Know Your Opponent

How to Compete Against the Big Agency Networks

By Published on .

Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Nobody likes to find out that he is going into the ring against an opponent six inches taller and 100 pounds heavier. Yet, that's what it can feel like when you learn that your small agency is competing against the big boys from one of the large agency networks. Fear may settle in as you picture the A Team jetting in to town to pitch against your home-grown shop. Here at PJA, we're no strangers to this experience and have learned a few lessons about facing ringers from the likes of WPP, Interpublic and Omnicom. Like all contests, rule No. 1 is to know your opponent.

A good place to start is with "the map." You all know what I mean: the big map of the world with the cool little lights that pop up in Singapore, Sao Paulo, Shanghai and Hanoi, representing the global network of agencies that can be deployed at a moment's notice. It's intimidating. How can your small agency compete with the obligatory map that every mega-agency shows off in their presentation? Here's the secret: No one takes the map seriously. Last summer while presenting in a final round, I apologized because we didn't have one with lights all over the world, and the audience practically broke out with applause. They had seen enough of those, and hadn't been impressed. Overcome your fear of the map, and you're on your way.

Scratch the surface, and a couple of other weaknesses emerge. The big guys love to describe their access to infinite resources just a phone call away. Need a PR agency? No problem. Ditto for interactive, direct, media and events. Just remember, it's not true. All those businesses are separate profit centers competing for dollars. They are in competition with each other and find it hard to collaborate. If you've got the budget, you can access those resources just as easily as an agency in the network. As the VP of marketing for a Fortune 50 company told me candidly, the networks talk a great game, but no one has really figured out how to truly integrate their services.

Think about culture. You don't get to be that big without a group of people who know how to jockey for position and play insider politics. That environment produces a lot of snarky people. And who wants to work with snarky people? A technology client told me that one of the big New York agencies we pitched against brought a team of people, some of whom had never met before, and they were outwardly competitive with each other. I'm willing to bet that most Small Agency readers work with a team of people they genuinely like and respect.

The flip side of the discussion is to know your own strengths and play to them fearlessly. There's a great story about Angelo Dundee, the famous boxing trainer who worked with Muhammad Ali. When Ali first burst upon the scene, he had a completely unorthodox style, unlike anything seen before. All his handlers wanted to change him so that he fought like every other boxer, and Dundee refused. As he liked to say, "When you get a short guy, make him shorter. When you get a tall guy, make him taller." That's great advice when thinking about your own competitive advantage.

Small agencies can offer untold strengths based on their agility, the closeness of their teams and their freedom to make choices that defy the money-men who run the networks. More innovation is coming out of small agencies, and more big companies are spreading the business around with independent shops. Just last week, Ad Age reported that Mitsubishi awarded a $155M account to Traffic, an unknown start-up. (OK, Traffic had a few connections.)

Let me also be fair. These mega-agencies have tremendous strengths of their own, and you'd be foolish to underestimate them. Like heavyweights in the ring, even the most bumbling of them can knock you out with one good punch. A lesson I've learned is that when the big boys really want to win against the small agencies, watch out. They don't always send out the junior folks who are wet behind the ears. They can put together one hell of a pitch team. They've got resources that we only dream of. And let's not forget there is some amazing work coming out of the likes of Crispin Porter, McCann Erickson and BBDO.

My point is that small agencies have nothing to fear if they play to their best traits. There are still a handful of situations in life where size doesn't matter. Competing with the large agency networks is one of them.
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