Last year I published an article fuelled by murmurs, inklings and personal experience: Small Agencies are a Thing of Beauty. It elicited a greater response than I expected, across different disciplines, and spawned some healthy debates with colleagues.
As follows are some of the impressions I was left with by brand managers, account handlers, creatives and directors, as well as client-side.
It seems that some agency giants have a penchant for creating new ways of working, maybe fronted by a bold acronym. If your agency is pitching to you a new way of working quickly, efficiently and transparently, you may be right to question why this wasn’t on offer from the start.
Brands often work with multiple smaller agencies, with the strength of relationships often a key factor. In my experience, smaller agencies appear to have strong staff retention. Your agency should feel like an extension of your brand. It’s easier to embrace a multi-faceted relationship if you sense your key contact is in it for the long haul.
A client told me there’s a sense with small agencies and freelancers they employ that they really value the projects. The impression I was left with is that no matter how prestigious the client, low-value projects are likely to be low priority to a large agency. Conversely, it’s often the small project that requires the most urgency.
Where do big agencies send these low-value projects? If permitted by the group (not necessarily the client), many will outsource them to small agencies. As a result, the client can end up short-changed; denied access to the brains, whilst presumably paying the middle-man’s rates.
I believe clients are more likely to feel part of a project when working with smaller agencies; they’re naturally more accessible. If you need to talk about a specific aspect of the project, everyone’s often working in the same room within reach of the same phone. With a larger agency, you may feel you only have one point of contact. You might have met directors and creatives at the pitch but, from then on, they’re only silently cc’d to emails. With smaller agencies, you can expect a dialogue with the team members actually producing your project.
It seems size can really hamper efficiency. I regularly hear of agencies estimating timeframes that are inflexible and painfully slow. Smaller agencies tend to be reactive and adaptable to urgent briefs, and more agile in delivery.
Big agencies are often themselves fragments of colossal groups. A perceived benefit of employing them is the range of talent they can call upon from the rest of the group. In fact they’re nearly always strictly tied to using the other agencies within the group: good for the group. Only if the service is absolutely unavailable within that group, may the agency outsource. Whereas with a client’s blessing, small agencies can collaborate with any other agencies or freelancers. This unfetters the talent pool: good for the client.
I don’t deny that this is the viewpoint of a small agency. I’m also aware that big agencies start off as small agencies. I know of brands who enjoy positive relationships with their high profile agencies. However there are brands who flatly won’t work with small agencies on any kind of project. I believe that stifles innovation and growth, and that’s something that should concern us all.
Dave Harrison: Creative Partner | Spicerack