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Why a Clear Brand Is So Important to Small Agencies

Striving for Perfection Starts at Your Own Shop

By Published on . 6

Meredith Vaughan
Meredith Vaughan
There are some great benefits to being a small agency. You might share my philosophy that staying small provides the opportunity for a variety of extraordinary freedoms the bigger shops don't have, and therefore "staying small" is something worth fighting for. But being small also has its own set of unique challenges.

For example, every employee has a lot more power when it comes to delivering -- or not delivering -- on your brand promise. Our sheer numbers -- employees, client connections, vendor interactions, etc. -- are likely on a smaller scale than at a bigger shop. We don't work in nearly the same volume, and when the canvas is smaller, the imperfections are more obvious. I equate it to this: It's more apparent that a piece to the puzzle is missing when there are 75 pieces than when there are 1,000, correct? My point is that you're only as strong as your weakest link. And if your chain is on the shorter end -- as is the case with small agencies -- each link then becomes that much more important.

Because small agencies can't always compete with the big ones on things like breadth and depth of services, resources and quantity of staff, we need to stand out in different ways. The most important "different way" is to have a clearly defined brand that's consistent, palpable, unique, energizing and memorable. When you're bigger, there are more distractions to bridge and deflect from inconsistencies or inadequacies in the brand. But when you're smaller, the sum of all parts is easier to grasp, and therefore those same flaws are more noticeable. Small agencies need to clearly distinguish who they are and then weave that into all they do -- from what their letterhead looks like to the tone of their e-mails, the form and function of their Web site to the way in which visitors are greeted at the front door.

So where do you start in getting your small agency's brand on track? First off, I'd begin by laying the groundwork for why this is important, specifically with your internal audience: employees. They likely recognize that bigger shops have size working to their advantage, but could probably use some insight into why smaller shops need to be more systematic and precise in the delivery of their brand. Next, shift to taking action. Here are a few a steps that will provide a framework for the process:

Define a core brand for your small agency and make it something ownable and differentiated. This won't (and shouldn't) happen overnight. Take some time to soul search, research, review and refine. Then step away from it for a while before landing on something. This is a huge step -- and likely the most difficult -- so take it seriously and approach it as strategically as you would for any one of your clients.

Review every single internal and external touch point for your agency -- and don't overlook even the most mundane details. Do those fake roses at the front desk really represent your brand, or should they be live orchids? A bonsai tree? No flora at all? Do your internal processes -- like employee-review protocols and meeting formats -- match your brand persona? How about marketing plan and reporting formats? E-mail signatures? The way the phones are answered? Letterhead? Take a good hard look at everything from client deliverables to vendor interaction and ensure that your brand is represented in all of it.

Create a feedback loop and make it actionable. Give both insiders and outsiders a medium to illuminate disconnects with your brand that you might not see. For example, we did this internally by establishing employee task forces on everything from our agency's industry engagement to talent recruitment, and externally with clients and friends of the agency by doing consistent online surveys about our performance, establishing an interactive blog and an ongoing e-mail program. And establish procedures for reviewing your losses as well as your wins so you can continually refine your brand and how it's lived out. Constantly check in to see how your brand is organically evolving -- is it for the better or worse? Then do something with the findings. Don't let what can be invaluable input sit idly by on the corner of your desk. Make big or small changes and make them swiftly and publicly to demonstrate your commitment to fulfilling your mission.

Be willing to live and die by the sword. If you can afford to do it (and in my opinion, you can't afford not to), make sure your clients and the work you produce for them align with your brand intentions. If you are a cutting-edge digital shop committed to deploying the latest and greatest technologies, then perhaps you don't take the car dealer down the street who simply wants a production house to develop a TV ad touting its weekend blowout sale. This sacrifice in the name of the brand is a tough one to swallow, but one we feel speaks volumes and will pay off in the long run.

These steps are things that larger agencies don't necessarily have to spend time and energy on. And it may not seem fair that they don't. But while we're happily small, it'll remain a priority for me and my agency as I'm confident it's been what's fed our growth spurt over the past few years and what will remain a major factor in what helps us thrive in years to come.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Meredith Vaughan is president of Vladimir Jones, Colorado Springs, Colo.
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