It's a Small World After All

Reflections on a Tiny Word That Drives People Batty

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Jaci Russo
Jaci Russo
At one point during the Advertising Age Small Agency Conference in New Orleans, the focus became centered on the name of the conference and what we should call our agencies. There was a great agenda, very inspirational speakers and some really tasty food as well, but what seemed to resonate most was the use of the word "small."

If size really does matter, it's probably our fault. As an industry, we have glorified "biggest" and "largest" and "greatest" as the ultimate positioning. We celebrate companies that get larger and mourn those that downsize, even if they are becoming more effective.

Yet, technology has made small cool. Every iteration of a cellphone has been a little smaller and a little thinner and a little better than the last. As computers have gotten smaller they have become more capable, more powerful and less expensive.

Still, continuing to call ourselves "small" puts us at a disadvantage before the relationship with a client even begins. The perception becomes that the agency is small-minded and has limited capabilities.

Every client, no matter what its size, wants more from us. More services. More savings. More capabilities. More solutions.

But smaller sounds like less. Less able. Less creative. Less talented. Less resourceful. Maybe less expensive -- but not in the good way.

Thanks to Twitter, and the hashtag #smallagency (there's that word again), it was easy to keep track of the conference throughout the day and get a glimpse of the salient points regarding this conversation about size. The Twitter stream illustrated a general frustration with the use of the word "small" but a lack of suitable replacement terms. Descriptors such as "boutique" and "nimble" don't really seem to do the trick. "Independent" is probably the most favored, and closest to accurate, but as Sharon Napier pointed out, Wieden & Kennedy "is an independent and they are far from small."

Even conference sponsor AOL realizes that "small" is a misnomer. During their sponsored lunch they reinforced just how committed they are to working with 'small' agencies. The following is a part of their message to us:

Where is it written that brilliant ideas only come from big places? That's right. Nowhere. And we know it. ... At AOL, we know that really great thinking can happen anywhere people have brains to think with. And since that's just as likely to be your shop as it is any other, why shouldn't you have the same shot at online success?
Michael Gass, of Fuel Lines, created a list of 50 insights from the conference. His blog post, in addition to doing a really good job of capturing the highlights of the day, is a great example of how to use technology to be a part of the conversation. Even though Gass wasn't at the conference, he followed the comments on the Twitter stream. Through tools like blogs and Twitter, we all become more insightful, more useful and bigger than our physical size. We don't have to be relegated to the role of "small agency" and we can become as big as our imaginations and creativity allow.

My takeaways from the day?

It was incredible to see in person the Small Agency Diarists that I have been reading for years and then realize that we are all in the same boat. As one conference attendee put it, "So cool to see all these #smallagency diary guys in person rather than via thumbnail pic." Whether you have one employee or 100, every agency faces the same challenges in the same economy.

Too often, not being in a major market (Lafayette, La., pop. 180,000), limits our contact with other agencies and what they are going through -- both good and bad. It was great to talk to shops from across the country and hear about their experiences.

Truth is, technology has done a great job of leveling the playing field between the two. We now have access to insights that in the past would have required a large expensive planning department to maintain -- and with social media, we can now crowdsource consumer perceptions at an unprecedented rate. And most importantly, all agencies have the tools to share their knowledge and experiences beyond their borders.

I think this is an exciting time to be a small agency (or whatever we end up calling ourselves). I have the great fortune of working with a talented group of people that all grew up in various parts of Louisiana, left to work in much larger agencies in much larger markets (Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, New York) and one by one returned home.

Together, we celebrate our differences and our size, and together, we take great pride in what we do and how we do it. Yes, there will be clients that think we are too big and some that think we are too small, but no label will ever change that.

So, the question is, where do we go from here? Seems like we really have two options. Either find a name that seems to speak more to our mindset than our size or do a better job of branding the "small" part of our name. What do you think?

Jaci Russo is a senior partner and brand strategist at The Russo Group in Lafayette, La.
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