Big Agencies Could Learn a Thing or Two From Us

Small Can Be Good for Creativity

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Eric Webber Eric Webber
I'm not really the reflective type, save for the occasional daydreaming about some past "what-might-have-beens," like the day years ago when I found myself alone with Elle McPherson in an elevator at Nordstrom. (She was checking me out, but I chose to play it cool by becoming keenly interested in my shoes.)

Anyway, it's been just over six months since I left the mega-ad world to start a non-mega PR agency (that is partnered with a medium-sized ad agency) and lately I've allowed myself some time to look back and think about what my new circumstances are like compared with what I thought they'd be like.

More than that, I've had a crash course in some of the differences in the way big agencies think and act compared to their more diminutive brethren.

Conventional wisdom is that small agencies need to adopt the practices of big agencies if they want to grow and attract larger clients. Six months ago I wouldn't have argued with that. Now, though, I'm coming to believe that just the opposite is true, at least in some areas -- by adopting some typical small-agency practices, big agencies would be better.

My blogging colleague, Bart Cleveland, recently wrote a smart piece about why he loves working at a small agency. I agree with everything he said and don't want to be repetitive, so I'll try to come at it from a different angle. I'm going to devote my space over the next few weeks for a little compare-and-contrast exercise.

Making Do
When I used to need help I could pick up the phone and call any one of 800 people, all very good at what they did, to get on the case. Not any more.

I can't say I don't sometimes miss it, but the challenge of doing more with less can be creatively liberating and immensely satisfying. You're forced to be more nimble, adaptable and resourceful. I think that's ultimately good for agency, client and individual.

Smaller agencies are innovative usually because they want to be, but also often because they have to be. The problems our clients ask us to help solve are, for them, as important as those faced by a Proctor & Gamble or Coca-Cola. They just don't have the deep pockets. And spending a giant wad of cash on a flashy campaign isn't usually the answer for them anyway.

On the other and, I think big agencies are guilty of occasional creative laziness by throwing money at problems just because it's there to throw.

It's a Family Affair
For small agencies, the greatest fringe benefit of this leaner mentality is that it promotes (forces even) genuine collaboration.

Big agencies are siloed and compartmentalized. There's really no way to avoid it.

Small agencies have their specialists too, but at a small agency it's easy, and absolutely necessary for people to impact a project in ways that go beyond their "department."

Plenty of big agencies claim they've broken down their walls, and I believe some have really tried. But theirs is still a linear process. Work starts at Point A and progresses towards Point B, being handed off from one discipline to the other along the way, with a limited amount of crossover. Having everyone in a meeting at the beginning of a project and then sending them their separate ways to work on only their piece isn't really collaboration.

Let me illustrate. Can you imagine, say, a media buyer dropping in on a meeting of copywriters and art directors to offer thoughts on a print campaign? Eyes would be rolling so fast they'd look like old-school slot machines.

But that sort of thing happens often in a small agency. That's not to say there isn't a certain amount of respect for traditional approaches, but allowing diverse perspectives throughout the process sharpens the work and adds dimensions that might fall through the cracks in the assembly-line method.

I think it's one of the main reasons you see such innovative work coming from small agencies, and why big clients are more open to adding those agencies to their rosters. The bigs will need to adjust or risk a continued erosion of their clout with clients.

Next time, "What Really Matters."

And Elle, if you're reading this (and who says she isn't?), I'm sorry, but I guess it just wasn't meant to be. Chin up.
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