How to Be the Right Size

Build an Agency That Transcends Headcount

By Published on .

Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
I've really enjoyed reading all the posts about the benefits of being a small agency. I'm still not sure whether the title of small agency is a badge of honor or an insult, but I do think it's the absolutely least interesting part of any agency's identity. Sometimes the discussion reminds me of an old joke about the elephant and the ant. It's not appropriate for this blog, but it does make some interesting points about the relative merits of size.

We are who we are, and people like, or dislike us, for all kinds of reasons besides revenue and headcount. No matter what size, you can be a crappy, poorly run business, or you can be a great and inspired agency. Both small and large agencies have size thrust upon them as a defining element of their identity, and they should resist.

Having been a three-person agency and a 60-person agency, I've come to one conclusion. At any point in time, our particular size said very little about why we were, or were not, interesting. We've had inspired moments at every stage, and likewise have gotten stuck at regular intervals along the way. Besides, I don't know how many of us pick our size. A surprise win can take a perfectly happy well-balanced agency and force it to double. Economic conditions can put the brakes on a runaway success. A lot of the time, we're just playing the hand we're dealt. The best we can do is to find the optimal value in whatever size we happen to be and exploit it. At times it's good to be small. At times it's good to be big.

What we often don't acknowledge is that we operate in a world that values, encourages, and rewards growth. A hierarchy exists that tells us it's better to be big. Magazines create lists of agencies and rank them by size. We celebrate agencies that experience explosive growth. With scale comes status and recognition, not to mention money. It's swimming against the tide to pretend those attitudes don't matter.

The natural law of business also demands growth. If you're good at what you do, you win more business. That requires more resources and investments. The cycle continues. Don't forget that our very purpose for existing is to help our clients become bigger and better and more profitable. Why would we set different expectations for ourselves? For most businesses, small is a stopping point on the way to bigger, and it's not particularly useful to build your brand on a transitional state.

I've often wondered if anyone aspires to launch an agency that will top out at six people. I suspect that we all start businesses to create something of permanence and express our ambitions. At times we may get stalled at a certain size, but that doesn't matter. I would bet that we all want to be more than we are today, and both individuals and agencies should be proud of that drive. It's the source of the passion and inspiration that we need to excel.

Every once in a while you bump into an agency that transcends their particular size. At the Ad Age conference in New Orleans, I randomly sat down next to Phil Waggoner, a Partner at Hook in Charleston, South Carolina. A seasoned veteran of some excellent agencies, Phil joined his son Brady, and a third Partner Tom Jeffrey, to start Hook. Within minutes of meeting, they had conveyed the image of an agency with the perfect blend of business maturity, strategic thinking, creative risk taking, and a wonderful sense of camaraderie. They didn't appear big or small. They came across as capable, trustworthy, ambitious, and fun. Those perceptions defied any attempt on my part to categorize them and put them in a box. That's probably why Ad Age named them Southeast Agency of the Year. I still don't know how big they are, but I bet they are going to grow.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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