Why Starting at a Small Agency Is Better for Your Career

Attentive Mentors and More-Varied Experience Among Benefits

By Published on .

Bart Cleveland
Bart Cleveland
Starting an ad career successfully is not about big or small, but who is there.

Recently, my fellow small agency contributor, Anthony del Monte, posted a piece on how small agencies are the best incubators for those entering our industry. I agree with this assessment. This conclusion made me think about what really ensures success for someone starting out.

I polled a few of our industry's successful creatives who started at both big and small agencies and they related similar opinions about the advantages of starting at small or large agencies. Their answers led to another question: Is it the agency or is it having mentor that matters most?

My panel of experts included: David Baldwin, Sally Hogshead, Paul Kiester, Kevin Lynch, David Oakley, Jonathan Schoenberg and Paul Crawford.

David Baldwin perhaps put it most succinctly when he said, "I don't think size has anything to do with it. It's completely about the person managing any talent. You either mentor/develop people or you don't."

Sally Hogshead echoed those sentiments, stating mentors are "rare gems." The group agreed that mentorship is about the quality of the person, not the agency where he or she works. However, it does seem small agencies offer a better likelihood of having quality time with a mentor.

"I truly believe that small agencies are better at incubating great talent. This is born out of necessity," David Oakley stated. Oakley added that big agencies don't always give the young the best opportunities for growth.

Kevin Lynch agreed, stating that small-agency environments give two great advantages to foster future agency leaders: you wear a lot of different hats and you gain a better understanding of the business end of things. These are especially important things to learn should one desire to "hang your own shingle," said Lynch. Paul Crawford agreed saying, "I always tell young people that the advantage of starting their careers at a small agency is learning how to do lots of different jobs as opposed to learning how to do a very siloed job at a large agency."

Jonathan Schoenberg thinks the first job a person takes is key to long-term career success, but because of the mentor not the size of the agency. "It dictates the rest of their career in many cases. I liked the access I had to key people starting at a small agency but if those people had sucked it would not have been as wonderful an experience as it was for me," said Schoenberg.

The panel revealed a truth that we small-agency owners must understand and embrace. If we are to be appealing to the brightest young talent, we must offer something tangible that counters the glimmer of large agencies. Our work must show we can stand toe-to-toe with large agencies in the creative award arena. But out mentorship must be second to none.

There is a reality that small agencies must face. The people we mentor leave sooner than we would like. David Oakley put it this way, "After a couple of years of learning the craft, they are snatched up by the Crispins and the BBDOs who can afford to double or triple the paltry salaries that we offer."

Oakley's assessment is correct. But we still offer something imperative to the health of our industry. I've had my share of former employees say they are happy they jumped to the large agency as a career move, but the magic of being at a small agency was something they dearly missed. They almost all say they will return to small agency life in the future. And that is the future of our industry.

The panel's advice to young people entering the industry seems to be this: Small agencies can put you closer to the action, but a great mentor will put you on the path to success.

Sadly, there are not enough mentors in the business. Hogshead may have given the best insight as to why. "Our business squeezes people out at the age of 50 or so. Then we look around and scratch our heads and say, 'Huh, gosh, why don't we have any mentors?'"

Most Popular