Small Agencies are a thing of Beauty

13th January 2017

With a new year come new opportunities, sometimes in the form of clients’ team members jumping ship. As a partner of a small creative technology agency, I find it’s a common theme in January.

I’m not suggesting only small agencies are capable of retaining individual relationships as they channel-hop, but it is often in their DNA. When it happens, it’s the sweetest form of business development; an opportunity to cultivate multiple client relationships, through one great one. On top of that, the opportunities often grow in stature, in line with the client individual’s career trajectory.

Small agencies offer big things global outfits often can’t. So why is it that many brands ignore smaller agencies? There are a number of reasons and, speaking from experience as a one-time director at a global agency, now a director at a small independent, they’re largely unfounded, and often a missed opportunity.

Smaller creative agencies are often run by, therefore permeated with, exactly the kind of person you want to be dealing with. Typically, they are headed up by someone who has eschewed a career in agency-land, in order to work for themselves. This can be for a number of reasons; often it’s underpinned by a basic desire to do things right.

These individuals work for themselves but, if they’re good, eventually it becomes too much and their offering becomes an agency. These individuals are not new biz gurus; their opportunities arise through recommendations and referrals. New business is important to them, but it doesn’t define or solely drive them, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So why would some brands never consider a small independent? Often it’s down to a fixed idea of risks that are, at best, myths which can often be expounded with minimal research.

The most obvious concern is whether a small agency is solid, or whether it’s likely to fold halfway through a critical brief. This is a groundless assumption. It would be crass to mention names but, so far this year, 12 days in, I’ve learned of two familiar national agencies folding. I had no idea either was in trouble until I heard that it was game over. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve become aware of how many big agencies there are which I’ve never even heard of. Digital remains a reasonably incestuous arena; a common theme I’ve easily gleaned is that many big agencies consistently barely break even. That’s a scary and distracting fact to permeate a team you in fact employ to be confident and focused.

Because of the assumed importance for agencies to grow exponentially, ultimately being bought for huge sums, it can also be easily assumed that smaller agencies are failing that objective. But again, these agencies are often headed up by individuals whose primary concern is to do things a certain way by their own rules and beliefs. It’s not hard to believe that some of these agencies aren’t driven by an end goal to sell up. That is a good thing for potential clients.

We have always worked with at least 3 global brands at a time, no name dropping required. All of these brands have benefitted from the advantages of working with a smaller agency. I will come back to those benefits, but first, the opportunity doesn’t always have a chance to sail. I’ve worked with a particular global brand for nearly 20 years; first at a global agency, then as a freelancer, and latterly through Spicerack supporting 2 big agencies to deliver what they weren’t always able to. So, when a team member of one of those agencies left to go client-side for this brand, and almost immediately directed them to Spicerack, the initial signs couldn’t have been rosier. The referral was so strong, it looked as though the first brief would drop before I’d even had a chance to meet and greet. And then, very suddenly, procurement axed the opportunity. Our size, in headcount and billings, fell short of their policy’s minimum requirements – by almost 3 times.

And that was the end of that; and not just for now – but forever. Because, believe it or not, I have no intention of growing Spicerack to their criterion of a viable headcount.

Is theirs a wise policy? Well, one of their agencies is one I’ve just mentioned having folded this year, seemingly out of nowhere, unable even to pay their redundant staff respectfully. I know of many small agencies, run by friends, who are extremely solid – largely because they’re small, lean and grounded, therefore manageable.

What are the other benefits of working with a small agency, beyond the motivations of their leaders? For a canny brand, there are many. If you don’t believe me, you can check out Spicerack’s client list; ask me for a contact, and I will provide one.

But first, please consider the following:

You want to work with the same person. In my experience, smaller agencies have a healthier retention of staff, often because client-facing roles tend to be more fulfilling due to their access to business-critical responsibilities. There’s also often more opportunity to flourish. Build a vital relationship with an account handler at a big agency, and it’s reasonable to suspect they’ll leave the company within a few years.

You want accessibility. With small agencies you can phone an individual, like you might phone a friend. With bigger agencies, that can be trickier. What’s more, accessibility comes in many guises. How many times is the agency so big, they make you seem small – resulting in a role-reversal of feeling like they’re in charge?

You want good value. With large agencies come large overheads, a greater pressure to charge you more, and to keep charging you more with calculated stealth. This often stems from the remit of a network within which that large agency sits. Small agencies are permeated with the founder’s own measurement of success; often simply great work, great relationships, and peace of mind.

Many of these larger agencies are beyond even the distraction of selling up. They’ve already sold, and are now pressured by ‘the Group’ to focus primarily on the bottom line. What’s more, the founder’s values are now sidelined by the enormous criteria of their own exit strategy; either that, or they’ve already left. They rarely stay because, guess what: they don’t want to be the employee of a big agency.

As for the network, the agencies within are at least encouraged, and more usually bound, to work with the other agencies within their group. No agency can always deliver everything to the best of a client’s requirements. Why would you work with an agency only allowed to pool from their club? An independent can partner with anyone. I was in a situation co-running Spicerack where we took on a high-end development project from a well-known agency because their network’s specialist didn’t have specific skills. The specialist ended up going through a convoluted process of rejecting the work due to lack of resource, simply in order for us to qualify to get involved. Otherwise they would have been forced to take on the project with inadequate skills.

So next time your brand needs to engage a new agency, you might ask yourself what puts you off working with a small independent. Are you content to refer to a checklist of generic risks, committing yourself to a draining exercise, contractually likely to be far more complex to extract yourself from than with a smaller agency; a smaller agency who haven’t been shaped by a timeline of mutually costly relationship breakdowns?

Thankfully, there are a few easy considerations to make before discounting that interesting smaller outfit:

You can easily get a feel for the company at source; the boss is easy to get hold of. Phone the office – they probably sit within a few metres of the main phone.

Ask to speak to one of their clients. If they have a client that makes you look small, and they’ve worked with them for more than a year, ask to speak to them. I know our clients will give you the time; that’s what good relationships are about.

Check the agency out on Companies House. If they’ve got 10 staff and made a 10% profit last year, they’re probably a safer bet than the agency with 100 staff who only broke even.

Check out the boss on LinkedIn. What’s their background? Have they worked for big agencies? If so, they know the best of both worlds. Did they start the company – do they own it? If so, they probably love it almost as much as their children.

Finally, don’t be restrained by generic formulae. Nothing big ever grew out of playing by the rule book. Small can be beautiful, and rules are meant for re-writing.