What Happens When You're No Longer a Small Agency?

How to Stop Growth From Becoming an Issue

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A couple of years ago, I wrote a post called "The Beauty of Being Small." It addressed some of the issues we were facing as Biggs Gilmore grew from 60 people to about 90. Two years later, our head count sits at about 150, and it seems like a good time to catch my breath and revisit a few fundamental questions on the topics of growth and agency size.

As an all-digital shop, opportunities to pitch business are everywhere, but we've always been wary of growing too quickly. Our position is that we only want to add staff when we find talent worth investing in. Another part of our philosophy is that we'd rather have deep relationships with a small number of great clients than work with a large number of average clients. And luckily, we've grown pretty much the way we set out to -- slowly but steadily adding business from existing relationships. In fact, although we've experienced more than 30% growth each of the past two years, we added only one new company to our roster (for a total of four). That has allowed us to stay very selective when it comes to the people we hire.

Growth has been good to us. We've expanded our Chicago office space twice. We made investments to build up critical functions like user experience design, analytics and search marketing. Last year, we were named an Ad Age Small Agency of the Year for our size category. All of these things have helped us land additional business and have become selling points as we seek to recruit talent from larger agencies to give us much-needed bench strength.

But it's not all sunshine and roses. One of the main points of my blog post from a couple of years back was that as agencies get bigger, communication tends to break down among employees, and the culture that once made an agency special often begins to erode. History tells us this tends to happen to companies once they hit the magic number of around 150 employees. (Google "Dunbar's number.") We're well aware of this phenomenon, so here are a few of the hard questions we're asking ourselves as we continue to grow.

How do we keep our most senior staff involved on our accounts in a meaningful way? This was easy to do at 60 people. Much trickier given our size today. But there's no doubt that client attention from principals and senior people is a key part of what's made us successful. So staying close to the work has to be part of the equation.

As our departments get larger, how do we keep the organization relatively flat? We could just add more layers, but that 's not really our style. We prefer the benefits of a thin management structure. We don't need 10 levels of approval to get work out the door. With a few exceptions, our structure has remained mostly the same as when we were half our current size. Most employees still report to a member of the management team, which allows everyone to stay close to what's going on day-to-day and keeps important information flowing freely throughout the company

How do we keep H.R. from going postal? Hiring more than 50 people over the past two years has meant interviewing hundreds of candidates. On top of an already heavy workload, that 's a big strain on our staff. But there's no shortcut -- we're pretty picky, and if you want good people, you have to do a lot of weeding out. It sometimes takes months to fill positions, but luckily our people are pretty awesome about being patient so we can find the right candidate, not just the convenient one.

Does it still feel like the same agency? Personal reality-check time. Whenever we have an all-agency meeting these days, there are at least a couple of people whose names I don't know. That feels weird. Also, I don't see our developers nearly as often anymore, because we grew to the point that they needed their own floor. That feels weird, too. And on any given day, I may not even know what some of the creative teams are working on. That feels really weird.

Since 2003 our headcount has tripled. But -- at least to me -- the culture doesn't feel fundamentally different. People and processes may have changed, but thankfully (I'm keeping my fingers crossed) our culture seems to endure. Maybe that 's because once people join us, they tend to stick around. There's a lot of new blood walking the halls, but there are also a ton of veterans who help set the tone for who we are and what we stand for. Maybe it's also because we've kept our aims for the agency fairly simple. We're not trying to take over the world. We just want to do great work with people we like, and have fun doing it. I'd like to think our growth and success are a natural result of that .

How can we keep that "small" feeling even if we're not small? We won't be repeating as a Small Agency of the Year in 2011. Ad Age 's "definition" of a small agency is 150 or fewer employees. As we continue to fill open positions, we've become ineligible. (One more thing that feels very weird.) So if we're not a small agency anymore, what are we?

Well, I guess we're a growing agency that still feels small. In spite of our size, it often feels like we're the underdogs, fighting above our weight class. And I think most of us like it that way. We know we're walking a kind of tightrope -- striving to compete with much larger agencies while we continue to operate with the nimbleness and scrappiness we embraced when we were 60 people. It's a delicate balancing act. But it's still fun. So when does being big become a burden? I don't have a more precise answer than "Not yet."

Andy Gould is senior VP-executive creative director of Biggs Gilmore, Kalamazoo, Mich., which was named 2010 Ad Age Small Agency of the Year (76-150 employees). Follow Andy on Twitter: @AndyGould. Andy also contributes to Biggs Gilmore's blog, SlackerCEO
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