Can a Small Agency Win Big Accounts Without a Partner?

You'll Have More Success in a Team, With Clear Rules and Expectations

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A recent episode of "Mad Men" highlighted something all of us in the agency world already knew to be true -- small agencies are often brought to the pitch table by large clients because of their outstanding creative prowess, but are rarely awarded the account. The big-client relationships go instead to the larger agencies because of their perceived ability to marshal resources (read: manpower), when there's a need for multiple services.

In the TV show, when they realize that they're up against the big boys for the massive Chevy account, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCD &P) and Cutler Gleason & Chaough (CGC) partner, and their outstanding creative concept along with their newly expanded team lands them the assignment. Yes, it's fiction and the setting is 1968, but has the client-agency dynamic changed much in the past 45 years?

Today many more players have taken the field, with a plethora of specializations (retail, events, digital, social, etc.), a proliferation of customer touch points and emerging product brands and services all over the globe. Yet large clients still tend to favor the bigger agencies because of their access to manpower, whether we're talking about account services, creative or technology/implementation.

Does this mean that for smaller agencies to land bigger accounts, they must partner with their own kind, or otherwise settle for smaller accounts? It all depends. The landscape is so diffused that some larger clients want only a one-stop, full-service approach. Others are interested in unique, ground-breaking work to increase brand awareness and sales. Our agency has won some big accounts by virtue of our relationships and our specialization in the digital space. In other cases, we've partnered with other smaller agencies that have big clients, but lack our digital capabilities in-house.

We have found that partnering works effectively when you follow a few standard rules:

Be honest, candid and forthright. The client deserves to know who is who. Early on, establish whom you are partnering with to meet the client's objective and disclose why the partnership makes business sense for the client.

Define roles. Since each agency will have its own culture or creative philosophy, it's imperative to act in the best interest of the client. Working in partnership means collaborating -- focusing on each agency's strength is something that should work to the advantage of the client, not your ego.

Arithmetic. A partnership works best when it's between two entities, not 22. The leaner your union is, the better your chance to produce a winning combination of thoughts, actions and deliverables.

Cash allocation. Define the deal upfront and share any issues accordingly. If your agency is receiving 40% of the deal in terms of cash, then you should be responsible for 40% of any collective liability, issues, overages or anything else that may arise.

The bottom line: smaller agencies need to continue to be nimble, flexible and entrepreneurial to leverage their existing relationships and forge new ones. This might garner one-off assignments with coveted bigger clients or help build longer lasting partnerships. Regardless, it is bound to put you at a table that you wouldn't have been sitting at if you were alone.

Anthony Del Monte is president and founder of Squeaky Wheel Media.
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