How have you gone about preserving that in the context of the work-from-home culture boom we’ve seen develop in the COVID era? 

We like the flexibility of the combo. So we’re back in the office on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and then on Monday and Friday, we all work from home. The three partners believe that, overall, we work better together in person. There’s a more creative, collaborative thing happening.

Of course, we all proved how much we could get done during COVID, but if I’m being honest, I don’t enjoy the work-from-home days better. I like having that flexibility, and it’s great for our staff, but some of those work-from-home days end up being the ones where I’m just grinding from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting for 10 hours straight.

In the office, it feels alive! It’s outside, it’s inside, it’s in groups. Sometimes, things that take a half hour on Zoom can be done in nine minutes if you drop by somebody’s desk. You get back to printing things out and marking them up or watching a cut together— it’s so much more of a tactile, alive, creative experience.

Images courtesy of Preacher.