Agency models are inherently unstable, and clients are as jumpy as electrons in a lightning storm, so this happens all the time. Some talent gets tired of the industry spin-cycle and goes freelance or, if there’s a strong enough bond with an ambitious client, starts their own agency.
In distilling the business down to three fundamental forces—talent, brands and ideas—small agencies hold the keys to unlocking the true power of creativity. That’s why ginormous clients are trusting their brands to agencies barely bigger than a breadbox.
Many of the best small agencies have far fewer than two hundred employees, and some have less than 10. Let’s split the difference and use 100 as our average, then consider that WPP has more than 100,000 employees across its network of agencies.
So how can firms with less than one-tenth of 1% of the resources of their larger competitors win assignments from Burger King, Chevrolet, Miller Beer or American Express? By focusing on one thing—the only thing that matters: creativity.
In the battle of David versus Goliath, a contest of strength ends badly, but in a battle of wits, Goliath gets knocked on his ass every time. Which is somewhat sad, because many incredibly talented people work at big agencies, and even the biggest of the bunch could be nimble, quick and daring if they would only get out of their own way. Despite appearances, it’s not really a question of talent, it’s a problem of priorities.
The marketing industry has bifurcated. Some agencies—typically bigger ones with a full range of services including media and data—offer clients an operating model, a marketing machine that determines where and how a client should deploy their dollars. As CMOs get pressured more on short-term performance than long-term growth, the appeal is obvious. These agencies show creative work as part of their pitch, but the campaign ideas tend to feel safe and familiar because the underlying conceit is that data and targeting are more important than distraction and entertainment.
The other side of the coin is predicated on the belief that nobody can outspend the internet or life’s daily distractions, which means even the best marketing plan isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, unless your brand is more interesting, entertaining and engaging than the content that surrounds it. The breakthrough power of an original idea and the sheer shareability of something delightful overcomes the challenge of a small budget or a jaded consumer.
Margins in the ad industry have gotten thinner than a matzoh on a gluten-free diet. If you’re big and bulky, you either shed services or double down on marketing-as-a-science. If you’re small and scrappy, your only path to profitability is to be provocative. Own your IP, play hard to get and make sure you get paid.