Small Agencies: We're Not All That Different From the Big Agencies

A Trip to AKQA and Butler Shine Stern

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I spent the better part of last week in San Francisco, visiting a couple of larger (compared to the size of most small agencies) shops, as part of a delegation of agency CEOs. What I learned frustrated as much as inspired me: A lot of smaller agencies have more in common with larger shops than they -- and clients -- think.

Marc Brownstein Marc Brownstein
I visited fast-growing, interactive agency AKQA and Sausalito hot shop Butler Shine Stern & Partners. At AKQA, I discovered that, like most interactive agencies, they struggle trying to get retainers. The interactive world is largely project-based, and the new-business pipeline must always be replenished as soon as a job is completed. It's exhausting, but the projects and fees can be very rewarding. Large digital shops like AKQA also are sometimes tasked with creating traditional advertising for their clients, which requires them to cross-train their creative staff. Finding good hybrid creative talent is not easy. But it's important, because as we all know, traditional advertising is developed at a slower pace than digital advertising, which can cause internal friction. I'm not exactly sure why, but that has been my experience, and validated by other agency CEOs I've talked to.

At Butler Shine, they have a unique model, with four agency sub-brands under an agency umbrella brand. I was especially looking forward to visiting this agency, since my shop has a similar structure. To my surprise, I found they wrestled with the same issues as smaller shops do: aligning the agency to one process and breaking down silos, in order to create true collaboration among disciplines. My CEO peers were shaking their heads in relief that we're not alone! And I walked away kinda pleased with my agency, that we were actually further ahead of some larger, national shops that I thought had it all figured out.

The truth is, shops like AKQA and Butler Shine do terrific work. But they're dealing with the same dynamics of industry change that small shops are. The real difference is how they go about getting new business.

Ah, yes. The silver new-business bullet. Well, not really a silver bullet. It's hard work. These larger shops are relentless about promoting their work in trades, in mailings, in speeches to qualified audiences. They court the search consultants, pick up the 800-pound phone and cold-call prospects. Carefully manage their prospect database. Create a new business mentality in their agency. In short, they do what agencies have to do to grow. And they aim high.

So, there is hope for all of you small agency owners who are trying to figure out how to grow much bigger. Your problems are the same as the big guys. Now go out there, create some work that will make your shop famous, and make it pay new business dividends.
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