Clients sense this, but often they too work at a large corporation, and their procurement people take great comfort in knowing that an established agency with plenty of P&Ls and global infrastructure is managing their marketing dollars. So rather than take a risk on an untested agency, isn’t it better to squeeze the big agency’s margins like lemons? Maybe some creative juices will come out, or the seed of an idea will emerge.
Mediocrity-at-scale sounds safer than messy-and-unpredictable. For years, packaged goods trained marketers to believe creative effectiveness could be pre-tested with holding companies that bought testing firms to reassure those same clients that marketing is now a science.
Creativity is a commodity, and the key to effective marketing is media, reaching the right person at the right time using data—that was the logic that kept the holding company model intact. It was driven, of course, by an underlying fear of experimentation by risk-averse clients who love the rhetoric of innovation but are terrified of trying something new.
The success of small agencies has expanded, and during the pandemic it accelerated.
What clients really want is a group of people as passionate about their marketing challenge as they are, but who look at it through the other end of the telescope. From the real world, where people think about other things but somehow find brands they love. Copywriters who think about the problem when walking their dog; strategists who go for coffee just to come up with more angles; account people who stalk the aisles of client stores, wear their clothes, drink their beer or attend their events. Teams that are as all-in as the brand’s biggest fans.
That’s what small agencies do, because if they don’t, they’ll never compete. No one expects them to go toe-to-toe on capabilities, but they can’t afford to come up short on ideas. And every time a small agency works its mischief on a client, it reveals the big lies of the industry.
Creative isn’t a commodity, marketing isn’t a science and data isn’t the answer—it’s just another way to look at the problem.
Small agencies also have a fiscal advantage. They count differently. Big agencies think time is money, and ideas take time—there’s a process and a timeline. Small agencies know that’s bullshit, which is why they threw their abacuses in the trash.
Small agencies know that ideas are free once you have the right talent. Ideas start coming as soon as the clients start talking, and they just keep coming until it’s time to choose.
In “Gulliver’s Travels,” the Lilliputians are able to overpower Gulliver once he lies exhausted on the beach after his arduous journey. His ungainly size puts him at a disadvantage to his captors, who are nimble, motivated and convinced that if they don’t work together, they’re doomed.
Speed, passion and collaboration. Sounds like a winning formula.
Try watching a movie from the early 1980s. An astonishing number are unwatchable today—the scripts are recycled, the acting lazy, the editing sloppy. Hollywood held all the cards, got complacent and decided the audience was a dumb herd that would keep coming back no matter what. Directors and writers took a backseat, ideas became acommodity and financial finaglers ran the business.
Then along came Sundance, followed by other film festivals. Independent film gave an outlet to fresh talent spurned by Hollywood and audiences bored by B-movies. It took years, but studios started to give directors and writers their due again. Big studios are still turning out more blech than brilliance, but with pressure from streaming platforms and broader access to indie films, there’s now a forcing mechanism to give something truly original a shot at being seen.
In the same way, small agencies are good for clients and holding companies alike. They are the reformation and resurrection of an industry that’s lost its way. And big agencies should take heart.
Whether Lilliputian or Brobdingnagian, any agency is at its best when it pitches for new business. Tight teams working collaboratively, lines blurred between strategy, creative and account, everyone focused on a common goal. Unencumbered by fear of losing a client, inspired by a desire to beat the best and grab the brass ring.
When 20 or more agencies get invited to every pitch, it doesn’t matter how big you are, you’re still an underdog. You’re small. So as your agency wins new business and grows, never forget that lesson.
Acting small is always a big idea.