The Beauty of Being Small

When Does Being Big Become a Burden?

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Andy Gould Andy Gould
"How big do we want to get?"

We were in the middle of a management meeting, talking about goals for the next three to five years, when our CEO popped the question above. To give you some context, we've achieved double-digit growth for a few years in a row, and this year looks like more of the same. Part of our recent success is due to becoming the right kind of agency (digital) at the right time (about five years ago). But we're also on a streak of sorts. Three months into '09, we've won two pitches for Fortune 500 clients, with a third pending. In the midst of a severe recession, we're still hiring. We just opened an office in Chicago. Today, Biggs Gilmore is 90 people, but what's the potential? 120? 150? 200-plus?

Not so fast.

As a group, our aims for the agency are pretty basic. Do great work. Have fun. Make money. You will notice that "take over the world" is not on that list. Many of us have spent time at one or more of the mega-agencies and have no desire -- even if it were a possibility -- to become one of them.

I've heard the quote "How big can we get before we get bad?" attributed to both Jay Chiat and Pat Fallon. Regardless of who said it, I'm sure it was before either sold his agency to a holding company.

Don't get me wrong. We would still like to grow. Just not in a Crispin sort of way that doubles or triples the size of the agency overnight. Crispin does some mighty fine work, but we've found more of a kindred spirit in Dick Sittig and his vision for Secret Weapon Marketing. Sittig's agency never takes on more than three clients at once, believing that focusing on deeper relationships with fewer clients translates into more effective work.

Sittig's not alone. New York agency Anomaly came up with an innovative approach to getting too big: they opened Another Anomaly as a stand-alone shop. As AA's Duncan Bird put it to Business Week in 2007, "When companies get to a certain size, despite everyone's best interests and ambitions, they lose their clarity of vision and culture." When asked for an ideal number, Bird said somewhere between 60 and 100. Although he cites a number closer to 150, Malcolm Gladwell draws a similar conclusion in his book "The Tipping Point."

While I won't share the magic number we arrived at for Biggs Gilmore, I would like to share what we believe the benefits are in deciding to stay (relatively) small:

  • Our management can be actively involved on our accounts in a meaningful way. Clients tell us that this attention from principals and senior staff is a big part of why we continue to grow existing business.

  • It's easier to fail fast when you're small. In our transition to becoming a digital shop, we tried three or four models ourselves before getting to the one that works best for us. A ship of 90 people is just easier to turn.

  • Fewer layers means bureaucracy is almost nil.

  • You can be more selective about who you hire. When you're filling two or three positions, you can scrutinize the quality of candidates a lot more intensely than when you need to fill 50 positions. The result? More people who get it, and less of the dreaded A-team/B-team gap.

  • Your contribution counts for more at a smaller agency. You don't have to fight to get your work "noticed," because it's impossible to be unaware of what everyone else is working on.

  • Turnover. Specifically, the lack of it. In a business notorious for opportunistic ship-jumping, our average tenure in the agency is about five years. In the creative department (are you sitting down?), the average is closer to seven years.

  • There's no holding company looking over our shoulder telling us when we can hire, how many FTEs we can assign to an account, or what our profit margins should be. We do not have to deal with being merged with -- or swallowed by -- another agency and the invariable muddle of cultures and processes that result.
But what are you missing out on by not being part of something big? The opportunity to work on great brands? To work with really smart people?

I guess I'm still naive enough to believe we can have it all. Can't we work with brilliant people at a smaller company with a great culture, work for clients with great brands and real budgets, and do the best work of our careers?

I'll be sure to let you know. One final history lesson.

In 1959, Bill Bernbach, Julian Koenig and Helmut Krone urged a generation of Americans to "Think small." I wonder how big DDB was back then.

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Andy Gould is senior VP-executive creative director of Biggs Gilmore, Kalamazoo, Mich.

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