The Upside of Down

Small and Nimble Shops Can Shine in Tough Times

By Published on .

John Barker John Barker
As the Consumer Confidence Index hits an all-time low of 38, will large advertisers finally look en masse to smaller agencies for innovation and value? Is this mess we're in the catalyst of the next sea change? Quite possibly, yes. And if small agencies have what it takes, the downturn could have a serious upside.

With everyone from Maurice Levy to Mayor Bloomberg predicting a rough road ahead for Mad Ave, some in our industry are quietly and guiltily feeling a little tinge of excitement. Because we know that crises of this magnitude can change the game in a hurry.

The history of advertising, like the history of culture and the world in general, can be viewed as a series of innovations and inversions. Counterculture becomes culture. Lithe becomes lethargic. Hot becomes cold. Small becomes big, and so on.

Remember when Crispin was a little-known regional hotshop? Remember that oddly named upstart called Google? Remember the billion-dollar behemoths like D'Arcy and the dual-brained genius of shops like Ammirati & Puris, Scali McCabe Sloves and Wells Rich Greene? It was not that long ago. Just a single decade plus or minus a few years for fortunes to be made or lost, regimes to be built or toppled, and history to be written anew.

To be utterly clear, this is not to say that small-agency entrepreneurs are sadists wallowing in other people's pain, nor that we are impervious to larger forces in the economy. Certainly, there will be fewer of us by the end of 2009. But passing opportunity by does nothing to ease anyone's pain, and there is a sort of Darwinian inevitability to the suffering of one being the gain of another.

So with this in mind, what can small agencies do to gain their rightful advantage as the world collapses around us?
  1. Get on the radar. No client has ever hired an agency they've never heard of. Practice what you preach and market the hell out of yourselves in a hurry. Yes, that means spend money like there's no tomorrow. Because if you don't, there won't be.

  2. Stress innovation. (Assuming you are indeed innovative.) Every sizeable client knows they can finagle concessions from their existing agency, no matter what the size. So you had better come up with something other than lower prices.

  3. Show value. Most clients know that cutting the fees of a large publicly traded agency is going to boomerang fairly quickly, so there's little value there. Yes, money is saved but those companies suffer the same profit pressure as clients do, and it's a lose-lose proposition. Small agencies have the built-in advantage of greater speed and efficiency. That plus lower overhead and no stockholder pressure means we can price more reasonably and still put our best talent forward on building clients' brands.

  4. Focus on "leapfrog strategies." As most advertisers in a category pull back on spending, there are a few who understand that this is their moment. And they will be looking for the new thinking and calculated risks that can vault them to No. 1 while everyone else is sleeping. I once heard a parable of a little-known dairy in England that continued to advertise throughout World War II, despite butter being contraband. When the war was over, guess who was No. 1?

  5. Hire new talent. In an economy like this, you could build one of the best agencies in the world from the talent loose on the street. One man's loss is another man's gain, and if you have the cash reserves, it is a very good time to add that top account person, that amazing digital CD, or that kick-ass art director. We did.

  6. Be ready to grow. Sounds silly, but there are plenty of small agencies that want to grow but have never planned to do so. Have you established best practices? Are your operations scalable and sound? Do you have space? Do you have the credit you need and the banking relationships in place? In other words, don't get invited to the dance and not have the dress.
Now, none of these solutions guarantees growth any more than the federal bailout guarantees stability. But taking these steps will at least position your shop for optimal growth as opportunities shed loose from midtown and trickle down Broadway. And even if you don't grow at all, you'll still be better known, better prepared and better staffed for the upswing to come in 2010. Here's to bad times. May they be good for all.
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